In the 1970s, American comedian George Carlin performed a monologue entitled “Seven Words You Can Never Say On Television.”The words his act was about were a variety of profanities—words considered taboo by mainstream society.While American society reacted to Carlin’s sketch, including a complaint to the FCC regarding the time of day the monologue was broadcast on the radio (Bachman), few stopped to consider why these words—and others like them—are held to be taboo.Why are some words for a subject considered taboo, while other words for the same subject have no such stigma?Why is, for example, shit considered to be a vulgar term, while excrement or feces considered clinical and socially acceptable?
One theory, put forth by some, is that language of origin affects which terms are considered acceptable or not.Specifically, that some words that descend from Anglo-Saxon or Germanic roots are the words that in modern English have come to be considered taboo, while equivalent words that possess a Latin, Greek or French parentage are culturally acceptable (Hughes 35).This opinion has even been referenced in court cases regarding the banning of particular works of literature which contained profanities (Wajnryb 54).It is this essay’s purpose to examine this claim and consider whether there is enough evidence to support it.
Depending on the antiquity of the word in question, one might even see this as resulting from the social divide between speakers of English (which was primarily a lower-class language from the Battle of Hastings until its re-acceptance as a language of literature and government) and speakers of Anglo-Norman or Latin.A similar socio-economic divide in language was lamented by the Saxon characters Gurth and Wamba in Sir Walter Scott’s novel Ivanhoe, who describe how
…there is old Alderman Ox continues to hold his Saxon epithet, while he is under
the charge of serfs and bondsmen such as thou, but becomes Beef, a fiery French
gallant, when he arrives before the worshipful jaws that are destined to consume
him.Mynheer Calf, too, becomes Monsieur de Veau in the like manner; he is
Saxon when he requires tendance, and takes a Norman name, when he becomes
matter of enjoyment. (46)
Perhaps the divide between taboo words and their clinical equivalents runs along similar lines: Saxon when in the gutter, French or Latin when on the examination table.While Saxons sweated and Normans perspired, the latter becoming the politer term, is it also true that Saxons fucked while Normans copulated?Is it this socio-economic distinction that gave rise to modern English’s profanities?
Beginning with scatological terms, the word shit is one of the more common profanities in modern English vocabulary.Folk etymology gives various explanations of dubious authenticity for the origins of the term.One of the most popular is that shit is acronym of nautical origins, from when manure was transported by ship.The story claims that S.H.I.T. was printed on the sides of manure crates, standing for “Ship High In Transit,” to prevent the manure from getting wet during transport (Wilton 79).
This claim is, of course, quite in error.The word shit is quite ancient, dating back to the fourteenth century in its present form as both a noun and a verb (Mikkalsen, “Shit Faced”).”It derives from the Middle English shiten, to void excrement; the Old English scitan, known from the compound bescitan, to befoul…” (Rawson 349).It has cognates in most of the other Germanic languages, and shares a common root with the modern German scheissen (Wilton 79).Ultimately it is derived from a Indo-European root, skei-.Its socially acceptable equivalents are in contrast Latinate: excrement, deriving from the Latin cernere “to sift” (Rawson 349); feces, from faeces “sediment” (“Feces”); manure, from manus “hand,” (referring to its method of distribution) (Wajnryb 85).So, at first glance, this seems to support the theory that Germanic origin causes certain words to be considered profane.
The word shit‘s taboo status was not always constant.It was, however, “one of the first of those dealing with bodily functions to come to be regarded as too vulgar for public discourse.”While it and its variants were used freely by Chaucer, Burton, and Swift, and while its derivative schiteword is used in “The Owl and the Nightingale” as a term for profane language, it does not surface in any of the plays of Shakespeare, nor in the King James Bible, which use the less taboo dung.It did not surface in literary publications again until the days of James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway (Rawson 347-348).Thus it is possible that the severity of its profane status has nothing to do with its lower-class Saxon origins, if it did not acquire said status until the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras.The profanities of Middle English tended to be less scatological and more religious or blasphemous (Hughes 55).
Fuck is another word that has been dogged by spurious folk etymologies, many of which are acronymic in nature.One common legend is that the profanity’s origin was in placards hung on the stocks or pillories of sex offenders, reading “F.U.C.K.,” standing for “For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge,” so passersby knew their crime (Wilton 87).A similar acronym is “Fornication Under Consent of the King,” which was allegedly hung on the doors of soldiers in occupying forces who had royal permission to rape the natives, or (in variants of the legend) on the doors of unmarried people who had royal permission to have sex (Mikkalsen, “What The Fuck?”).
These explanations for the word’s origin are flawed on several levels.Most words of acronymic origin were created in the 20th century or later.While exceptions exist, like the early Christian ΙΧΘΥΣ, it is very unlikely that fuck was originally an acronym.Furthermore, the widely varying explanations for what the letters stand for have no root in recorded history: the second legend never seems to identify which king of which nation gave his soldiers royal permission (complete with placards) to rape the women of which occupied nation.Likewise, while placards were hung on the pillories of criminals in 18th and 19th century America (a la Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter), such placards would have been short and concise: “Thief” or “Adultery.”The preposition “For” would have been unneeded (Mikkalsen, “What The Fuck?”)
Fuck‘s earliest known use is from c. 1475, from a poem “written in a mix of Latin and English” called “Flen Flyys.”The line it appears in, after translated out of a simple cipher, reads, “Non sunt in celi, quia fvccant vvivys of heli.” Fuccant is a pseudo-Latin version of an English word.Translated, the poem reads, “They [the monks] are not in heaven, because they fuck the wives of Ely” (Wilton 87).It’s not certain how taboo the word fuck was at the time, but the fact that the author wrote it in code may be an indication that it was considered too profane to write out.Its meaning appears to be nearly exactly the same as its modern sexual usage, eventually eclipsing the (at the time) more common swive.
One of the other proposed origins for the term is that it comes from personal or place names.It has been said that it was derived from the name John le Fucker, though this may be a variant of “fulcher,” or soldier.Also, in an Anglo-Saxon charter dating to 772, the placename Fuccerham is mentioned, which is of uncertain meaning.Unfortunately, due to the word’s status, it was not often written down, and thus its etymology is harder to trace.”Such is the nature of taboo words; they defy the best efforts to find their roots since, because they are taboo, no-one writes them down” (Wilton 88).
We can reconstruct some of its hidden history, however, by looking at its cognates.Fuck has distant cousins in many languages, including the French foutre and the Italian fottere (both descended from the Latin futuere, which has almost the exact same meaning as the modern fuck).It seems more closely related, however, to other Northern European languages, suggesting possibly that the Latin word descended to English through contact with Germanic tribes, or (alternatively) that the equivalent words in both Latin and Old Germanic shared a common Indo-European root.If the latter is the case, the origins of this word are very ancient indeed.Nevertheless, the word as we have it is “undoubtedly Germanic,” and its cognates include the Middle Dutch fokken (“to thrust” or “to copulate”), the dialectal Norwegian fukka (“to copulate”), the dialectal Swedish focka (“to push” or “to copulate”), and the dialectal Sweedish fock (“penis”) (Wilton 89).Thus, while it is not certain that fuck as we know it is of Anglo-Saxon descent, specifically, it is of Germanic descent, in contrast to the Romantic descent of copulate or intercourse.
While fuck may be one of the stronger profanities in common use today, it is outmatched by cunt, which has been called “the most heavily tabooed of all English words” (Rawson 106).Cunt existed in Middle English (spelled as cunte, coynte, or queynte), and even possibly in Old English (cot) (though the usual Old English term was gecyndlic, and this connection is questionable—most scholars do not find cunt‘s ancestry at all in Old English) (Hughes 27).It dates back at least to c. 1200, making it far more ancient than its polite Latin equivalent vagina (literally “sheath”), which only dates back to 1682 (Rawson 107).
Like fuck, cunt has cognates in many contemporary languages as well as many ancient languages.Modern languages with cognates include French (con) and German (kunte); ancient languages include Latin (cunnus), Middle Low German (kunte), Old Frisian (kunte), Old Norse (kunta), Basque (kuna), and even Egyptian (qefen)(Hughes 27).”Its distribution suggests a link to some primordial term, implying quintessential femininity, perhaps kuni, the word for wife or woman in Nostratic…If so, the word is akin to gwen-, an Indo-European root that is ancestress to the modern Greek gune…” (Rawson 107).Due to this ancestry, it is less certain that the word came to English through its Germanic parentage, especially considering that it is not clearly found in Old English.It might have passed into English through Latin or Anglo-Norman.This is a blow to the theory that modern English profanities are all of Germanic or Saxon etymology.
Again, however, like shit, cunt may not have always have been as taboo as it is today.Mentioned in c. 1230, one street in London was openly named “Gropecuntelane.”It appears also in personal names, such as “Godwin Clawecunte” (mentioned in 1066) or “Bele Wydecunthe” (mentioned in 1328).Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales openly contain several uses of the word, and contemporary medical texts use “cunte” as a technical term when describing anatomy (Rawson 107-108).The word only faded from open usage as Middle English became Modern, at the same point at which shit faded from open usage; by Shakespeare’s time, it was not printed openly, but hinted at through euphemism, such as when Hamlet speaks to Ophelia of “country matters.”
The word piss is not nearly as taboo as the previous two words discussed, and like cunt and shit, was not always considered profane at all.The King James Bible makes use of piss in several places: both 1 Kings 18:27 and Isaiah 36:12 refer to men who “…eat their own dung, and drink their own piss…”Likewise, in several places (1 Samuel 25:22, 1 Kings 14:10, 2 Kings 9:8) an adult male is identified by the colorful phrase, “one that pisseth against a wall.”The word piss was also used in the earlier Wyclif translation, c. 1388.It is found in the works of Shakespeare, the works of Dryden, and the works of Swift.Piss was used “fairly commonly for some five hundred years, starting with the thirteenth century” (Rawson 301).Nevertheless, it fell out of favor in the 1700s, becoming increasingly taboo, being left out of Bible translations and dictionaries, and finding its place amongst George Carlin’s seven words one cannot say on television.The childish euphemism “to pee” is derived from piss‘s initial.
Piss is the first serious blow to the Saxon/Germanic origin theory of modern profanity.While cunt, and to a lesser extent fuck, were of uncertain or difficult-to-track etymology, but still retained Germanic cognates, historians can trace piss back to the Middle English pissen, and from there to the Old French pissier.The word seems to be onomatopoeia, and was later adopted by “German, Swedish, and other Teutonic languages,” but piss is undoubtedly of French origin (Rawson 301).
Up next is cock, euphemistic slang for the male genitalia or for a male in general.This comes straight from the imagery of (as it is now more commonly known) the rooster, who along with the bull, is one of the iconic symbols of masculinity (Rawson 85).It also has been suggested that the genitalia sense of the word might derive from the stopcock, a spigot or short pipe for emitting fluid.However, it is “at least as likely that the spigot was named after the anatomical organ as the other way around” (Rawson 86).
Chaucer uses the word cock to refer to a man in 1386, which is the earliest written example of such usage.It is only openly written as an anatomical euphemism in 1618, though in 1593 Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew plays with puns on the term.There are also earlier, similar slang terms for a penis, such as “pillicock,” which date as far back as the 1300s (Rawson 87).
The word itself is directly Saxon in origin, though its euphemistic sense was not necessarily always present.Though the Old English cocc was used to refer to “a pert boy,” as a nickname meaning “one who struts like a cock,” it does not appear to have been used anatomically.Similar cognates can be found in the Old French coq and the Old Norse kokkr; its origins may be in the Latin coccus, “a cackling” (“cock”).
A similar vulgar anatomical term is the word tit, referring to the female breast.Tit is an Old English word (titt) which originally referred only to the nipple and not the entire breast, but which also had other meanings (including a small horse, a young girl, and a bird).This does seem to be the case of a Saxon word “generally being eschewed in favor of those derived from other languages, especially French and Latin” (Rawson 387).Tit was replaced in polite discourse by teat (from the French tette), bust (from the French buste), or mammary gland (from the Latin mamma) (Rawson 387).(The now-polite term breast, itself a derivation of the Old English breost, had its own tenure as a taboo term in the 1800s, often replaced by the juvenile term boob) (Rawson 60).
However, while this word was replaced in the anatomical sense, only “surviving in dialect” as a “provincial term, employed largely by unlettered people,” the word in its other meanings also survived.Various dictionaries of “the vulgar tongue” and the dialects of East Anglia continued to record its use as meaning “a little horse” or “a young girl.”In the middle of the nineteenth century, one Lady Tavistock is recorded as calling Queen Victoria “a resolute little tit,” which presumably was not meant anatomically.The word tit was only revived from Anglo-Saxon dialect to standard forms of English in the 1920s, possibly by Americans, with a resurgence of its anatomical definition (Rawson 387-388).
Bitch is a term of proper English that has a vulgar usage.It is the correct term for a female dog, but only becomes profanity when applied to a human (whether male or female).Even this distinction is no longer universal, as some self-identify as a bitch, which can mean grumpy or strong-willed in a positive sense (Rawson 45).Use of bitch as an insult, or its elaboration son of a bitch, can date back to c. 1330 (biche-sone), and can be found in Shakespeare’s King Lear (Hughes 166).”The taboo against the term stemmed from its associations with a dog in heat.”To call a woman a bitch was to say that she was a prostitute or worse; to call a man a son of a bitch was an allegation of illegitimacy (Rawson 44). The term derives from Old English bicche and the Old Norse bikkjuna (“Bitch”).
Bastard is a closely related term—another implication of an illegitimate birth.It was not always used in an insulting manner, however.It traces back to the term fils de bast, son of the packsaddle, a child conceived on an improvised bed or during travel, “the notion being that the child was conceived in irregular circumstances.”Many who were so born would adopt the term bastard in lieu of their surname, such as William the Bastard (better known today as William the Conqueror), who was so called without stigma while he was still alive from 1027-1087.The term enjoyed a time of greater taboo in the eighteenth century, when it was used as an insult.Today, however, it has been so overused that it no longer carries much force: thus, phrases such as “Poor bastard” or “He’s a magnificent bastard.”From fils de bast, the term descended through the Old French to be adopted by Middle English (Rawson 36-37).
Ass, like bitch, has both a polite and a vulgar meaning.The polite term is the name of a quadruped beast of burden, also known as a donkey, while the vulgar term referred originally to the area around the human anus.These words actually have two distinct etymologies, are indeed two distinct words that share an unfortunate phonetic proximity.The zoological term comes from the animal’s name in Latin (Equus asinus).The anatomical term—and derived from which, the insulting term for an idiot or unfeeling person—is a variant of arse, which itself is derived from the Old English (aers, ears), and has cognates in Old Frisian (ers) and Old High German (ars) (Rawson 21-23).This merger of two separate words caused donkey to become the preferred term when describing that particular animal.In many dialects of English ass and arse have since diverged in pronunciation once again, except in most American dialects (Huges 19).
If we look at George Carlin’s “Seven Dirty Words,” and assuming we group motherfucker together with fuck as a derivation, we begin to see the uncertainty of the theory that all modern profanities are taboo because they derive from the Saxon.Out of the seven, only shit, cock, and tit have a clear Old English lineage (scitan, cocc, and titte).Fuck has a possible Saxon root but it is only certain that it is broadly Germanic.Cunt has cognates in so many Germanic languages that its parentage is entirely uncertain, with no real roots in Old English.And piss is in fact a Norman French term.We are, of course, not limited to Carlin’s comedy routine.The terms which speakers of modern English consider to be profane extend to terms such as ass, bitch and bastard, which may be said on television but are still considered vulgar.Even then, however, the ratio remains constant.The language-of-origin hypothesis nets only five words out of nine—slightly better than half.
Geoffrey Hughes writes that an analysis of the origins of modern English’s profane words “…gives the lie to the popular misconception (which is perpetuated even in academic circles) that the ‘four letter words’ are exclusively Anglo-Saxon in origin.This generalization turns out to be true only of the main anal terms…” (24).Ruth Wajnryb concurs, “The erroneous equation of the lewd with Anglo-Saxon has strangely been perpetuated in a number of well-educated circles” (53-54).While it is true that more of these words that were examined here derived from Old English than from any other language, it is not universal.
Furthermore, what we have seen of these words’ taboo status is not consistent with the theory that they were considered profane because they were Saxon.The lordship of the Normans over the Saxons began with the Norman Conquest, when English ceased to be a language of courts or high literature and became a dialectally fragmented language of peasants.It is then that we should have expected to see Saxon profanities most strongly tabooed.Yet over the following centuries, the writers of Middle English used shit, arse, cunt, and bitch openly and freely, while the taboo of such words grew stronger with the advent of Modern English.Fuck is the only one of these words to remain consistently taboo throughout its history.And the profane meanings of against cock and tit did not come about until later.It is safe to say, then, that whatever the reason these words came to be considered profane, it was not by any form of discrimination against Anglo-Saxon speech.
Two words we have yet to examine, unlike all the other profanities discussed thus far, have a religious application.Damn and hell have the distinction of only being a vulgarity in application while retaining the same meaning as their polite usages.A preacher in a sermon may speak of Balaam’s Ass, but this term differs in meaning from the word used in the insult, “You asshole!”However, when the preacher in the pulpit speaks of damnation, there is no corresponding divergence in definition between that and the vulgar “Damn it!”Likewise, the only difference between saying “Go to Hell!” and preaching a sermon about Hell lies in application: the same subject, the same plane of existence, is being referenced in both terms.Perhaps it is accurate to say that these words are not profanities in and of themselves, but are merely used in profanities (in fact, in “curses” in the original meaning of the term).
Damn derives from the Latin damnare, to condemn.It is considered a “comparatively mild oath,” but has still been taboo for the last two centuries.Hell, too, has been stricken from children’s books and banned by the Motion Picture Association of the 1930s, but is still (in and of itself) less taboo than some of the other words discussed here.It derives from the Old English, which itself descends from the name of an Old Norse goddess of the dead (Rawson 114, 190).
The fact that the two “four-letter words” related to religious concepts are among the least taboo profanities of modern English suggests a new explanation: one of cultural and religious mentality.Most of the words examined here—particularly those most heavily tabooed—have to do with the sexual, the scatological, or the anatomical: ass, cock, cunt, tit, piss, shit, fuck, bitch, and bastard.Missing are the religious blasphemies of Middle or Early Modern English: zounds, zblud, by our lady.A few linger in goddamn or Jesus Christ, but they are less common, and “not as heavily tabooed in Protestant countries as various sexual and excremental terms that also serve as exclamations” (Rawson 174).
Hugh Rawson writes,
“Where the most taboo words in Roman Catholic countries tend to be theblasphemous ones—oaths in the name of the Father, Son, or Virgin Mary—the truly offensive terms for Protestants are those that refer to intimate parts of the body and its functions…[An] indication of the different weighting given to profanity in Protestant and Catholic cultures is the difference in the penalties assigned for the offense… Judging from language taboos, Protestants generally are more terrified of their bodies than their Lord.” (6)
If this assertion is true, it would explain much regarding what modern speakers of English consider to be profanity.As mentioned before, several of English’s current taboo words did not come to be considered taboo until after the rise of modern English: words that are present in Chaucer’s “earthy vocabulary” but only hinted at or alluded to in Shakespeare (no prude himself).Chaucer inhabited pre-Reformation England, and his speech reflects this.Shakespeare, on the other hand, wrote in a time when England had already had two Protestant monarchs.Compare Chaucer to Dante, who “indulges freely in obscenity” while assigning blasphemers a circle of his hell, and you will see similar patterns in what the two authors consider acceptable in speech (Rawson 175).
“The Protestant Revolution had the… effect of neutralizing or disarming the potency of the Catholic sacred names and rituals…” (Hughes 95).Thus the name of the Virgin Mary no longer held as much force, but devolved into the casual oath marry, used to mean “to be sure.”Slowly religious oaths lost their taboo status, while anatomical terms became profanities.Here we find the change, when the scatological and the obscene outstripped the blasphemous in English’s profanity.
It is possible, even probable, that words for these subjects became taboo because it was the subject itself that society wished unspoken of.The fact that terms of sex or other bodily functions become profane is an indication of “the earlier reluctance to speak openly on these topics” (Rawson 8).Thus much discussion of such topics is done through euphemism: “making love,” “sleeping with” someone, “taking a leak,” “using the bathroom.”Such colloquialisms are used to obscure the issue being discussed.
Modern English’s sensibilities remain firmly Protestant, even as less and less English-speakers consider themselves religious.The manner of words that speakers of modern English consider profane is overwhelmingly sexual or excremental, with blasphemies a small minority. It seems that the “reason” these words become profane has nothing to do with their language of origin, but rather with conversation control—society’s desire to limit how much certain subjects are discussed.And that is why, when a modern English-speaking society wishes to speak of sex, they find they no longer have the right language for it, forced to choose between “the language of the nursery, the gutter, and the anatomy class” (Hughes 1).
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