I’m going to trust my father on this, because he’s a biologist, and that’s a scientist, and science is about truth. He tells me that in some cases when a person has suffered brain damage preventing speech, the person is still able to swear. On a personal note, I’m glad to hear that God can have the mercy to allow swearing in a speechless person, who surely needs it more than most of us. At the same time, this ability raises an interesting question about speech.
In one sense, swear words or phrases are like other words, nothing but noises to which we have socially agreed to assign a meaning. It is deeply fascinating that society has agreed to have words that we do not want to hear. Why does swearing exist?
If you’ve ever tried to repair a mechanical object, of course you will know why. Repairs cannot be made to an object without the proper vocabulary, and if you cannot, for instance, occasionally exclaim to a bolt on a car, “Goddamned son-of-a-bitch, come loose!” then worn out parts would not be replaced. Picture the astronauts unable to repair the space station. Planes would fall from the sky. Coffee makers would cease to brew.
Facetiousness aside—not that I’m being facetious—at the most basic level swearing appears to be an expression of strong emotion. When emotions swell powerful within our souls, swearing sometimes reconnects us with equanimity though regular language does not. What kinds of words are sufficient to let out those emotions? This is very culturally bound, but it looks like the psychological basis for swear words is to transgress into things we should not normally talk about. Three of the most common areas for English are religion (more specifically, blasphemy, which adds the taboo element), sex, and excretory functions.
This use of language probably goes back almost to the advent of language itself. As soon as enough words were in place, maybe 50, someone must have gotten angry and figured out how to connect an irritating Neanderthal neighbor with the need to go off behind the trees now and then, to snarl their equivalent of “you shit!”
When you look up the word “shit” in the Oxford English Dictionary, probably the major dictionary of the English language (twelve large volunes, 600,000 words) one finds that this word is “Not now in decent use”. I wondered whether the Oxford English Dictionary was in error applying the word “now”. One reason to love this dictionary with all your heart is that they give examples of each word, tracing it back to its first recorded use. That means the first time in writing, which has its limits, but still, pretty cool.
The word “shit” can be traced back to at least the Old English period, and in a quote from around the year 1000, it is spelled—as a plural verb form, with an old verb ending—“scittan”. Other older spellings were: scitte, schit, schyt.
Here are a couple of much later uses:
- 1508: describing someone irritating but clever: “A schit, but wit”.
- 1538: (in the original spelling, which mixes up our letters u and v): “Whan ye haue hym in hys graue, Stampe hym downe tyll he shyte.”
In modern form this reads “When you have him in his grave, Stamp him down till he shits.” Somebody really wanted that guy dead. Like some sort of medieval Mafia.
Because the taboo nature of swear words—which are, after all, just noises based on social agreement—will change over time, the shocking thrill I had hearing Archie Bunker say “hell” and “damn” on TV for the first time in the 60s now seems quaint. Now, for example, I would say to a first-grader “Get the hell off the swingset and go get me a damn beer.”
One of the language trends of American culture in the last 50 years, or more, has been a tendency to use every form of taboo word in a broader range. Perhaps an argument could be made that this trend makes us less emotionally constricted by our language, more relaxed, and maybe that’s true. But I think there are two drawbacks, actually contradictory to one another, so maybe they can’t both be true. On the one hand, we hear that accepting the routine use of swear words in movies, at the office, and even on TV, deprives the words of their taboo nature and thus drains them of their strength. It’s an interesting argument. What words will we be able to use to swear? The opposing argument is that flinging these words around ourselves in wide public distribution makes our social life more coarse and crude.
Pertinently on this topic, in the Washington Post on Saturday I found a discussion on a dispute among the staff as to whether to allow obscenities in certain cases. So far, the management says that even a fairly mild term like “hell” hath no place in the sugar sweet purity of the Post.
The British magazine The Economist, an eminently superior publication in terms of writing quality, has, it seems to me, a more mature attitude. The magazine certainly is not filled with swearing, but if a diplomatic source were found to have said, “The Iranians better learn who not to fuck with”, the Economist would use the quote as a meaningful part of the story. In many American publications, an article on this topic would be much less powerful, avoiding the language that gave the diplomatic source its force.
Even worse, some publications might allow the quote as “learn who not to f— with”, using a pathetic hint at the word without actually using it. In that case, why don’t we just crawl around on the floor and admit we’re children? I used to tell any student who might do this, “If you truly need to say fuck, then don’t be coy about it. If you do not need to, then don’t.”
And if he did not take my advice, I would stampe hym downe.