Stampe Hym Downe

Angry man looking at carI’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.


Filed under Language

4 responses to “Stampe Hym Downe

  1. Olga

    What interesting is – after living for more than six months in a non-native speaking environment, I suddenly realized that I stopped cursing in my native language (which, believe me, abounds with way bigger amount of curse words than English), and started to “express” my emotions with English cursing. So I surprised: did that happen because the powerful curse words don’t work any more if it’s only the one who is cursing actually understands the language he is speaking, and our sub consciousness realizes that the power of those words isn’t able to affect anybody so we just stop to use it. Really, what’s the purpose to curse in Russian an English speaking car driver, bothering you with a not very smart maneuver in the front if he doesn’t know what “kozel” means anyway?

  2. That’s an interesting idea, that because curses are socially created words, they are only useful as curses when the hearer understands them. Otherwise they lose their power. I will think about that. But I will also give you a contrasting example. Years ago I taught myself to curse in Russian specifically because people around me won’t know what I’m saying. They can guess that it’s rude, but it still won’t have the same impact. That allows me some self expression when I need it without offending people around me. I do, by the way, love the rich malicious beauty of Russian cursing, not that I know it as well as a Russian soldier would.

    • Olya

      Never heard you cursing in Russian. I’m sure it would be a lot of fun!!! ;)) But if seriously – there is something about being coquette in cursing using a foreign language- as it looks more like an unobtrusive way to demonstrate your intellectual and educational background for the people around you. And there is nothing “criminal” about that. But let’s be honest – imagine yourself in a real fury, when u are really mad at someone, and you want to say EVERYTHING what you think about the person that drove you SO mad, and you want to give him as many “evidence, as many ”reasons” and as loud as possible , as quick as possible (the speed of the speech in such moments really matters too! ) just to make it clear for him WHY you think he is an idiot – I am not sure,actually, it’s better to say ” I am sure”, you will use all the eloquence of the “limited” arsenal of the English language just because at that particular moment it will be your sub consciousness, your inward nature speaking, but not your highly educated (no doubts about it!) intellect!

  3. Ah, you are right, the mother tongue is best able to move the tongue. So when I really need to explain как я удовлетворял твою мать, then perhaps yes, I go into English with invention. But for driving a car and looking for my keys, сукин сын will do.

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