Today, there are many people who express displeasure about the amount of curse words that they hear in TV shows and in popular music. The use of curse words, or swear words, isn’t new! Your ancestors used quite a few of them. The curse words of yesteryear sound a whole lot tamer than the swear words you hear today.
There is a wonderful blog called “Words You Don’t Know”. It is a great read for people who love to learn about words. There is a post there called 10 Curse Words You Don’t Know. It contains a lot more than ten!
In that post, the writer, Robin Bloor, points out that in the 16th century, people developed a habit of using “sacred names” when they weren’t in the act of taking an oath. They were perceived to be “taking sacred names in vain”. It was considered to be profane, and this is how the word profanity became associated with curse words and swear words.
Want a few examples of these kinds of curse words? According to Merriam-Webster, is a euphemism for “God’s wounds”. Its first known use was in 1592. The word gadzooks comes from the words “God’s hooks”. It is a reference to the Crucifixion and was first used in 1694.
Medieval literature expert Melissa Mohr points out that in the Middle Ages, people believed that the use of those kinds of swear words caused physical injury to Jesus Christ. Today, those same words have lost their impact.
Slate contributor and editor at large of the Oxford English Dictionary, Jesse Sheidlower notes that entire categories of curse words can fall out of use. Things that used to be extremely offensive in the past are not so emotionally charged today.
For example, in the 18th century, one of the worst ways to insult someone was to question their parentage. The word “whoreson” was used to suggest that a person was born to a mother who was a prostitute and also to imply that the person had no father. No one uses the word “whoreson” today. The reason could very well be because in today’s society, there isn’t nearly as much emphasis placed on parentage, or concern about babies born out of wedlock, as there was in the 18th century.
There is a category of swear words that we commonly use today that our ancestors didn’t consider to be curse words at all. Words that describe bodily functions, such as a word that starts with the letter s to describe excrement, or a word that starts with the letter f to describe intercourse, are definitely considered to be swear words today.
In the Middle Ages, those words wouldn’t cause concern. This is because people had a lot less privacy back then. It was not uncommon to observe people preforming bodily functions, so no one thought much about mentioning the words that related to it.
Image by Spencer Means on Flickr.
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