Curses and swearing

This is the full read-only archive of the "Ask the Wordwizard" section of the original Wordwizard site. The responses to the questions originate from Jonathon Green, the compiler of the Cassell Dictionary of Slang and numerous other dictionaries.
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Curses and swearing

Post by Archived Topic » Sat Oct 26, 1996 11:00 pm

It has been brout to my attention that some curses and swear words have a racist background or origin EX. shit, F.U.C.K., Bastard, Bitch, Damn. Could please offer some clearification on the background or original meaning of these words?

Thank you
Submitted by Dave Donoho (Bloomington - U.S.A.)
Signature: Topic imported and archived

Curses and swearing

Post by Jonathon Green » Wed Oct 30, 1996 8:00 am

shit / fuck / bastard / bitch / damn

In the first place, I fear you have been misinformed. These terms may all of them be used in a racist context, often in combination with far more overtly racist nouns or adjectives, but their origins, which in some cases are centuries old, are not those of racial abuse. Space limitations mean that I cannot cover them all, but I offer some material on the first two.

The following quotes are from Jonathon Green: Slang Through the Ages (just pub. in the US by NTC, paperback. Green covers your other terms, and many, many more.)


The impact of the so-called obscenities varies as to context and none more so than 'bloody', which is barely acceptable in the UK, the essence (albeit embarrassingly so) of the national vocabulary in Australia, and of virtually no importance whatsoever in America. Its use is universal: as an intensifier, meaning very, exceedingly; abominably or desperately. As the' OED' put it in 1887, `In general colloquial use from the Restoration to c.1750; now constantly in the mouths of the lowest classes, but by respectable people considered `a horrid word', on a par with obscene or profane language, and usually printed in the newspapers [as] b----y.' The latter proscription has largely vanished - when 'bloody' does crop up in the press it tends to be in direct, quoted speech and is printed in full - but the term, in the UK at least, has yet to enter `polite' society. As to its etymology, the 'OED' links it to the preoccupations of the `bloods' or aristocratic rowdies of the end of the 17C and beginning of the 18C. Thus the phrase `bloody drunk' meant `as drunk as a blood'. Its associations with bloodshed and murder (typically a 'bloody battle') `have recommended it to the rough classes as a word that appeals to their imagination' and the 'Dictionary' goes on to compare its late-19C popularity with other `impressive or graphic intensives, seen in the use of jolly, awfully, terribly, devilish, deuced, damned, ripping, rattling, thumping, stunning, thundering, etc.' As far as origins are concerned, it has no links to theology, nor to the term '`sblood' (God's blood); in addition, declare Farmer and Henley in their definition, `In passing it may be mentioned that there is no ground for attributing its derivation to <169>By'r Our Lady<170>' Indeed all such fancies are studiously dismissed by the experts; Eric Partridge rounds off any speculation, saying that `There is no need for ingenious etymologies: the idea of blood suffices'. Euphemisms and synonyms for 'bloody' include 'blooming' (19C), 'bally' (19C), 'blasted' (18C), 'bleeding' (19C) and 'blinking' (19C).

Thus 'bloody' continues to exist on the margins (in the UK at least) of language that is acceptable if distasteful and that which is downright taboo. It is in Australia, however, that it has pride of place. Frances Grose wrote in 1796 of how popular 'bloody' was amongst the contemporary London underworld; there is no doubt that, along with the transported felons of the period, it made its way to the penal colonies of Botany Bay. Fifty years later it was well-established: writing in his book 'Travels in New South Wales' (1847) Alexander Marjoribanks noted the prevalence of the word, claiming that he had heard a bullock driver use it twenty-seven times in fifteen minutes; a rate of speech, he then calculated, that over a fifty year period would produce some 18,200,000 repetitions of the `disgusting word'. The Sydney 'Bulletin' called it `the Australian adjective' in its edition of August 18, 1894, explaining that `it is more used, and used more exclusively by Australians, than by any other allegedly civilized nation'. The term gained its final sanctification as the `Great Australian Adjective' when W.T. Goodge used the phrase as the title for one of the poems he included in his 'Hits! Skits! and Jingles!' (1899).'


The most basic of such synonyms, 'fuck' remains for many the ultimate in taboo terms, although it may just be shaded by 'cunt'* in any sweepstakes of opprobrium. The term emerges at the start of the 16C, its first 'OED' citation is in 1503, in a line from the poetry of William Dunbar (?1456-?1513) and finds its first dictionary listing in John Florio's 'Worlde of Wordes' (1598): `'Fottere', to iape, to sard, to fucke, to swive, to occupy.' Through this period it remained SE, although by c.1690 it was moving fast into taboo where it has stayed, despite efforts of modern and post-modern novelists and of the critic Ken Tynan who remarked in 1967 to much furore that surely no intelligent person could any longer be frightened of the word - how wrong he was. The etymology of 'fuck' defeats the 'OED'. The logical link is to the German 'ficken', which means exactly the same, but semantically there are no links and temptation must resisted. Eric Partridge, never loathe to take on the toughest of words, was convinced that real link is to the Latin 'pungare': to strike, which seems substantially likely, given the extent of synonymous terms meaning exactly that. One suggestion that can be discounted is the theory noted in Geoffrey Hughes' 'Swearing' (1991) that `'Fuck' originated from a royal injunction at the time of the Plague, when it was very necessary to procreate; it was a code word in which the letters stood for <169>fornicate under command of the King<170>.' Professor Hughes, of course, was not subscribing to the theory.

Given its negative image, 'fuck' has engendered a number of bowdlerisations, all striving to some extent to echo the genuine article. Aside from the rhyming slang 'Donald Duck' and 'goose and duck', there are variously 'fugle', 'futz', 'fulke' (coined by Byron in 'Don Juan' [1819-24]), 'futter' (coined by Sir Richard Burton, from the French 'foutre'),'fug' (in Norman Mailer's 'The Naked and the Dead' [1949]) and 'fugh' (concocted by Brendan Behan in 'Borstal Boy' [1958]'). 'Fickey-fick', 'fuckle' and 'fucky-fucky', while hardly euphemistic, do attempt to soften the grosser word.

Given its position as the most extreme of obscenities it is hardly surprising that 'fuck' has featured for several centuries amongst the vocabulary of cursing. The 16C 'foutre' and 'foutra' (fr. the equally obscene French 'foutre') are followed by the 17C 'foot' and 'sfoot' (both from 'foutre' again) and the 18C 'footer', 'footy', 'frig' and 'frigging' (which has a parellel meaning of masturbation). 'Fucking' itself does not appear until c.1840. The 19C also retreats into euphemism with 'fizzing' (a synonym for 'fuck' but also used to mean excellent or first rate, and as such referring not to sex but to effervescence). The 20C offers' effing', 'effing' and 'blinding', 'eff' (especially as in the injunction 'eff off!') and the euphemistic 'flipping', 'freaking' and 'fudge'. Fuck-related phrases include 'fuck a duck!', 'fuck this for a lark!', 'fuck this for a game of soldiers!' and 'chuck you, Farley!' (a reverse of fuck you charlie and a variation on the popular 'fuck you Jack, I'm all right', predictably censored for the title of the film 'I'm All Right Jack' [1959]).

'Fuck' gains an extra, and for most people an even less acceptable dimension when it appears in what has been termed the `Oedipal polysyllable': 'motherfucker'. While 'motherfucker', often abbreviated to 'mother' may go unremarked in certain circles, and amongst US blacks even exist as a term of affection, or as a neutral noun meaning nothing more particular than `thing', it remains for the most part the most obscene of all obscenities. Unsurprisingly 'motherfucker' and its adjectival form 'motherfucking' have been surrounded with a wide range of euphemisms. Among them are 'mammy-jamming', 'mammy-ramming', 'mammy-tapping', 'molly-focking', 'mother-flunking', 'motherfouling', 'mothergrabbing', 'motherhugging', 'mother-jiving', 'mother-jumping', 'motherless', 'motherloving' and 'mother-raping'.'
Signature: Jonathon Green

Re: Curses and swearing

Post by Erik_Kowal » Mon Aug 10, 2015 12:12 am

Just ran across this fairly entertaining video exposition on the flexibility of 'fuck', which the unnamed speaker describes as 'a magical word'.

You be the judge.

(4' 27")

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