Behind the Dictionary

Lexicographers Talk About Language

The Universality of Swearing

Earlier this week we spoke to Stephen Dodson, co-author of Uglier than a Monkey's Armpit, a compendium of curses and insults from around the world. By way of introduction to this lively and engaging book, here is a (lightly expurgated!) letter to readers from Stephen, musing on the boundless creativity of the "gems of abuse" he has collected.

In Shakespeare's Tempest Caliban tells Prospero, "You taught me language; and my profit on't is, I know how to curse." Every language I know of has curse words, and most people, however much they may disparage them in theory, use them enthusiastically when the occasion demands it, whether the occasion is being cut off in traffic or slamming a finger with something heavy. I will never forget my shock, as a boy forbidden to utter even a "darn it" around the house, at hearing my father holler "S--t!" while working in the attic, nor will I forget my amazement on my first day of college in California at hearing a passing trio of girls carrying on a loud and profane conversation as I lolled on the greensward. My father was in the Foreign Service, so I had grown up abroad (giving me an early immersion in languages), and as anyone who has lived in an expatriate community can attest, it is culturally years behind the home country, so even though the year was 1968, this was my abrupt introduction to the Sixties. I literally did not realize women were capable of swearing!

Some might have been put off by the discovery; I was thrilled and liberated. To me swearing, far from being an embarrassing remnant of primitive humanity to be overcome by civilized peoples, is an exhilarating means of direct contact with something basic, a way of bypassing the elaborate circumlocutions, rationalizations, and hypocrisies of literate discourse and plugging into some sort of cultural and psychological electricity. To find that women could do it as well as men was a significant step on the path to realizing that women are not so different from men after all, that we are all human, all too human. (My nonagenarian mother-in-law is fond of exclaiming, when the world displeases her, "Oh, for s--tting in the sink!") And as the British journalist Holbrook Jackson once said, "Profanity, like virtue, is its own reward."

Of course, this has never been a popular position with authority figures. Scotland was perhaps the first country to try and make swearing illegal, in 1551; a century later the English puritans, undeterred by the complete failure of the Scottish law, made swearing at one's parents a capital offence. Mussolini is said to have had notices put up with the injunction "For Italy's honour, do not swear", but it didn't do any more good than it had in Scotland or England. To curse is, in a sense, to reject authority — and that, too, was a lesson of the Sixties, the decade that saw the barriers against the inclusion of profanity in books crumble along with so many other barriers.

The classic example of this aspect of cursing is the Soviet Union, which was far more puritanical than even pre-Sixties America. The irony is that the Russian language is rich in profanity and the Russian people are supremely adept at using it, so the whitewashed picture given by the official media was highly misleading. In fact, the Russian equivalent of Shakespeare, Alexander Pushkin, not only loved curse words, he put them in his poetry; a stanza of his poem Telega zhizni [The wagon of life] ends Krichim: poshol! ebyona mat! [We cry: Drive on! F-- it! (literally 'f---ed mother')], but editions of Pushkin always substituted a row of dots for the last two words, even though any Russian reading the poem knew exactly what was being omitted. The collapse of the Soviet state brought about a flood of obscenities, in literature, in slang dictionaries, and in the speech of even many middle-class people who had avoided it earlier; this is often deplored, and of course obscenity like anything else can be overdone, but I see it as a healthy development.

To demonstrate the primal thrill of taboo words, I will quote a wonderful post by linguist Mark Liberman in the blog Language Log, reporting a conversation among three 4-year-olds in the back of a car:

A: Do you know the bad words?
B: Yes. My mom says them all the time.
C: Mine too.
A: I know the S word.
C: [covering her ears] Don't say it! Don't say it!
B: [trying to put his hands over A's mouth] That's the worst one! Don't say it, we'll get in trouble!
A: I'm going to say it! "STUPID." There, I said it.
C: No! No! You can't say that! Don't say it again!

Their (admirably kind and caring) preschool had a strict rule against calling people names, and stupid was high on the list of proscribed insults. The kids had assimilated this prohibition into the natural class of lexical taboos.

It is indeed a natural class; we seem to need the prohibition as much as we need to break it. It is, of course, each person's choice what to use and avoid in their own speech, but we should avoid the temptation to make others' choices for them. As Keith Allan and Kate Burridge say in their book Forbidden Words: Taboo and the Censoring of Language, "There probably are people who don't swear; but you can bet they have passive knowledge of almost all swear words. Everyone knows how to insult. With insulting, the in-group is defined by the use of ritual insults. It is insecure outsiders who taboo and would censor jargon, slang, swearing and even ritual insult."

So enjoy the gems of abuse we have collected for you from languages and cultures around the world, and remember that these are only a tiny sampling; humanity's creativity, in this as in other areas, is boundless, and even as you read this, kids on the streets of Brooklyn, workers in the factories of China, soldiers in Siberian barracks, and athletes in the heat of competition the world over are coming up with new and improved ways of putting each other down or expressing their outrage at life in general.

Uglier Than a Monkey's Armpit: Untranslatable Insults, Put-Downs, and Curses from Around the World, by Stephen Dodson and Dr. Robert Vanderplank, is published in the U.S. by Penguin and in the U.K. by Boxtree.

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Thursday August 13th 2009, 9:13 AM
Comment by: Don H. (Brentwood, CA)Top 10 Commenter
There seems to be some confusion between vulgarity and profanity, which always seem to me to be distinct categories.

I'm one of the people who rarely use swear words — and I seem to be surrounded by people like me. Many of my circle are irreligious. We don't scowl at people who use profane or vulgar language; they seem demeaning.

For sure I never curse or insult anyone — or ever feel the desire to do so. And the people in my circles thankfully return the favor. I can't remember the last time someone made an insulting remark to me.

But I don't have a prudish bone in my body. I've always enjoyed Mark Twain's observation, "In certain desperate and trying circumstance, profanity affords a relief denied even to prayer."

And I love the story about Bess Truman. When some lady friends asked her to try to get the president to quit using the word "crap" she said that it took her years to get him to use the word.
Thursday August 13th 2009, 12:58 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Don, I love that story about Bess Truman! Thanks for your whole comment.

I, too, am not given to using vulgarity or profanity (Catholic School upbringing!), and insisted when I taught, that my students didn't refer to 'bad language' as 'cursing' unless it was really that, a curse.

I even sent some who had been delayed by a principal who lectured them for their swearing back to him, to explain that what they'd done was abuse scatological language. He replied with a huge grin! I guess 'vulgarity' would have done the trick, but the students were thrilled with the word scatological.

Discussion then went to French profanity and cussing.

One of the most involved discussions I ever had with that class!

I guess I have to give up on the word 'curse' and accept it as meaning a verbal insult expressed with a metaphor of some sort. Sigh!
Thursday August 13th 2009, 7:52 PM
Comment by: Karen F. (New Castle, PA)
I was reared in a home where any kind of swearing was probited. And never did anyone ever take the Lord's name in vain. This rule was for all genders. We all read a lot of books and were taught to daily increase our vocabulary.

Swearing, cursing, or cussing was done only by those "who were uneducated and did not have a good sense of our language.

Thus, I never did use profanity and to this day I will silently cringe at how it has become so common, even in the work place.

How sad for our society. There are so many descriptive words from which we can choose.
Thursday August 13th 2009, 11:48 PM
Comment by: Don H. (Brentwood, CA)Top 10 Commenter
"abuse scatological language" I'm kind of thrilled too, Jane! :-)
Friday August 14th 2009, 2:38 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Yes, Don! It could open a whole new catagory for us to explore, derivations, histories of how it came to be...

The possibilities are endless.

What is interesting is how we have two places to put our words for such things.

We have perfectly good biological words, accepted in good company; and then we have managed to turn those same activities into something naughty and bad, to vent our spleens!

It WAS a great lesson though! :) I hope that's a smile!
Friday August 14th 2009, 10:25 AM
Comment by: Don H. (Brentwood, CA)Top 10 Commenter
We should meet somewhere online and talk about this, Jane.

Something that's bothered me for years is the use of the F*** word as a highly pejorative reference to malicious attacks or to truly horrible actions, which calls into question the way that the sex act itself is perceived by such people. A deeply dysfunctional attitude seems to underlie such use of the word. Nobody ever seems to notice this.

I allow, of course, for the possibility that most people using the term in this way do not follow through the implications of such usage in their actually standards, behaviors, and attitudes.

(I also allow for the fact that I might not have any idea what I'm talking about.)
Friday August 14th 2009, 12:09 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
My husband was just complaining (sort of) about this, so he notices it! I think it might be an English language phenomenon. That 'other' category of referring to sexual organs and activities is used to express anger, frustration and unhappiness, but not associated with sex usually. It's an expletive outburst. Why is it that we use this means (not me!) and the French use religious words? Cultural differences? We get hung up on sex and they on religion?

Ben was going to see about setting up forums here, Don. This would be a good topic to discuss.
Sunday August 16th 2009, 5:34 AM
Comment by: Daryl P.
I read recently that swearing and cursing actually reduces the physical experience of pain. This would indicate that there is some sort of power in the use of these banned words. Perhaps it is like a basic, infantile cry of personal freedom, like an attack against the process of socialization, akin to how art can be. Isn't poetry a process of doing violence to language?
Sunday August 16th 2009, 10:16 AM
Comment by: Don H. (Brentwood, CA)Top 10 Commenter
Actual clinical support for the phenomenon is reported at
Tuesday August 18th 2009, 9:48 AM
Comment by: Stephen G. (Marrickville Australia)
I love swearing and swear-words, along with all the other forms of language.
I am only bothered by swearing when it is either used as lingual spack-filler - "The f ing, f ing, f ing, oh I can't remember what it's called!", or as a part of the wider class of words used to debase ie. Racist or sexist words, etc.
I have observed over the years that many people start bilingual bridges with mutual translation of swear-words - How to say hello, then how to say something rude in the language. Usually an amusing and positive introduction.
Tuesday August 18th 2009, 4:51 PM
Comment by: Robert M. (New York, NY)
Is the rampant use of the F-curse the current "cool," "hip," or "macho?" To me it's none of those. It's sad to see how rude and uncaring so much of society has become that people think nothing of cursing in public in front of even children. People have told me to "get over's just a word." offensive and overused word.
Tuesday August 18th 2009, 8:11 PM
Comment by: Karen F. (New Castle, PA)
Thank you Robert M. from New York. I wondered if anyone on this comment board was on the same page.
Tuesday August 18th 2009, 11:07 PM
Comment by: Daryl P.
The etymology of these words must be short if their usage is only a recent phenomenon. I tried to find one of these less than gentle words on the Visual Thesaurus once but I don't think there are any. I wonder if that is because these hard words might cause offense in the market place.
Wednesday August 19th 2009, 11:21 AM
Comment by: Karen F. (New Castle, PA)

I too often entertained the question of when in history this language commenced. One will probably never know. It does make for an engaging discussion. The freedom of speech is just that; be that as it may, such language remains regrettable as it is so "very common," and crude.
Wednesday August 19th 2009, 1:13 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
I still think it was with the first person who ever hit a finger with a hammerstone. Smiling as I type that!
Wednesday August 19th 2009, 1:15 PM
Comment by: Don H. (Brentwood, CA)Top 10 Commenter
I think that a lot of uncouth language (and writing) is simply attributable to the fact that most speech and writing are of a low quality.

I recently came across "(Theodore)Sturgeon's Revelation: Ninety percent of everything is crap."

...I'm sure that Sturgeon was judicious in his use of the word "crap" — using it instead of the word that everyone knows was in his mind. He wanted to alert people, not to needlessly jar them; to make them think about what he was saying instead of responding to the language he used in saying it.
Wednesday August 19th 2009, 3:27 PM
Comment by: Karen F. (New Castle, PA)
I have to agree with you. Gentility was out the door before it was ever allowed to enter. What else can we say. lol
Thursday August 20th 2009, 10:46 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Sometimes a bit of crudity (is that the right word?) is just a typo:

I'll quote from our paper:

A news release Monday outlined Prime Minister Stephen Harper's itinerary as he began a five-day Arctic tour.

The release repeatedly spelled the capital of Nunavut as Iqualuit -- rather than Iqaluit, which means "many fish" in the Inuktitut language.

"It means people with unwiped bums," said Sandra Inutiq of the office of the Languages Commissioner of Nunavut. "it's not exactly a nice term."

Shame they're so close! (Another smile)
Thursday August 20th 2009, 12:23 PM
Comment by: Karen F. (New Castle, PA)
That is just too funny. Proof readers, watch you backs!
Wednesday August 26th 2009, 11:18 PM
Comment by: Mike B. (Washington Crossing, PA)
Daryl P., et al,

Regarding the etymology of certain words, I have two which I will share. While I certainly CAN NOT vouch for their authenticity, they do make sense.

The first is for the "F" word. The story goes that when police officers would catch a man and a woman in a very delicate situation, the crime would be written up "For Unlawful Carnal Knolwedge" . . . hence the acronym . . . and various variations.

The second is for the "S" word. The story goes that when dried manure was shipped from England, it was shipped in bulk. Due to the weight it was placed in the very bottom of the ship to provide ballast, to keep the ship from rolling over. Very unfortunately, the bottom of ships were often very damp or wet. I don't beleive I need to further explain odiferous result of what happens when dried manure gets wet!! Another possibility was that when dry manure becomes wet it produces methane gas. . . which does NOT mix well in close proximity to a kerosene lantern, so I'm told! It did not take long for sailors to realize that the manure MUST be kept dry! To aid in prevention of allowing manure to become wet . . . experienced sailors would warn unexperienced sailors to make sure to place dried manure in a place that would NOT get wet. To do this they would place a sign on the dried manure "Ship High In Transit" . . .hence the acronym, became a noun.

I hope the above information has been educational!!
Wednesday August 26th 2009, 11:34 PM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
Mike B: While entertaining, both of those stories are indubitably false. The linguist Larry Horn likes calling such stories "etymythologies" (blending "etymology" and "mythology"). A good source for etymythological debunking is David Wilton's Word Myths -- I believe Wilton covers both the F-word and S-word stories in his book.
Thursday August 27th 2009, 9:48 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Ben, didn't the same thing happen with Snafu, or is that really Situation Normal, All F***** Up?

(I mean didn't a funny legend start that gives a meaning for the acronym?

I could check that myself! It just means a chaotic situation according to the quick dictionary.
Thursday August 27th 2009, 9:55 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Dear me, I found all this!

"These words generally were written in lowercase letters, perhaps because they were unofficial, or perhaps to avoid suggesting impropriety by camouflaging them as ordinary words. They included fubar, meaning "f---ed up beyond all recognition," and the similar fubb, for "f---ed up beyond belief," as well as tarfu, for "things are really f---ed up." There was janfu, meaning "joint Army and Navy...," and GFU, referring to an individual who Generally Failed to Understand the situation--or something like that. But like the humorous abbreviations surrounding the birth of OK in 1839, most of the World War I coinages were short-lived. The exception was snafu, explained as "situation normal: all f---ed up."

That source dates the origin to 1944 and D-Day as that occasion presented so many opportunities for it.

But apparently, it is an ancronym, Snafu, and that's what it means!
Thursday August 27th 2009, 10:15 AM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
Jane: Yep, snafu started as a genuine WWII-era acronym. The earliest citation given by the OED is from 1941.

For more on this and other effing acronyms, check out the new edition of Jesse Sheidlower's The F-Word, coming out next week. (Jesse has also set up a website for the book here.)
Thursday August 27th 2009, 11:21 AM
Comment by: Don H. (Brentwood, CA)Top 10 Commenter
FUBAR and SNAFU become G-rated if you simply substitute the word "Fouled."
Thursday August 27th 2009, 12:13 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
GFU could do that too, as a General Fouler Upper. At this point, I'm just wishing for smileys I could use. I'm chuckling so hard!

I grew up with 'snafu' and in our house it [i]was[/i] 'fouled' up! I heard my did use the s word once, and it was such a shocker that we turned it into a holiday we commemorated yearly, as we did the one occasion he came home after an office party slightly inebriated... just slightly, but again, a shock. We made up a song about that with the words, 23rd of December, in it. Every year at that time, I still think of it! And the fun we had teasing my dad!

I guess it shows what a good example he was for us if there were only those 2 occasions.
Thursday August 27th 2009, 12:16 PM
Comment by: Don H. (Brentwood, CA)Top 10 Commenter
Jane! Wonderful! Laughing out loud.
Thursday August 27th 2009, 12:19 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Muttering to myself now, Don, trying to figure out how to get italics here! Won't say what I'm muttering, but my dad wouldn't be disappointed!
Wednesday September 9th 2009, 2:05 PM
Comment by: CaspianRex (Nashville, TN)
One of my favorite books about this subject is one called Expletive Deleted: A Good Look at Bad Language. It's not a long book, but it covers the subject of "bad" language quite thoroughly. No offense to those who have posted here who don't care for vulgarity/profanity, but I don't buy the argument that "those who swear are too uneducated to say anything else." I have a Master's degree and love words of all kinds, but I believe that there are times when vulgarity gets a point across more concisely or more strongly than more formal language can. My vocabulary is quite large, and I am perfectly well read, but I swear often. I wouldn't exactly say my quotidian language is as peppered with vulgarity, but there is some...light seasoning, if you will. (Perhaps the verbal analogue would be Mrs. Dash?) I will say that I generally attempt not to swear in front of those who don't like it, as I have no wish to cause offense. But in the privacy of my own home, or in other appropriate contexts, I will occasionally indulge myself.
Wednesday September 9th 2009, 5:06 PM
Comment by: Karen F. (New Castle, PA)
No offense taken. The teachings of my youth remained with me down through the years. At least you filter where and when you select to use profanity, a sign of your repect for others. This is very refreshing. Kudos to you!!
Wednesday September 9th 2009, 9:30 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Caspian, I'm not sure that it's a lack of intelligence or education so much as not trying to find words that wouldn't offend. That's what bothers me.

People like you (and sometimes me) who are careful around others, careful of their sensitivities, well, you aren't the problem, and of course not in the privacy of your own home (provided the kids don't pick it up if they're around).

But those who use it indiscriminately, who don't bother to speak carefully or with thought, those are the problem.

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Our interview with Stephen Dodson about co-authoring "Uglier Than a Monkey's Armpit."
Mark Peters guides us through the many ways we avoid talking about unpleasant things.
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