Why we curse

Friday 19 October 2007This is 16 years old. Be careful.

Stephen Pinker has written a great piece on cursing: What the F***? Why We Curse. It’s erudite and revelatory, covering the strange grammar of swears, why words are considered swears, the origin of their prohibition, and so on.

I liked this anecdote:

When Bess Truman was asked to get the president to say fertilizer instead of manure, she replied, “You have no idea how long it took me to get him to say manure.”


"Plain speaking about sex conveys an attitude that sex is a casual matter, like tennis or philately"

I've got a hobby...

Many swear words in English are of Anglo-Saxon descent, because after the Norman conquest Anglo-Saxon became the speech of the country, that is, rude speech. So, calling someone a swine or a pig is more incendiary than calling someone "porky". Using such words in "polite" company meant the wrong sort of people were present, a threat in a class society.

How words are recruited into swear words also reflects changing social conditions. Women ("weave men") were separate but equal in pre-Norman England (they kept the silver they got from the sale of their textiles), but the Normans reduced their status by changing the definition of marriage (so they could get control of the women's silver), and terms referring to women became negatively (and sexually) charged. A tart is something sweet, unless it is a woman. "Hussy" is derived from "house wife".

So, many of our English swear words are the heritage of the Norman Conquest, and it is likely that all such taboos originate in the upper class, and reflect class conflicts. Think of parents' attempts to control the speech of their young children; the parents do that because they don't want others to think less of the child, to think the child is uncouth, uncivil and uneducated. In fact, the children are expanding their vocabulary, and discovering some of the complexities (and powers) of speech.

Great read! Interesting illustration of how an individual's swearing can have an effect on society. As for the effluvia factor, why doesn't "puke" have quite the same impact/taboo as other effluvial cursing?
@David Boudreau
Because the other come from the end that is considered impure.
"weave men"? From what I can find it's "wif man" meaning "woman person", as compared to "wæpen-man". The term "wif" derives from the Indo-European term "ghw?bh" which appears to mean "shame, also pudenda."

"weave" on the other hand in Old English was "wefan" meaning "form by interlacing yarn" and is derived from the proto-Indo-European word "webh" or "wobh".

From "Fact monster": Wife
is from the verb to weave. (Saxon wefan, Danish vaevc, German weben, whence weib, a woman, one who works at the distaff.) Woman is called the distaff. Hence Dryden calls Anne “a distaff on the throne.” While a girl was spinning her wedding clothes she was simply a spinster; but when this task was done, and she was married, she became a wife, or one who had already woven her allotted task.

Alfred, in his will, speaks of his male and female descendants as those of the spear-side and those of the spindle-side, a distinction still observed by the Germans; and hence the effigies on graves of spears and spindles.

The German Weib has a derogatory connotation nowadays, as opposed to Frau, Frauelein and Madchen. Skeat, in his etymology of English, objects that wefan derives web, not wife.But then are weib (pronounced "vibe") and wife cognates?

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