Bloody Hell!
August 30, 2006 8:17 PM   Subscribe

A general question about the etymology/evolution of profanity as it is generally used in the English language.

I'm interested in both comprehensive site links and MeFite theories as to why some English profanity comes into/falls out of favor as times change, where the offensive terms come from, and why some of them seem to be country-specific (for instance, why "bloody" is offensive in England, but not in the U.S., while "cunt" is among the most taboo in the states, but is ubiquitous in Scotland, etc.)

I'm not looking for this to be a chatfilter query, but the sociology and linguistics of obscenity do kind of fascinate me.
posted by Navelgazer to Writing & Language (18 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Fuck. (via)
posted by cribcage at 8:47 PM on August 30, 2006

These things drift with time and space. It's not just differences in places.

When I was a kid, if a man called another man a "bastard" there'd probably have been a fight. These days it really doesn't mean anything at all.

Like any other emergent property of culture, there's really no way of either explaining or predicting it. It's pretty much a matter of local consensus which words will be considered strong, which ones weak, and which ones laughable.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 9:20 PM on August 30, 2006

Bloody. The notion of profanity being associated with socioeconomic class is worth exploring.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 9:29 PM on August 30, 2006

Response by poster: Well right. It's the theories of why and how these words (and meanings) change from time to time and place to place that I'm interested in.
posted by Navelgazer at 9:30 PM on August 30, 2006

All I can think of is that awful "pluck yew" story.

But thinking about it makes me wonder if or how the evolution of profanity differs in any way from that of non-naughty words...
posted by peeedro at 9:57 PM on August 30, 2006

Navelgazer, the entire point is that there's no rhyme or reason behind it, because no one is consciously directing it. That's the nature of emergent cultural drift.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 10:22 PM on August 30, 2006

Response by poster: Well, similarly, no one directs a river's changes in course over time, but in looking back, we can point to conditions which may have caused them. That's more what I'm asking about. Cribcage and wgp's selections are both great, and I'd love further discussion, but also more links to any scholarly works on the subject of why certain words come off as taboo in certain cultures.
posted by Navelgazer at 11:50 PM on August 30, 2006

I would guess that the currency of a swear is drastically affected by one-upmanship. For example: The coolest kid on the second grade playground starts saying "shit" with abandon; within a few weeks, all but the very squarest kids will be parroting it, hoping to seem cool by association. A few weeks more and the word will be played out, boring and tame--but by then, the alpha kid will have moved on to the F-bomb.

This process plays itself out across towns, regions, nations, languages, centuries, swears gradually ramping up in severity as once shocking terms become common currency. Of course, exactly how that increased intensity manifests is a matter of a culture and chance. Swears might grow more blasphemous, violent, graphic, or sexual; sometimes they become more elegant and complex. That's the case in Russia, where over 200 years of selective cultural pressure has resulted in mat, a minor dialect based on obscenity.
posted by Iridic at 12:22 AM on August 31, 2006

Here's a long article you may find interesting 'The social meanings of swearing: workers and bad language in late imperial and early Soviet Russia'.
posted by tellurian at 12:58 AM on August 31, 2006

The FAQ on the use of "bloody", referenced by W.G. Pan, was interesting. I had always understood that "his blood" was the derivation.

Similarly, the word "zounds", today heard only on bad Saturday morning cartoons, was in the past considered highly blasphemous and offensive, being derived from "his wounds".
posted by megatherium at 5:06 AM on August 31, 2006

I don't want to assume you already know about this: browsing the back issues of Maledicta should be fun for you.
posted by jessamyn at 5:10 AM on August 31, 2006

I just read this book, and it answers all of your questions.
posted by Dr. Wu at 6:31 AM on August 31, 2006

You'll also want to get hold of Forbidden Words: Taboo and the Censoring of Language by Keith Allan when it comes out. (Note: Authors are actual linguists who know what they're talking about; also, they reproduce amazing headlines from Broadway Brevities of 1931-32, like "Sissies Permeate Sublime Social Strata As Film Stars and Broadwayites Go Gay" and "SAPPHIC SISTERS SCRAM!/ Depression Drives Ladies of Lesbos to Normalcy/ Deserting Boat Boys for Jobs and Feminine Frills.")

Thanks for that article, tellurian—I'm really looking forward to reading it!
posted by languagehat at 7:23 AM on August 31, 2006

Damn, that should be "by Keith Allan and Kate Burridge"—sorry, Kate!
posted by languagehat at 7:24 AM on August 31, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks guys.
posted by Navelgazer at 9:18 AM on August 31, 2006

No current views of profanity that I have been able to find address directly what I believe to be the central mystery of profanity: its strange neurology and epidemiology.

Many stroke victims who are otherwise aphasic can still swear fluently and often uncontrollably (not a terribly informative link, I'm sorry to say).

Also, we have a relatively common, and possibly increasingly common neurological condition, Tourette's Syndrome, which can cause uncontrollable profanity and also appears to be associated with bacterial infection, namely, Strep A.

Now, add to that mix the fact that religiosity has been associated with OCD, which has in turn been associated with infection by Strep B, and that infections of these kinds tend to appear in generational waves (possibly because of passive immunity transmitted from mother to fetus and nursling), and a historical view of profanity and its strange association with religion would seem to require some new perspectives.
posted by jamjam at 11:10 AM on August 31, 2006


The history of profanity is fascinating stuff. I've a philological work on the Latin Sexual Vocabulary that offers an analysis of some very old profanity. The author, J.N. Adams, speculates that profanity arises as spontaneous metaphor and coinage, some of which takes hold. 'Penis', for instance, started off with a literal meaning of 'tail', but by the time of Cicero it had gone from a euphemistic term for, well, penis, to the common term for that organ. (The stronger term, sort of equivalent to 'cock' in modern American English, was 'mentula').

As I suggested in the very brief 'Class and Profanity' piece to which W.G. Pan linked above, much of vocabulary (and grammar, and so on) is used as part of in-group/out-group socialization. This selection heuristic results in much drift over time, some of it in circles.
posted by jackrusher at 7:43 PM on September 1, 2006

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