WTF?! The origins of swear words


Graphic Illustration by Sophie Au

Swear words permeate our lives as forms of self expression, cathartic cries and bitter insults. But from where do these deep-rooted exclamations come?

Meera Nambiar and Surya Saraf

They say a single “F—ck!” is worth a thousand words — a profane but clear cry of frustration, or a little emphasis to everyday conversation that holds a potency in its resounding four letters. Swear words permeate our lives as forms of self expression, cathartic cries and bitter insults. But from where do these deep-rooted exclamations come?

Swear words have convoluted origins. In terms of etymology, today’s American swear words have roots in German, Dutch and Middle English, sporadically developing from historical phenomena or by random occurrence. For instance, the word “crap” was supposedly familiarized after sanitary engineer Thomas Crapper developed lavatorial innovations in the late 1800s. However, the practice of swearing shares the intention to express oneself in ways that ordinary words simply cannot do, and in doing so, its power lives on. 

“Swearing is a way to strongly express oneself in a fairly harmless way,” English teacher Anna Kirsh said. 

A deep dive into etymology reveals the linguistic distinctions but emotional commonalities between each swear word. Swear words are typically short and punchy, which adds to their emotional impact, and most stem from taboo topics like sex and blasphemy. The F-word, the most common cuss word used by Americans today, has roots in Latin and Old German. Originally used to mean “to strike or penetrate” or engage in sexual intercourse, it became a widely accepted swear word in the mid-19th century. The common saying “motherf—cker,” was popularized in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, having originated from an 1898 Texas trial. 

The timeless “sh—t,” of German and Dutch origin, having long meant “to poop,” serves now as an exclamation of frustration, though its original meaning is still widely used. The addition of “bull,” meaning “false talk,” was popularized in the mid-14th century. “Crap” has origins in Old Dutch farming language while “ass” started and is still used to mean donkey. Other forms of “Ass” in Old English include “arse” and “buttocks” — both have retained their meaning over time.

Swear words also hold similarities across languages. According to a study conducted by the Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, certain harsh sounds signified by phonetic letters “k”, “t and “p” are found in swear words across many languages. Other less aggressive sounds like “w”, “r”, and “l” are much less likely to be found in swearing.

Although swearing is widely considered taboo, it has a unique position in language — it is one of the most powerful and persuasive ways of communicating with others. Some studies have found that swearing leads to a higher pain tolerance. It also has positive effects in social groups, often seen as a sign of a friendship and trustworthiness.

“Swearing is healthy to use at times, especially with your friends when you’re joking around because it shows you’re not being too serious,” senior Maïa Bline said. “You might be tempted to please a lot of people and speak in a certain way, but it’s good to let out your feelings sometimes. And I think swearing is a good way to do that.” 

It is important to note that some aspects of swearing have roots in racist, sexist culture, creating a fine line between swear words and slurs. Slurs, intended to insult and damage one’s reputation, often used against specific racial, ethnic and gender groups, differ from swearing in their connotation. Words like “c—nt” and “sl—t” are rooted in antiquated views of women as promiscuous and contemptible. “B—tch” can be seen as both a slur and a swear word depending on the audience, rooted in misogyny, and used to refer to women who rebel against societal norms. Many women, however, have reclaimed such terms to signify a compliment or form of empowerment for other women, an example of how the culture of the present shapes views of swearing. Slurs such as the n-word, which were more commonplace in the past, are now widely seen as derogatory due to changes and increased awareness in societal standards. The current generation is increasingly well informed about racial prejudice and discrimination, and open minded in terms of accepting different cultures and treating them equally.

It’s no question that swearing is complicated. Its ethics, origination and intention are not only crudely defined but also constantly changing. The present culture has its own rules for the use of slurs and swear words, yet their precedent for use is never fixed. Regardless, these short and punchy terms are ingrained in the English language — their capacity for use is ultimately up to the speaker.