Swear words shock and offend. They also have a physiological impact on us: we blush, our heart races, and our brain is stimulated. The words that have this power vary over time and space. The history of swear words really drives home the idea that the past is a foreign country. The most offensive and shocking thing someone could say in 11th century England was “God’s bones” but that phrase no longer holds much power over us. During the Victorian age of euphemism, “leg” was so highly charged that it was often replaced with the word “limb” in polite conversation. Today we’re living through another linguistic shift that places racial epithets- like the n-word- at the top of the profane hierarchy. Swearing is almost entirely context-dependent; swears are constantly being invented, downgraded, or escalated in our collective mind. Thousands of English-language swear words are even lost to history; they’re extinct and meaningless to us now. Still more have the same meaning but have entirely lost their power. So what sweeping, historical trends undergird the ebb and flow of obscenity? We’re here to find out. This episode belongs in our series about context, which is part of our year-long mega series about the 5 Cs of history.
Content Warning: This episode and transcript includes uncensored strong language and brief references to sexual violence.
Written and researched by Marissa Rhodes, PhD
Recorded by Marissa Rhodes and Sarah Handley-Cousins, PhD
Marissa: We don’t normally start off our episodes sharing personal anecdotes but, hey, there’s a first time for everything. Hi, my name is Marissa and I swear like a sailor. I didn’t realize this about myself until relatively recently in life. During grad school, I met a prospective student, now our dear friend David, who was visiting campus before attending the program. We introduced ourselves and chatted a bit. I quickly noticed that every time I “cursed,” (probably mostly “shit” and “fuck” I’d guess?) he flinched, as if my swear words physically hurt his body and broke his brain. I remember thinking…. Aww… bless is poor little Midwestern heart. The second or third time I met him, he felt comfortable enough to ask me, “Is it typical for Buffalonians to swear so much? It’s something I’ve noticed since I’ve been here.” I didn’t know the answer, really, not having experienced much of the world. But I told him that “fuck” and “shit” were just words to me. I used them in front of my mom, my grandma, even sometimes in front of my students. They just peppered my language like any other words.
He was aghast. I suppose casual swearing IS a little more common in a place like Buffalo which is influenced a little by the big cities of Toronto and NYC but also has a resolutely blue collar, rust belt ethos. I faced this issue again as my kids learned to talk. I swear in front of them indiscriminately. My logic was that if I used the words enough, they’d hold no power for them, so they’d be less likely to try to shock and awe their friends by yelling out “bitch!” and “ho!” to a roar of giggles. I told them not to use such words in front of teachers or anyone outside of our household. And not to aim them at each other because that’s unkind. It worked. In fact, they don’t even swear in front of me hardly ever. Even though I swear in front of them all day. My son even asks, if he stubs his toe, “Mommy, can I please use a swear word?” When I tell him yes, he yells “crap!” Which I find adorably wholesome.
These kinds of incidents made swearing interesting to me. I always wondered how words came to be swear words. Sarah- do you know what the “Big Six” swear words in English are? Can you guess them?
Sarah: [attempts to guess the Big Six]
Marissa: Swear words shock and offend. They also have a physiological impact on us: we blush, our heart races, and our brain is stimulated. The words that have this power vary over time and space. The history of swear words really drives home the idea that the past is a foreign country. The most offensive and shocking thing someone could say in 11th century England was “God’s bones” but that phrase no longer holds much power over us. During the Victorian age of euphemism, “leg” was so highly charged that it was often replaced with the word “limb” in polite conversation. Today we’re living through another linguistic shift that places racial epithets- like the n-word- at the top of the profane hierarchy. Swearing is almost entirely context-dependent; swears are constantly being invented, downgraded, or escalated in our collective mind. Thousands of English-language swear words are even lost to history; they’re extinct and meaningless to us now. Still more have the same meaning but have entirely lost their power. So what sweeping, historical trends undergird the ebb and flow of obscenity? We’re here to find out. This episode belongs in our series about context, which is part of our year-long mega series about the 5 Cs of history.
And I’m Sarah
Marissa: And we are your historians for this episode of Dig.
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Marissa: First- we will be swearing in this episode. Be warned. If profanity is offensive to you or if you are at work or around young children, you may want to postpone listening to this episode out loud. Most scholars maintain that there is a difference between mentioning a swear word (saying the word “shit” so you can talk about its history) and USING a swear word (saying “shit!” when you stub your toe). We will definitely be doing the former and, let’s be honest, I at least will probably be doing the latter as well. Note: swears can be used literally “he fucked her” but also sometimes used as an intensifier “holy fucking shit!” OR as a figurative insult “what a mother fucker!” The only words that we will not be saying out loud are racial slurs because, frankly, I don’t want to say them and I don’t want to do harm to anyone who is listening. We will refer to them as a concept, however, later in the episode.
Sarah: Second- We are going to deal with English and a little bit with its Latin and Germanic protolanguages because we’re an English-language podcast. But one could write this history with essentially any language in the world. Even narrowing our purview down to English, there are still many words for swearing: foul, bad, or taboo language, cursing, indecency, profanity, cussing, expletives. There are even more historical words for it: vain oaths, blasphemy, etc. These aren’t all necessarily the same thing but they’re all related. We’ll do our best to identify when these are distinct concepts and when we’re just using a term synonymously with “swearing.”
Third- We won’t be dealing with the legal definitions of obscenity because that’s its own episode. In fact, Elizabeth has dealt with that question somewhat in her Anthony Comstock episode. This episode revolves more around how the social, cultural, and linguistic context changes over time and space and how this influenced the swear words used and the practice of swearing in the English-speaking world.
Marissa: Fourth- and perhaps most importantly- this episode draws heavily on the work of other scholars. I’m just synthesizing and THEY actually did the hard work. The book I’m most indebted to is Melissa Mohr’s Holy Shit: A Brief History of Swearing. It piqued my interest in this topic and gave me the framework I used to write the episode. Buy it, read it, love it. But I’ve also done fairly extensive additional research of secondary sources. You can find citations for these in our notes. Special shout out to Geoffrey Hughes’s An Encyclopedia of Swearing: The Social History of Oaths, Profanity, Foul Language, and Ethnic Slurs in the English-speaking Worldbecause I just love it and could read it page-by-page forever for the rest of my life. But Hughes’s book is prohibitively expensive for non-academics and the narrative nature of Mohr’s book is just more suitable for synthesis.
Sarah: We are starting with Latin expletives in Ancient Rome because (1) England was colonized by Rome early in England’s recorded history, and (2) many of our current English-language swears derive from Latin. Melissa Mohr breaks down how we can measure the obscenity of Latin words in ancient Rome and it’s just so fascinating. There are four genres that linguists use to determine obscenity: (1) graffito and epigram (vulgar witty poems), (2) satire, (3) oratory and elegy, (4) epic.
Graffiti and epigrams contain plenty of obscenity, just as they do today. Satire contains some. Oratory and elegy is highly unlikely to be obscene, and epic poetry will only contain the purest Latin language. So, using this hierarchy of genres, one can measure the degree of obscenity that each term achieved in the Roman world. For example, here is one of Martial’s epigrams:
May I die, Priapus, if I am not ashamed to use obscene and improper words. But when you, a god without shame, display your balls to me in all openness, I must call a cunt a “cunt” and a cock a “cock.”
Marissa: So scholars can look at this epigram and pick out likely obscene words: balls, cunt, cock… and search for them in satire, oratory/elegy, and epic poetry. If they do not appear in oratory or epic, but they appear rarely or sometimes in satire, then we can be sure the words are obscene. Elegies, like those written by Ovid, could be sexually suggestive but not vulgar or obscene so when they dealt with sex acts, they would use euphemistic language, which tells us what terms were spicy or coarse but not obscene.
So, using this hierarchy of genres, scholars have determined ancient Rome’s top ten swears, what Melissa Mohr called the “Big Ten,” half of them are familiar to us today as run-of-the-mill profanity: cunnus (cunt), futuo (to fuck), mentula (cock), culus (ass), caco (to shit).
Sarah: Cunnus and cunt not only look similar; cunnus was used much in the same way as cunt is used today. There is some evidence that it was used as just a regular word, the most direct way of referring to a vagina or vulva by plebs. Apartment buildings in Pompeii bear the following graffiti of ordinary Romans: Corus cunnum lingit “Corus licks cunt” and Iucundus cunum lingit Rusticae Jucundus licks the cunt of Rustica.” But there is also evidence that cunnus could pack the same offensive punch as C-U-Next-Tuesday does today, especially when employed by patrician authors against respectable women. For example, Roman poet Martial wrote:
Why do you pluck your aged cunt, Ligeia? Why stir up the ashes in your tomb? Such elegances befit girls; but you cannot even be reckoned an old woman anymore. Believe me, Ligeia, that is a pretty thing for Hector’s wife to do, not his mother. You are mistaken if you think this is a cunt when it no longer has anything to do with a cock. So, Ligeia, for very shame don’t pluck the beard of a dead lion.
Marissa: Mohr points out that Martial could have used other, more delicate words reserved for respectable women like genitalia or pudenda. But he chooses “cunt” because it amplified the humiliation he wishes to inflict on his subject. He thinks this woman is not acting her age, removing her pubic hair as if she is a young and sexually active woman and not the elderly, sexless woman he wants her to be.
Some Romans even used the word figuratively, as is often the case today. Another piece of graffito on a Pompeii building reads, “Here I bugger Rufus, dear to __________… despair, you girls. Arrogant cunt, farewell!” As a non-specialist, I took this as something akin to “Here I boned the fuckboi Rufus. See ya later you arrogant cunt!” written by a woman. It uses cunnus figuratively, to refer to a guy who is a jerk, and not to a vulva or vagina. But Melissa Mohr, and scholars much more informed than me, have interpreted this scrawling as a taunting note to Pompeii’s women by a man who has decided to only have sex with men from now on. Something more like “Here I butt-fucked Rufus. Sorry ladies, I know you’ll miss me. See ya later cunts!” They are, of course, correct, because “bugger” referred most often to anal sex between men, and still would a millennium later. But the figurative use still holds up. Since the graffito-writer spoke of one, figurative “cunt” and not swearing off “all cunts.”
Sarah: Interestingly enough, the English word “cunt” does NOT come from the Latin word cunnus even though they look similar and mean the same thing. There is no record of “cunt” appearing in the English language until the thirteenth century, which was 800 years after the collapse of the Roman Empire and disintegration of Roman Britain. Instead, etymologists have traced “cunt” back to the proto-Germanic word kunton, meaning womb and/or essence. So the similar appearance, pronunciation, and meaning is just a coincidence (yes linguistics is wild, man).
Marissa: The Roman versions of “shit” and “piss” are also very similar to their modern English counterparts- vulgar and unpleasant but not obscene like C-U-Next-Tuesday. The Roman futuo is a little trickier. It’s often used similarly to how it is in the modern day. In one Pompeii brothel, someone scrawled on the wall Hic ego puellas multas futui “Here I have fucked many girls” while another wrote: Hic ego cum veni futui, deinde redei domi “I came here and fucked, then went home.” They are relatively benign, though not particularly polite statements of fact. Not aggressive, nasty insults like we often see in modern English. Think about it: when we see the word “fuck” there are often moralizing implications of promiscuity. Such as “He/She fucks everything that moves.” Not so in the Roman context.
But, similar to our current context, there was a certain ambiguity of consent. In modern parlance, the word is often used to describe a self-satisfying act done to someone, rather than an act that two people are participating in. Similarly, in the Roman world, futuo was something that only men did. It was something that was DONE TO women. This use of the word feels somewhat familiar in our similarly patriarchal society. But it’s really difficult for modern humans to comprehend pre-Christian morality. In the Roman context, fucking and being fucked were completely human and acceptable activities in a way it is not in Christendom.
Sarah: It’s important not to overemphasize the similarities between ancient Roman sexuality and modern sexuality. If one were to travel back in time, ancient Roman society would be, in many ways, unrecognizable to them. Christianity is one way (we’ll come back to this soon) but there are also more subtle ways that Roman society diverges from ours and swear words are a really great access point for these. This is demonstrated by the second half of ancient Rome’s “Big Ten”: landica (clit), verpa (penis with the foreskin pulled back- so either erect or circumcised), pedico (to bugger), Irrumo (defile by forcing a male to perform fellatio), and Fello (to suck). Sure, these words are recognizably spicy or vulgar to us but I don’t think they would come up as particularly accessible swears today. When you get a papercut, you’re very unlikely to yell “clit!” or “boner!” in the same way that you might scream “fuck!” or “shit!” So what gives? Why were these swear words so obscene in ancient Rome? Especially since sex was not particularly scandalous in the Roman world. And it wasn’t… but injuries to masculinity WERE scandalous.
Marissa: The use of futuo gives us a bit of a clue. Remember, men fuck and women ARE fucked. But this is less about gendered sexual morality and more about dominance and control. Romans ascribed to a model of masculinity called priapic masculinity, after the Greek god Priapus. Priapus had a massive, permanent erection and he used it to penetrate women, men, children, anyone, but he did so for more than just sexual pleasure; Priapus sought to dominate and control his sexual conquests. So for most of Roman society, sex was about power. Mohr shares this Roman poem to illustrate this: “I warn you, boy, you will be buggered (pedico); girl, you will be fucked (futuo); a third penalty awaits the bearded thief.” There was no understanding of homosexuality or heterosexuality or pedophilia; women, men, and boys were all just different sexual preferences within the normal Roman range. This is because all three could be dominated. The penetrator’s role was similar irrespective of who they were penetrating.
Sarah: The “third penalty” in this poem was understood by Romans to mean irrumatio. Irrumatio refers to the act of forcing someone to perform oral sex. This was something that would have been understood as acceptable by the person receiving the forced oral sex. They were dominating their partner as a virile, Roman man should. The humiliation belonged entirely to the person who was being orally raped, especially if that person was a grown man or an upper class boy who was expected to grow into a virile Roman man. Because to be penetrated by a man, especially without one’s consent, was to be dominated and Roman men were supposed to dominate, not be dominated.
So one of the most offensive obscenities someone could hurl at a Roman man was to threaten irrumatio. It challenged his masculinity and subverted the hierarchies that upheld Roman society. Similarly, calling someone a fellator was equally as insulting. In much the same way, Romans found cunnilingus to be absolutely repulsive– the female equivalent of irrumatio– because it gave the woman a dominating role. They understood it as a woman “fucking a man in his mouth” (the man being dominated). And not a man fucking a woman in a different way than is typical. Being a “buggerer” was also a humiliating insult to a Roman man, again, because it was passive. But according to Mohr, it did not hold the same power as the oral sex versions (irrumatio and cunnilingus) because the Romans were particularly disgusted by oral sex, while anal sex was decidedly less shocking.
Marissa: One interesting thing that scholars have discovered deals with Latin’s coarse (but not necessarily obscene) words: vaginae (sheath), cunnilingus (cunt licker), vulva (womb), fellatio (sucking). Interestingly, these vulgar Latin words have come to serve as proper, even scientific, terms for sexual organs or acts. WTF? Mohr explains that during the Georgian and Victorian eras, folks were so squeamish about sexuality that when it WAS necessary to refer to these things in scientific or educational settings, speakers coded the vulgar terms in Latin. So instead of saying cunt or even womb (heaven forbid), they would use the Latin vaginae or vulva. This makes sense since the folks who were most likely to use these terms in a legitimate setting were scholars who would have learned Latin as part of their regular training. The more vulnerable people, who could likely not handle these inflammatory concepts and needed to be protected from it: women, children and the uneducated/poor plebs, would not have KNOWN Latin. So this Latin coding was a way for educated people in the know to discuss terms that might otherwise sexually aroused lesser beings than themselves (again- heaven forbid). So over time, very direct, even vulgar terms, for sexual organs and acts were transformed into proper English words for the same. Now we could go on about Roman swears forever, but we want to change contexts so we can fully demonstrate how context informs obscenity.
Sarah: The Roman world generally, and Roman Britain specifically, was forever changed by the introduction of Christianity. Melissa Mohr traces the way that the Old Testament establishes the importance of “swearing” to monotheism. Yahweh, the Hebrew name for God, initially had to compete with dozens, if not hundreds of other gods in a largely polytheistic world. One way that Yahweh achieved preeminence above other gods, was by emphasizing the importance of swearing loyalty to him. While many gods existed harmoniously in the polytheistic framework, the Yahweh of the Old Testament was a jealous god who sought exclusivity with the Jews. He demanded that they circumcise their boys as an oath of their enduring loyalty. He also asked that they swear to him to cement their loyalty to him over other gods. This brought into modern parlance, the idea of swearing [to god] or making an oath.
Marissa: Vain oaths or “taking the lord’s name in vain” referred to oaths or swearings that people made that were unserious. For example, it was correct and good to swear to god if one was telling the truth about a serious matter of great import. But if you were “swearing to god” that you were super annoyed with a loud neighbor or “swearing to god” that you’re going to go to the market to pick up food, then those are vain (useless, unserious) oaths. The Old Testament warns against the misuse of oaths but it’s less concerned with obscenity. There are plenty of “shits” and “pisses” and “whores.” Sexual terms are more likely to be euphemized (“hand” in place of genitals, “member” or “flesh” in place of penis). But the bathroom words are out in full force.
Sarah: The New Testament transformed this approach because Jesus Christ often told his followers not to swear at all. Most folks have interpreted this as “don’t swear unless you have to,” while others, like the Quakers, believe that Christ means what he says- no swearing at all. The “don’t swear unless you have to” camp developed because swearing or taking oaths became indispensable to medieval society as it developed after the fall of Rome. (More on that in a minute). But Lollards and Quakers believed that all forms of swearing were forbidden by Christ. Quakers came under fire for this many times because they refused to swear on the Bible when testifying in court, among other disruptive refusals.
Marissa: The New Testament also omits the bathroom word obscenity, opting for more polite terms like “defecate” and “urinate” when needed. The New Testament even restricts the euphemistic usages for sex that were employed in the Old Testament. The New Testament sets the standard that “obscene, silly, and vulgar talk”(so not only sexually or excrementally obscene words but also pointless gossip), called “careless” or “idle” chatter. The idea was that “obscene, silly, and vulgar talk” would lead to obscene, silly or vulgar deeds… sins. This New Testament approach to swear words became incredibly influential throughout all of medieval Christendom.
Sarah: The medieval standards of propriety, however, might surprise you. Mohr tells the story of a monk named Aldred who, in 965 CE, translates the Bible from Latin into Old English. Aldred makes some choices that appear strange to us today such as “Thou shalt not sard [fuck] another man’s wife” (Matthew 5:27). Or “Ye shall not offer to the Lord any beast whose bollocks are broken” (Lev. 22:24). Another version, translated by John Wycliffe in the 1320s, reads: “The Lord will smite you with the boils of Egypt [on] the part of the body by which turds are shat out” (Deuteronomy 28:27). One more from the Wycliffe Bible: “the Lord . . . smote [the people of] Azothe and its coasts in the more private/secret part of the arses” (1 Sam. 5:6). There were many other options for them to choose, ones that may seem more polite to us now. But there was no need. Why?
Because bollocks, sard [early version of fuck], and even cunt, were NOT obscene in medieval Europe. Neither were arse, shit, or piss. Surprised? Some of you might be. This is because we often project Victorian (19th century) norms backward onto earlier times. THe assumption is that if the word “leg” was too spicy for Victorians, then their forebears must have been even more uptight. We think of norms as linear- becoming increasingly relaxed as the years pass. It begins with buttoned-up, self loathing, old biddies and slowly opens up until we arrive at mid-drift-bearing zennials wearing their pajamas to brunch and using “cunt” to mean cool. It’s simply not true. These kinds of things are more cyclical, not linear.
Marissa: And it makes a lot of sense if you consider the world that medieval Europeans lived in. Most Europeans lived in hovels as a family or in great halls with dozens of people under one roof. There were no separate sleeping quarters or marital bed. People defecated, urinated, and had sex without privacy. They spit, burped, spilled, vomited, and farted indiscriminately. These events were commonplace out in the open in a way that they aren’t today. Historian Ruth Mazzo Karras writes, “Medieval people would be much less likely to see representations of sex acts, but they would be much more likely than modern ones to witness the actual performance of those acts.” So all of the direct ways to refer to those things: shitting, pissing, and fucking/sarding/swiving were unremarkable words. They did not have the power to make people’s faces blush or pulse race. They were direct ways to refer to ordinary realities in the world.
Sarah: These words were only “vulgar” in the sense that they were the vernacular (common rather than learned). Sure, fancy Latin-speaking theologians might know alternate words for these things (or maybe not based on Aldred’s and Wycliffe’s Bibles?) but 99% of folks only KNEW vernacular words for these things. Not only was the medieval period resolutely practical and lacking the concept of privacy, it was also a very unpretentious time where most folks were commoners and content with their plain, commoner language.
Marissa: Mohr’s demonstration of this is genius. She relays the proper names for lots of England’s flora and fauna:
“A medieval pond would have looked the same but sounded different. There would’ve been a shiterow in there fishing, a windfucker flying above, arse-smart and cuntehoare hugging the edges of the pond, and pissabed amongst the grass. If you’d have brought a picnic, perhaps to
eat under an open-arse (medlar) tree, pisse-mires—ants—probably would have started to crawl on your food. These are not obscene or otherwise bad words—shiterow was the common, ordinary name for heron, pissabed that for dandelion, and so on. (Heron comes from
the French. The Nominale sive Verbale, a poem from the early 1300s that translates words and phrases from Anglo-Norman into English, renders “un beuee de herouns” [a bevy of herons] as “a heap of shitrows”. The translation goes some way toward explaining the centuries-long British sense of cultural inferiority.)”
Sarah: One medical treatise published around 1400 CE reads like this: “In women the neck of the bladder is short and is made fast to the cunt.” We can tell from looking at Latin to English vocabularies how the Latin words we discussed earlier were translated into English. One vocabulary printed in 1500 defined the Latin “vulva” as “in English, a cunt.” Another one from the 10th century defined the Latin word for buttocks as “arse-muscle” and the Latin word for anus as “arse-hole.” In 1509 Oxford don John Stanbridge wrote a vocabulary treatise intended for young boys in school. He tells them polite (rather than the vulgar) words to use to describe body parts that they may occasionally need to refer to. In doing so, he tells us what terms the boys were USED to employing for the job: “Hic podex . . . for an arse hole; hec urina . . . for piss; hic penis . . . for a man’s yard.” Stanbridge instructs his boys to refrain from using oaths such as “by God’s bones” but he seems to be ok with schoolboys’ favorite insult: “turd in your teeth.”
Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is another example of the medieval world’s comfort with the sexual and scatological words that serve as our obscenities today: “not worth a turd,” and shitten, arse, and coillons (another word for “balls”) all appear in the text. Chaucer also uses “swive” a lot. Swive and sard were replaced with “fuck” after 1500: “For on thy bed thy wife I saw him swive,” one character tells another. The moral of this tale is recorded as: “Never tell any man in your life / How another man has dight his wife.” Dight was a very slightly more polite way to say “fuck.” Mohr equates it to today’s use of the word “screw.”
Marissa: One of my favorite parts of Mohr’s book, and the reason why I LOVE the Geoffrey Hughes Encyclopedia of Swear Words (because this is basically what the whole thing is) is the extinct cuss words. As we already mentioned, “sard” and “swive” fall by the wayside after 1500, replaced by “fuck.” “Kekir” was a rude word for clitoris. One 1425 medical treatise gives the word “tentigo” for the clitoris but adds that “lewd folk [call it] the kekir in the cunt.” So kekir must have been fairly vulgar (meaning uneducated) but not particularly shocking. Pintel, tarse, and yard are all medieval English words for the penis (ASIDE: for some reason these words all SOUND TO ME like they mean penis. Not sure why.) We could go on forever but we’ll leave it there. Read Mohr’s book or Hughes’s Encyclopedia for more.
Sarah: All of this is not to say that there was no such thing as “bad language.” Mohr is clear to say that sexual words may have been slightly more taboo than scatological words at some point in medieval Christendom because they were preoccupied with avoiding sin. Some folks were of the mind that speaking about sex in coarse ways might tempt someone to fornicate. One fifteenth-century Christian pamphlet describes all of the ways that a medieval person’s mouth could get them in trouble:
These are the sins of the mouth: Intemperance or unlawful tasting, eating, or drinking; idle jangling [chattering]; words of harlotry speaking; God’s holy name in vain taking; lies; false [promises]; vain swearing; forswearing; slandering, scorning; banning [cursing]: backbiting; discord sowing; false deeming [judging]; wrong upbraiding;secrets or advice foolishly discovering; chiding; threatening, boasting; false witness bearing, evil counsel giving; flattering; evil deeds praising; good deeds perverting; Christ or his word or any of his servants scorning, slandering, or despising; unskillful pleading [in a court case]; vain arguing; foolishly laughing, scornful mocking; proud and presumptuous speaking; nice and jolly chanting [wanton and merry singing]; or to sing more for the praising of men than of God.”
Marissa: Clearly, the medieval world was full of insults. How did medieval people insult each other if the words we currently use as insults were just ordinary words for them? Mohr argues that medieval insults were sexual (whore) for women, and sometimes sexual for men (cuckold, whoreson, whoremonger). Note the sexual insults of men revolve around the sexual activities of the women in their lives (their wives, mothers, or putative prostitutes). The male sexual insults, if anything, emphasize their passiveness toward sexuality. (For example they’re not being insulted by being called a rapist or something referring to their sexual misdeeds.) But if you really wanted to insult a medieval man, all you need to do is call him a “thief,” “robber,” “knave,” or “dishonest.” These words were not, themselves, obscene, or words that make you take notice and blush. They were just malicious to direct at a peer. Mohr calls them “medieval fighting words.”
Sarah: So what DID make medieval people clutch their proverbial pearls? The swearing of vain (unserious or faulty) oaths. Vain oaths shocked medieval people to their core (in a similar way to how you might shock your sweet grandmother if you called her a “dumb fucking cunt.”). Their ears perked up, their hearts raced, and their cheeks blushed. Remember– oaths had come to serve as the backbone of medieval European society. Insincere, vain, or broken oaths threatened the foundations of their world and order in their lives. That’s why it was so important that oaths be sworn to God. When someone swore an oath to God, they were demanding God’s attention and asking him to witness their oath to hold them accountable to their promise. The idea was that if God served as your witness, and you broke an oath or were swearing a false oath, then only God had the knowledge and power to strike you down.
Marissa: Oath-making, and God’s assurance of the strength of that oath, made the medieval world go round. This is why making a vain oath was so offensive. If you “swore to God” that you didn’t eat the last cookie (but you did) then you both invoked God’s name and attention for something silly (a cookie-related incident) AND you asked him to back you up in a lie. You were damaging the fabric of medieval society and insulting your creator. Even worse would be swearing by parts of God’s body. Mohr describes a typical oath as the oath-taker figuratively tapping God on the shoulder and asking him to witness your promise. If you swore “God dammit!” You were tapping the Creator of all things on the shoulder just to tell him “damn you!” But if you swore an oath “by God’s teeth” or “by God’s bones,” you were physically endangering, injuring, or destroying God’s body. This was especially true if your oath was in vain or if you later broke it. Therefore, the most obscene things you could say in medieval England were: “by God’s blood!” or “by God’s arms!” or “by God’s nails!” One theologian wrote that swearing such oaths would “rend God limb from limb, and are worse than Jews, for they rent him only once, and such swearers rend him every day anew. And the Jews didn’t break his bones, but they break his bones, and each limb from the other, and leave none whole.”
Sarah: This, of course, sounds so foreign to us. A few generations ago it may have made a little more sense. I can recall family using placeholders like “dag nabbit” or “doggone” or even gosh darn in an attempt to avoid using the Lord’s name in vain. But even those folks would probably find it bizarre that swearing by God’s body (did he even HAVE a body?!) would have been more offensive than cunt or shit. This is what a healthy appreciation of historical context can do for us- provide us with the ability to understand the ever-changing words, meanings, and connotations within our language. (This honestly makes me want to go back in time and try out “Christ on a cracker!” On some medievals because I like to start shit.)
Marissa: A fun point about medieval words… Most of the words used to describe wealthy and elite medieval people: like “noble” or “gentle”, have come to mean “good” or “moral.” While words that were used to describe the lower classes took on negative connotations: “villein” (unfree tenant- but became villain), “churl” (non-noble person but became mean-spirited), “knave” (originally, a boy child but became scoundrel), “wretch” (originally meant exile but came to mean a despicable person), and “harlot” (originally, a male beggar but came to mean a whore or prostitute).
Sarah: These changes in the meaning of medieval words coincided with the Renaissance. Interestingly, this was also a time when our modern understanding of obscenity came into being. One of the important events that sparked this sea change was the Protestant Reformation. This event contributed to a decline in the power of oaths. Some Protestant sects rejected oath-taking as non-biblical. In England, the Protestant Reformation was incredibly politicized and the country was plunged into successive reverses in the national religion. Henry VIII broke with Rome and made himself the Head of the Church of England, a protestant nation in name. His son, Edward VI, was raised a good protestant and in the thrall of other devout Protestant counselors. Upon his death, the throne went to Mary I, who outlawed Protestantism and reinstated Catholicism. Several years later, Elizabeth I ascended to the throne and reinstated protestantism again.
Marissa: In an attempt to endure in this tumultuous climate, the English faithful learned philosophical tricks, such as “equivocation” which allowed them to outwardly swear one oath but internally swear another. Still more English faithful were coerced by the state or by friends and family into denying their faith to preserve themselves. These conditions essentially robbed oath-taking of its power in English society. Obviously oaths still remain in today’s society (Americans swear on the Bible in courts every day) but they gradually lost their power to shock and offend in the English-speaking world.
Sarah: In addition to the Protestant Reformation, there were also deeper, more systemic social changes transforming English society. Norbert Elias wrote about this in The Civilizing Process. He writes that medieval society had a low threshold for shame and very little separation between one person’s body and another’s. This changed in what he called the “civilization process” which resulted in a growing concern over boundaries, better control of bodily functions, the rise of private spaces, and a preoccupation with etiquette. This process happened toward the end of the medieval period and was complete by the end of the early modern period. We know this because homes started to separate living and sleeping quarters. Family units shrunk to the nuclear families we are familiar with today. And defecating and urinating became confined to private spaces (privies).
Most importantly, it increased humans’ threshold for shame. Folks were no longer fornicating in public, burping, farting, and spitting in polite company, or defecating into a pot in the corner of the room while friends were chatting a few feet away. Mohr lays out several other reasons for the Renaissance’s transition to a modern conception of obscenity— capitalism is one of them— but we’ll leave it there for now.
Marissa: You may be wondering how we know that many words became obscene during the Northern Renaissance (in the 16th century). One answer is that the authors began euphemizing them or censoring them within their books. One dictionary defined the Latin vulva as “a womans wicket” (remember a medieval vocabulary defined it as “in English, a cunt.”) See the difference? We begin to see a hierarchy of polite vocabulary emerging during the Renaissance. High society strove to develop polite or scientific words for inflammatory topics: like “mammary” for breast. These were at the top of the hierarchy. Used by the most educated people or by reasonably educated people in respectable settings. Then there were words like “dugge” or “pappe” (breasts) which were ordinary and vulgar (akin to today’s “boob”) but not obscene. Fancy men probably used these words in familiar settings with close friends at a pub or coffee shops. Commoners probably used these words as the most direct way of communicating about bodily functions. But they weren’t appropriate for polite company, medical conferences, or formal dinner parties. These kinds of words sat in the middle level, their level of appropriateness depending on the familiarity, respectability, and education level of the folks involved.
Lastly, there were the vile, obscene words used by drunkards in the streets or by gangs of pre-teen boys trying to impress new initiates. These were words like “tits,” as well as “cunt” or “cock.” They were shocking, stimulating and naughty- much like they are today. So it’s really not until the Northern Renaissance (1500-1650 or so) that a recognizable (to us) system of obscenity emerges.
Sarah: The main reason why this is the time when obscenity becomes familiar to us is because this is also the time when social stratification and class formation becomes familiar to us. Just as a tiered system of obscenity forms, a tiered system of society forms as well with fancy aristocrats at the top, laboring or poor folks at the bottom, and the middling sort in between. Unsurprisingly, the lowest and most vile obscenities become associated with the lowest and most vile classes. While fancy elites shoulder higher expectations of their etiquette, this makes coarse language or vulgar language completely unacceptable at that level
But don’t be fooled. This scheme is certainly more recognizable to us today than the medieval or Roman one but there were still differences. For example, privies or toilets were often communal, benches with holes cut out to seat 7 or 8 people at a time. So using the facilities was still, for many, a social event. Perhaps this is why sex words became obscene more quickly than bathroom words, which remained ordinary and low-brow (middle-tier) but not shocking and vile (lowest tier).
Marissa: Even sexual shame was situational in a way that it wouldn’t be in later times. Giovanni della Casa, for example, wrote in his treatise on manners about the Renaissance custom of honoring one’s inferior (a servant or a vassal of some sort) by allowing them to glimpse one’s balls. Though feelings of shame around sex and excrement were growing in this period, Renaissance Englishmen did not feel this shame in front of inferiors like servants. They couldn’t function if they did… think about it… who was changing your sex sheets, hearing your sex screams, and emptying your piss and shit out of your chamber pots each morning? Folks couldn’t afford to feel shame in front of servants or other inferiors. So at this point shame was reserved for social equals or betters.
But these lines were not yet hardened. Renaissance dictionaries contain both “rude” and “polite versions of bathroom words in their vocabularies and dictionaries. For example the Latin “caco” was just as often translated as “to shit” as it was translated as “desire to go to stool” which was much more polite (akin to “use the restroom.”) Piss and urine were both used, one as more direct and low-brow (middle tier), and the other as a more polite and scientific alternative (upper tier). One might think of the Renaissance as a period of transition. The medieval world of shocking oaths had faded away but it was still not entirely clear what would replace it.
Sarah: Enter what Mohr calls the “Age of Euphemism” which, for her, includes the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. At the beginning of the 18th century, the hazy, hierarchical rules surrounding foul language remained. Some spicy words held a new, obscene power while others remained a part of ordinary language. By the end of the 19th century, the situational shame of the Renaissance was transformed into intense taboos applying to all bodily functions— excremental and sexual. Sex and shit words disappeared swiftly from polite society. So how did this happen? How did this change which began in the Renaissance context accelerate and end with this maddeningly chaste Victorian world?
Marissa: The less these words appeared in daily life, the more their shock factor was amplified. Imagine a sheltered child raised in a genteel household that used euphemisms to refer to all things bodily and unpleasant. Then imagine that as a teen you hear some youths refer to a girl as a “fucking filthy cunt.” You may not know EXACTLY what it means. In fact you definitely wouldn’t. Your mother would have instructed you on how to be a proper young woman, disguising vulgar, uncouth, vile concepts with clever euphemisms. Pissing wasn’t even urinating, it was “making water” or “powdering your nose.” The Jake (a vulgar word for the privy) would not have even crossed your mother’s mind. Latrine would even been too coarse for her. She would have much preferred “place of easement” or “house of office,” euphemisms so abstract that a foreign visitor might not even know what was meant by them.
Even though the meanings of “fucking” and “cunt” may have been a mystery to you, you’d know that they were forbidden in the world you knew. Perhaps you could even get in trouble for just overhearing it! You probably wouldn’t go about your business and never think of it again. If you’re anything like me, your curiosity would drive you wild. This is what gave obscenity its power. With this power, came new ways of using obscene words. During the medieval period and Renaissance, English swear words had been used for their literal meaning (to shit = defecation, to fuck = copulation, etc.) But during the age of Euphemism (obscenity’s birthplace) we witness the transfiguration of words previously used for their literal meaning (shit, fuck, etc) to obscenities used figuratively (what a fucking asshole!– note the human you’re talking about is neither copulating nor an actual sphincter) or even as intensifiers (fucking hell– note the fucking just accentuates the hell. It’s not a normal hell, it’s a fucking hell. But this has nothing to do with the sext act). These are the obscenities with which we are familiar.
Sarah: During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, swearing came to be baked into the strict class and gender hierarchies that characterized the period. Class and gender expectations amplified shame surrounding sexuality and excrement. For example, a Victorian woman would have been more embarrassed by urinating in front of a man than a Victorian man would have been by urinating in front of a woman. Likewise, a distinguished member of Parliament (or Congress in the United States) would keep a larger household with a marital bed (thus affording him the luxury of privacy during sex) while an impoverished chimney sweep might sleep 5 to a bed in his filthy tenement housing. The chimney sweep, not being able to afford the luxury of privacy during sex, likely felt less shame regarding the sex act.
Language worked in much the same way. Respectable Georgian and Victorian women would have avoided coarse language so as to protect not only their social prestige but ALSO their femininity. A poor female hawker of apples, however, she would have yelled, and used coarse language that would have not only made her “lower class” but also less feminine (in the eyes of a Georgian/Victorian lady). Georgian and Victorian men would have been afforded much more freedom regarding their language but there were still class-based expectations. A well-educated MP living in Westminster probably used delicate language in professional settings and in front of women but he may have thrown around a few “cocks,” “cunts,” and “fucks” in the gentlemen’s club with his university buddies. Poor men did not face the same situational self-censorship. They may have curbed their tongues a bit in front of their social superiors or their mothers-in-law but they were more likely to find it acceptable to use coarse language during their daily work and perhaps even in front of their wives and children.
Marissa: Perhaps the most concerned about the issues of swearing were the aspirational classes. Middling men hoping to accumulate wealth and rub elbows with elites would have self-censored the most. They could not afford to let a “shit” or “fuck” or “twat” escape their lips. It if happened in front of social superiors, it marked them as lower-class, uneducated, or uncouth. If it happened in front of social inferiors, it may give those inferiors the idea that they were equals (the horror!!!!!) Women from the aspirational classes were even more vulnerable to these mistakes. If they let a fart slip or yelled a “God dammit!” after stubbing their toe in front of social superiors, they might as well pack up and move to Siberia. (This is an exaggeration of course) but the social consequences could be dire. Because the indiscretion not only marked her as uneducated, vulgar, and lower-class, it also marked her as unladylike and unfeminine. A double whammy.
I could go on about this stuff forever but I’d like to save the rest for an episode on the history of euphemism because there’s a lot of sexually repressed, class war stuff to get into and I think it’d an episode of its own. But Melissa Mohr goes all the way to the 21st century. And one thing I wanted to mention about the more recent history of swearing is that during the 20th century, we see a new form of obscenity that emerges: racial slurs. This is especially true in the post-war (post-WWII) English-speaking world. Racial slurs begin to become unacceptable during the Civil Rights movement. At this point in time (we’re recoding in 2023) the n-word is perhaps the most obscene thing that someone could say. This perhaps calls for another episode on the history of racial slurs because it’s so intertwined with slavery, racism, Civil Rights, and, more recently, the racial justice movement. So put a pin in that as well. Two more episode ideas for y’all!
Chirico Rob. 2014. Damn! : A Cultural History of Swearing in Modern America. Durham North Carolina: Pitchstone Publishing.
Cummings, Brian. “Swearing in public: More and Shakespeare.” English Literary Renaissance 27, no. 2 (1997): 197-232.
Dutsch, Dorota, and Ann Suter, eds. Ancient Obscenities: Their nature and use in the Ancient Greek and Roman worlds. University of Michigan Press, 2015.
Elias, Norbert. “The civilizing process: Sociogenetic and psychogenetic investigations.” (1969).
Hughes Geoffrey. 2006. An Encyclopedia of Swearing: The Social History of Oaths Profanity Foul Language and Ethnic Slurs in the English-Speaking World. Armonk N.Y: M.E. Sharpe
Hughes, Geoffrey. Swearing: A social history of foul language, oaths and profanity in English. Penguin UK, 1998.
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Ljung, Magnus, and Magnus Ljung. “History of Swearing.” Swearing: A Cross-Cultural Linguistic Study (2011): 45-73.
Karras Ruth Mazo and Katherine E Pierpont. 2023. Sexuality in Medieval Europe : Doing Unto Others (version Fourth edition) Fourth ed. New York NY: Routledge.
Mohr Melissa. 2013. Holy Shit : A Brief History of Swearing. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Montagu, Ashley. The anatomy of swearing. University of Pennsylvania press, 2001.
Saunders Kevin Wall. 2011. Degradation : What the History of Obscenity Tells Us About Hate Speech. New York: New York University Press.
Stone, Geoffrey R. “Origins of Obscenity.” NYU Rev. L. & Soc. Change 31 (2006): 711.
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 Sexuality in Medieval Europe, Ruth Mazo Karras, p. 214
 Quoted in Mohr, 94.
 Quoted in Mohr, 95
 Quoted in Mohr, pp. 110-111.
 Quoted in Mohr, p. 21.