It was not until 1972 that the Oxford English Dictionary finally included the words “fuck” and “cunt.” The National Campaign for Real Swearing issued a statement: “We’d be a bunch of lying cunts if we didn’t say that we were totally fucking delighted.”
Why wouldn’t scholars of English acknowledge these two words from the OED’s origins circa 1895 until 1972?
Because they were scared. Someone who hated swearing would open up the dictionary, go straight to the entry for “cunt,” and then become terribly angry at the cartographers of the English language because they, too, had an interest in this word “cunt.” There would be a campaign for censorship, and the British parliament might well be pressured into shutting the dictionary down. There could be book burnings. All because some people get off on hating the words “fuck” and “cunt” (apparently, many, many people hate the human body. Not only sexual but even excretory words can be outcast into the cussing category.)
“Cunt” and “fuck” are two of the most ancient swears in English, with cognates in the Germanic and Scandinavian languages. At first, they were neutral or slightly vulgar words with no power to shock.
In the year 1230, with Europe locked under the control of an anti-fornication Catholic Church, many English towns featured a street named “Gropecunt” or “Gropecuntlane.” That is where the prostitutes were to be found, due to the economics of neighborhoods and downtowns, or because local law restricted them to one street. Now, this may not be a utopian dreamworld of sexual freedom, as some of the hookers were doubtless poor women with no other options, but still…
1) Gropecunt Lane is a decidedly more pleasant street than Shite-burn Lane or Pissing Alley.
2) If you visited a town where the street signs said things like “Grab-a-titty Avenue,” you’d relax knowing that it was safe to use any kind of language.
Over the late medieval period, a few new Gropecunt Lanes were established, but others had their names censored to Grape Lane and the like. A long stretch of sexual tightening-up was happening, culminating in the Victorian Era, when piano legs were covered up as maybe too sensual and anti-masturbation devices were a boom industry. Half a century before the Victorian Era even got started, Francis Grose wrote “A Classical Dictionary of The Vulgar Tongue” (1785) and listed the c-word as “C**T: a nasty name for a nasty thing.” This revulsion is utterly irrational, as even strict Bible adherents accept that cunts may be a source of pleasure inside the bounds of God-and-church-approved marital bliss.
Yet, revulsion for all that lies below the waist cannot explain all the swears. In her book “Holy Sh*t,” Melissa Mohr explains how harmless words like “bloody” were imbued with the power to shock and offend:
The 18th and 19th centuries’ embrace of linguistic delicacy and extreme avoidance of taboo bestowed great power on those words that broached taboo topics directly, freely revealing what middle-class society was trying so desperately to conceal. Under these conditions of repression, obscene words finally came fully into their own. They began to be used in nonliteral ways, and so became not just words that shocked and offended but words with which people could swear…
From Farner and Henley’s 1890-1904 “Slang and its Analogues:”
[“Bloody” is] an epithet difficult to define, and used in a multitude of vague and varying senses. Most frequently, however, as it falls with wearisome reiteration every two or three seconds from the mouths of London roughs of the lowest type, no special meaning, much less a sanguinary one, can be attached to its use. In such a case it forms a convenient intensitive, sufficiently important as regards sound to satisfy those whose lack of language causes them to fall back upon a frequent use of words of this type.
The lower-class British were swearing up storms to make their language more intense and offensive to higher-class Brits. This was a period in which workers had to be polite to their bosses, but bosses could be rude to their employees. Thus, rudeness was a way of letting off steam, even a comfort (“I’m amongst my own people and I don’t have to watch my mouth.”). The upper classes assumed that the lower classes swore because they were mean and stupid, as illustrated by Julian Sherman’s 1884 “Cursory History of Swearing” and its commentary about “bloody”:
We cannot disguise to ourselves that there is much in its unfortunate associations to render its occurrence still exceedingly painful. Originating in a senseless freak of language, it has by dint of circumstances become so noisome and offensive … Dirty drunkards hiccup it as they wallow on ale-house floors. Morose porters bandy it about on quays and landing-stages. From the low-lying quarters of the towns the word buzzes in your ear with the confusion of a Babel. In the cramped narrow streets you are deafened by its whirr and din, as it rises from the throats of the chaffering multitude, from besotted men defiant and vain-glorious in their drink, from shrewish women hissing out rancour and menace in their harsh querulous talk.
Well, fuck Julian Sherman and the bloody, bloody horse he rode in on. When the medievals were renaming their Gropecunt Lanes, they were merely trying to downplay the prostitution in their towns, not especially objecting to the word “cunt.” But when such words were being freely used by the working class and poor, consciously flouting middle-class conventions, that really burned people up and established certain words as worse than vulgar: profane or obscene.
It’s also popular to use words that annoy the pious. You can take the Lord’s name in vain or wish damnation on someone. I try to avoid the blasphemous swears, because I am not Christian and so I’m blaspheming someone else’s religion (but anyone who had to go to church as a kid has good reason to use the blasphemous curses.)
All in all, swearing represents a defiant recognition of human sexuality and other aspects of the body; it represents class awareness and struggle; and it represents rebellion against repressive church influence. Supporting sexuality, the lower classes, and spiritual liberation with the magic words is against “civility,” in the sense that civility means deference to one’s oppressors. Of course, there are times to protect the haters with euphemisms, but remember that the problem is with their snobbish ears, not your sailor’s tongue.
Thanks to the intense disapproval of the wealthy, pious, and body-hating, swearing relieves acute pain and presumably other stresses. In a karmic twist, those looking down their noses imbued the words of the downtrodden with true power. (But, the effect is more powerful the less frequently you swear.) Swearing is not just good for self-expression, it’s good for your entire body.
Swearing is healthy and in all cases expresses support for liberty against repression. So swear proudly. Swear for your sanity, swear for your love of humanity. Fuck yeah.