Over in the United States Senate—isn't that where Dick Cheney let loose with the F word?—they're pondering a 15-fold hike in fines for naughty words that get broadcast. (Yes, apparently the Senators do have too much time on their hands. Idle hands, etc., etc.) It's time for some frank talk about, well, frank talk. In today's NYT, the fabulous Natalie Angier surveys the history and science of swearing a blue streak.
In general, men swear more than women, though there certainly are outliers like me who have been known to swear like the proverbial longshoreman. Personally, I love words so much, I'm not going to exclude these exquisitely useful oaths from my vocabulary. Fuck and shit are more utilitarian than, say, copulate and feces, as they can serve so many roles in a sentence and carry so many different meanings. "I am so sick of this copulating feces"? No. "Fee-i-cees!"? No. "Shee-it!"? Absolutely.
According to Dutch linguist Guy Deutscher, "In some cultures, swear words are drawn mainly from sex and bodily functions, whereas in others, they're drawn mainly from the domain of religion." And in cultures that emphasize women's purity and honor, "it's not surprising that many swear words are variations on the 'son of a whore' theme or refer graphically to the genitalia of the person's mother or sisters." Isn't it splendid that our culture encompasses all of the above? Those people who hype English as a rich language owing to the sheer number of words we have are onto something—our swearing partakes of that abundant wealth.
What happens physiologically when someone hears swear words? Angier writes, "Their skin conductance patterns spike, the hairs on their arms rise, their pulse quickens, and their breathing becomes shallow." Let's try it out. Goddamn fucking shit! Did you feel anything? No?
Angier's article was accompanied by a sidebar listing curses through the centuries. Among my favorites: In the 1400s, scullion meant a servant of the lowest class. The 1500s ushered in slangrill (oaf) and brock (rotten man). The 1600s gave us gadzooks (God's hooks, whatever that means), sfoot (to have sex), and criminy (Christ). Moving along to the 1800s, Jesus was transformed into both Jiminy Cricket and Gee whillikins, and drat abbreviated "God rot." Apparently, somewhere in the 1900s, meddle was used to mean "to have sex." Go figure.