Wednesday, September 21, 2005


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.


Feral Mom said...

My mom (who is NOT feral)'s favorite curses are:
"Whoopsie Doo!" and "Golly Neds!" Whoopsie Doo is fairly obvious, I guess, but where the hell did "Golly Neds" come from???

Mona Buonanotte said...

Whenever I hear someone swear, I dunno,I get...sorta...kinda...turned on.

That's my body's take on "their pulse quickens and their breathing becomes shallow."

DoctorMama said...

I went to see the French Canadian movie "Seducing Dr. Lewis" with two friends from Quebec. Not surprisingly, they found it much more hilarious than I. Afterwards I found out that much of what they were laughing at related to special French Canadian religious curse words. Apparently in Quebec, you're talking really dirty when you say "tabernacle" or "chalice." It made me wonder why our curse words are almost all related to bodily functions, and whether you can really learn swear words in another language. I don't think "chalice" would ever get my pulse racing.

Orange said...

L., my suspicion for "golly neds"? A shortening of "God's gonads." Ask your mom.

Mona, everyone knows you like the dirty talk. And now, the scientists tell us, it turns everyone on.

Dr. M., the English language is just more direct with our religious cussing. Who needs to trifle with a chalice when, hell, we can say Jesus fucking Christ whenever we goddamn feel like it? Though if the Quebecois are mingling religion and sex, then they're really onto something. May I suggest "sweet dick of Jesus"?

Charlie said...

My favorite phrase of swearing comes courtesy of a friend of mine who would say "Crappy whore!" I laughed every time she said it. The juxtaposition of such a tame word as "crappy" with the much stronger "whore" caused my brain to stumble every time.

Sadly, the laughter means I will never be able to get away with using it in everyday conversation.

The Un-Apologetic Atheist said...

My mom used to smash her finger occasionally while cooking, and exclaim, "shhii...uuugar!" I'd ask "sugar?" How exactly was the curse-word you just exclaimed in any way different from saying "shit?" Then she'd punish me for cursing. I've never quite figured that out.

Mona - Does everything make you randy? I'm not complaining (quite the contrary), I'm just curious.

Anonymous said...

I am from Quebec and I would like to say that chalice and other words like that are used a lot at my school. I don't know why they are swear words, but I think it is because they are using the word 'churh' as a swear word, like some people used,'I swear to God' or something.