The phrase four-letter word is generally thought to originate in the late 1920s; various slang dictionaries have it from the late 20s or early 30s, and it achieved wider currency after 1934 when it was included in the lyrics of Cole Porter’s Anything Goes. The OED has four-letter man ‘an obnoxious person’ from 1923, but four-letter word not till 1934. So I was pleased – but also momentarily bemused – to find the following among a collection of witticisms entitled ‘By the Way’, from the Wall Street Journal of October 1, 1921:
This looks like a real and early instance of four-letter word being used to substitute for a vulgar word; it’s not yet generic (in the sense that four-letter words would soon come to mean profanity, in general) but it’s the earliest case I can find of the phrase being used at all as a form of taboo avoidance. Also, unlike later uses, which tend, I think, to take fuck or shit as the prototypical four-letter word, here I think it’s a substitute for hell. Get hell ‘to be severely punished’ has now faded from use (I might say catch hell instead, although even that feels old-fashioned) , but in the early to mid-20th century, both ‘raise hell’ and ‘get hell’ were relatively common idiomatic phrases:
In other (four-letter) words, Russia has been raising hell, and Lenin (Lenine was a 1920s variant) would like America to get hell. The WSJ did not have a prohibition against hell appearing at its pages at this point, although it certainly wasn’t common. Or maybe there is some other obvious four-letter word (vulgar or otherwise) that collocates with raise and get and would be witty in this context. Your thoughts?
These days, for Christ’s sake, in all its variants (e.g., for chrissake) isn’t as taboo as it once was, although it’s stronger than for heaven’s sake, which I don’t think was ever considered to be foul language, but here at Strong Language, we’refar more vulgar, for fuck’s sake. It may not be suitable for polite company, mind you, but in general, religious profanity is less strong in contemporary English than in several other Indo-European languages, notoriously in les sacres of Quebecois French. English speakers today regard sexual terms or bodily functions more harshly, but this was not always the case; as Geoffrey Nunberg points out, 19th and early 20th century English profanity was far more religious in orientation, so that the ubiquitous use of fuck on the HBO show Deadwood, for instance, was anachronistic (in this case, consciously so).
For Christ’s sake emerges relatively late, among religiously-oriented English profanity – it’s largely, if not entirely, a 20th century phenomenon. Using data from Google Books, as well as the Corpus of Historical American English and various newspapers (sourced from Newspaper Archive and Chronicling America), I’ve tracked down the earliest attestations of a variety of forms of for Christ’s sake from roughly 1890 to 1945. (The usual caveats apply here in terms of written versus oral evidence when antedating terms, particularly when dealing with vulgar terms.)
Let’s trace the many transformations of for Christ’s sake across several decades. One might think that variants would emerge relatively randomly and sporadically, but in fact, they cluster into five distinct semantic, orthographic, and morphological transformations. Each of the sentences below is the earliest attested example I could find for a particular variant (although of course I welcome anyone who can find earlier ones).
‘Give a damn’, ‘give a shit’, ‘give a fuck’, and other such items are all examples of negative polarity items (NPIs), which are unmarked when they occur in negative contexts. If you’re familiar with the phrase give a fuck, then you don’t need to be told thatthis is a rephrasing of I don’t give a fuck, because it rarely occurs as a positive polarity item (e.g. I give a fuck about you sounds odd). All you need to know is that Maria von Trapp is dancing around the fields of Austria giving no fucks at all. You can find more about shit as a negative polarity item at Gretchen McCulloch’s blog All Things Linguistic: Giving a shit about negative polarity items (09/20/13) and Linguistics in Cabin Pressure’s Vaduz episode: the NPI “give a hoot” (12/19/2014).
But I’d like to note another interesting feature of phrases of this form. In the expression look at all the fucks I give, part of the humor relies on the inversion of the phrase give a fuck into the fucks I give. This alteration also highlights the fact that in such phrases, damn, shit, and fuck (and less profanely, hoot, fig, etc.) look like count nouns; that is, nouns that can be pluralized, and can be combined with a preceding numeral, in contrast to mass nouns, which can’t be enumerated or pluralized, like music. But as we’re going to see, our profane NPIs don’t follow the mass/count division quite perfectly, and since I’m a professional numbers guy, I think that’s pretty fucking cool.