The expressions swear like a trooper and swear like a sailor are so common as to be cliché. But why do we swear ‘like a trooper’ or ‘like a sailor’? And what else do we swear like, idiomatically, in English and other languages?
Troopers and sailors
Swearing has long been identified with the military, source of so much slang, ribald chants, tribal insults, and other forms of strong language. Profanity would come into its own in war, aiding both bonding and catharsis: ‘an easement to the much besieged spirit’, as Ashley Montagu put it.
So routine was swearing in WWI that to omit it carried real force. In his 1930 book Songs and Slang of the British Soldier: 1914–1918, John Brophy writes, ‘If a sergeant said, “Get your ––––ing rifles!” it was understood as a matter of routine. But if he said “Get your rifles!” there was an immediate implication of urgency and danger.’
We can assume that fucking is the censored word. The spread of fuck through war is described in Ruth Wajnryb’s Expletive Deleted (2005):
We’re pleased AF to let you know that “History of Swear Words,” will launch on Netflix January 5, 2021. The series—six 20-minute episodes—will consider the etymologies, false etymologies, and usage of six classic swears: fuck, shit, dick, bitch, pussy, and damn.
We’re especially pleased that one of our Strong Language co-fuckers, lexicographer Kory Stamper, was one of the consultants for the show. The other experts include cognitive scientist and author of What the FBenjamin Bergen; linguist Anne Charity Hudley; professor of feminist studies Mireille Miller-Young; film critic Elvis Mitchell; and author of Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing Melissa Mohr.
Nicolas Cage will host.
More details here. And let’s hope for a second season so we can delve into asshole, cunt, cocksucker, and other sweary faves.
This is a guest post by H.S. Cross, the author of the novels Grievous (FSG, 2019) and Wilberforce (FSG, 2015).
Americans are familiar with the word fag as a gay slur, but across the pond, this is not necessarily the case. When I first encountered the word in English boarding school novels, I was shocked, but I soon learned that there was more to fag than ugly insults hurled on Christopher Street. The word has a long history, stretching back to the early 1300s, but it was not until the 1920s that it began to be used in the context of sexuality. For seven centuries, fag and faggot were not strong language but instead commonplace in schools, government, work, agriculture, and sports, chiefly in Britain.
I write fiction set in an English boarding school between the World Wars, so I have to deal with the word fag all the time in one of its non-derogatory usages. A reviewer once praised me (I think?) for my “unflinching use of the word fag,” as if there were a way around the word in the English school context. There isn’t. Continue reading →
There had been backstage musicals before A Chorus Line opened on Broadway on July 25, 1975. But as far as I can tell, there had never been a backstage musical—or, really, any Broadway musical—that merrily sprinkled fucks and shits throughout the dialogue, which is spoken by auditioning singers and dancers as they bare their souls to an unseen director.* And there had never been a song in a Broadway musical with a title like “Tits and Ass.” In fact, less than a dozen years before A Chorus Line opened, uttering the phrase “tits and ass” in a public forum had gotten the comedian Lenny Bruce hauled off to jail.
In Sinclair Lewis’s prescient 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here, the ignorant demagogue Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip wins the 1936 election with the support of millions of impoverished and angry voters. Among the more serious totalitarian indignities of Windrip’s “Corpo” government are the curtailing of women’s and minority rights and the building of concentration camps. Another tactic is the bowdlerizing of language and the forbidding of words and phrases that seemingly run counter to the administration’s noble ends.