One of the curiosities in the study of offensive language is just how recent are most of the figurative uses of the main obscene words. Though fuck can be found as far back as the fourteenth or fifteenth century (depending on how one chooses to interpret some proper-name evidence), even the most familiar non-sexual expressions are barely more than a century old: fuck you is first recorded in 1905, fucking as an intensifier is from the 1890s, interjectional fuck only from the late 1920s.
Of course, it is entirely possible that such uses were earlier, but not recorded (or discovered). This is the case with most words, but even more so with offensive language, where there are very strong taboos—cultural and often legal—against printing it. The early evidence we have for even the literal senses of such words is sparse, and there were better reasons for these senses to be recorded, not least their use for prurient purposes. And there are many clear indications that these words were in much wider use in speech. The figurative senses are that much less likely to be written down. One place we do find them is in court records, where there is a specific need for recording the precise nature of someone’s language. The earliest known examples of cocksucker (1894), motherfucking (1890), and up shit creek (1868) are all from legal or similar government records.
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):
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
This is a guest post by Dr Philip Seargeant, Senior Lecturer in Applied Linguistics at the Open University. Philip has published extensively on linguistics in social media and politics, and helped create the acclaimed video series The History of English in Ten Minutes. He was last seen on Strong Language with an article on emoji swearing. He tweets at @philipseargeant.
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Blowjobs have played an occasional but important part in political history. The most notable recent example, of course, involved Bill Clinton. It was his equivocation over the nature of his relations with Monica Lewinsky that led to him being impeached on perjury charges. A century before Clinton, another president had an even more decisive oral-sex-related experience. Félix Faure, President of the French Republic between 1895 and 1899, was unlucky enough to die in office from a cerebral haemorrhage which he supposedly suffered while being fellated by his mistress.
The latest entry in the annals of political crises involving blowjobs doesn’t concern the act itself, however, but rather the word. Specifically, it concerns the use of the word as a political insult. And even more specifically, an insult expressed by means of car vanity plates.
Soon after Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary was published in 1755, so the story goes, he was approached by a pair of prudish readers who commended him for omitting ‘improper’ words. Johnson, according to one account, replied to the women: ‘What! my dears! then you have been looking for them?’
Today you can find improper words in any good dictionary – but only the main set. Fuck is there, but not fuckish, fuckfaced, fuck-nutty, fuck my old boots!, or fuck the dog and sell the pups. You’ll see shit in the usual sources, but good luck finding shit-breath, shit factory, shit-squirting, shit out, or shit on the dining room table.* Regular dictionaries just don’t cover the remarkable range of taboo vocabulary, nor should they.
For this we turn to specialist slang dictionaries. These do not shy from obscenity but embrace it in all its mutable monstrousness (I say this as someone who loves monsters, and mutants). And the best slang dictionary in existence – it defines, expertly, all the phrases above and thousands like them – is Green’s Dictionary of Slang (GDoS). Last year it went online. If that’s news to you, prepare for a treat.