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):
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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.
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The Mooch, Anthony Scaramucci, Trump’s latest anus ex machina, is a real gift to the world of politics-as-entertainment. If you wrote him into a novel, the readers would say, “The fuck d’you think you are, Thomas fucking Pynchon?” If into a play, “David fucking Mamet?” But no, fuck that, this slick-headed wisemouth bounded right out of the commedia dell’arte, obviously: Scaramuccia (called Scaramouche in French), whose name literally means ‘little skirmisher’, is a grimacing rapscallion given to braggadocio and pusillanimity. And just as the eternal Scaramouche has carried vulgar behaviour through the ages and between countries, the present Mooch has done a service to international studies of vulgarity, because now we get to see how newspapers in other countries translate fucking paranoid schizophrenic, cock-block, and suck my own cock.
Seriously, when the fuck else have you been able to use simple searches of international newspapers – just type Scaramucci Bannon in the box – to learn how to talk like a New York fuckface in other languages? Continue reading →
Popular lore says there are profound differences between how women and men behave. It also implies these differences are axiomatic, hard-wired, and more significant than the variation within each group. One such myth says women are intrinsically more polite, deferential, and indirect than men. So here’s a sweary counterexample.
Don Kulick’s 1993 paper ‘Speaking as a woman: structure and gender in domestic arguments in a New Guinea village’ (PDF)* is about a special speech genre used to address (if not resolve) social tension and conflict. The phenomenon, known as a kros, is a loud, obscene, highly public, near-daily, and stereotypically female display of anger – usually involving a woman criticising her partner, children, relatives, or fellow villagers.
Kros means ‘angry’, as in cross. It begins suddenly: a woman will ‘raise her voice sharply and perhaps shout an obscenity’, writes Kulick. Villagers stop and listen, and if the kros intensifies they will move closer to its source. The kroser usually stays in her home, and the object of her anger is normally away somewhere – if they end up face to face mid-kros, violence can ensue which may embroil much of the village. Kulick continues:
Kroses are heavily characterized by obscenity, sarcasm, threats, and insults, all of which are conveyed in shrill screams across the village. They are extremely abusive, and perhaps for this reason they are structured by precise conventions.
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Language, linguists will tell you, doesn’t exist in a hermetically sealed vacuum: it has speakers, and those speakers exist within a particular time, place, and context. That means that the language is also affected by time, place, and context. Nowhere is this more apparent than in a quick-and-dirty overview of common Finnish swear words.
Finland is, for those who don’t know, the Nordic country bordered by Sweden on the west and Russia on the east. It is, as a country, a bit of a cipher: in spite of spending most of its medieval and modern history as either a duchy of Sweden or Russia, it’s neither Scandinavian nor Slavic, but its own little island of Finno-Ugricness. Finns on the whole are reserved folks, yet their best-known export is Lordi and they proudly support what might be the only Men’s Shouting Chorus in the world. They’re also people of very, very few words, no doubt because they must regularly rassle with the likes of peruspalveluliikelaitoskuntayhtymä (which refers to a regional community health provider). In short, they are a people of contradictions, and their swearing is no different.
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