After writing more than 2,000 columns over 15 years, one does tend to run out of ideas. So I’m grateful when readers suggest something new, lest they be subjected to a boring alternative when I lack creativity. Today, we are spared such a fate by a request from reader H.N., who wants to discuss foul or “adult” (or as H.N. would call it, “juvenile”) language.
Yes, I do mean that offensive stream typically uttered by our esteemed editor — oh, he of that immense vocabulary he so conveniently forgets when viewing sports (especially the Chicago Cubs, who are trying to return to the World Series). But what is offensive covers more than that. How we use words, phrases, and meaning, whether or not intentional, can insult, hurt, generate lawsuits, even end relationships.
Context and culture matter. As does history. What offends one man does not faze another. What was rude a century ago is no longer, and vice versa. What these words communicate — which is, after all, the point of language — is not fixed, but fluid.
Today, the f- and s- words are considered among the worst. Yet long ago, especially in certain cultures in Europe, they were merely descriptive of their literal meanings, not wielded to offend. A linguist is beginning to convince me that the f-word is becoming so easily and commonly used as a synonym for “darned” or “wretched” that it will soon be entirely inoffensive.
Don’t believe it? Consider “no can do.” Today this phrase mildly means the inability to comply, yet it was used in the 1800s as a racist term describing Chinese persons.
Same goes for “long time no see,” in pejorative reference to Native Americans. A basket case once meant someone who’d lost all four limbs (needing a basket). A paddy wagon meant not simply a police car, but implied they were always filled with Irish-Americans. To “gyp” someone (cheat or
swindle) was an insult to gypsies, Romas or travelers — who number around 11 million today.
Heard of being “grandfathered” in? According to Oxford Dictionaries, the grandfather clause refers to a clause which “exempts certain classes of people or things from the requirements of a piece of legislation affecting their previous rights, privileges, or practices.” Sounds straightforward, but it was based on a racist political strategy to curtail “black” voting. Certain southern states passed constitutional clauses granting the vote only to descendants of those who voted (their grandfathers) before 1867 (i.e., whites only).
Returning to today’s curse words, “shit” has inoffensive origins. The Old English verb “scitan,” which derives from the Indo-European root “skei” (to cut or split), may be a linguistic cousin of “science,” “conscience,” “schedule,” or “shield.” The Proto-Germanic “skit-“ (North Frisian skitj, Dutch schijten, and German scheissen), and an Old English derivative which is no longer used — “bescitan” or “beshitten” — do refer to purges or excrement. Remember that in Old English (when “turd” was used more than the s-word), “sc” was pronounced “sh,” so it’s not much of a stretch.
In the 15th century, the word “shut” was sometimes pronounced and written “shitt.” So if you see it in old sermons referring to gates in the afterlife, don’t be shocked.
Finally, that f-word. According to Dr. Melissa Mohr, a Stanford grad who wrote a book on the history of swear-words, the f-word was originally Germanic, related to Dutch and Swedish verbs meaning “strike” and “move back and forth.” Its first appearances more than five centuries ago include the margins of, ironically, Cicero’s treatise on moral life, “De Officiis,” where a monk scribbled it for reasons unknown. In the 1400s the word appears in a coded Scottish poem by Franciscan friar William Dunbar, including a Latin conjugation meaning essentially what it does now. There Dunbar accused Carmelite monks of inappropriate acts with women, which he also described as “swive(ing)” — a word considered far more insulting at the time.
While the f-word was common in that period, it wasn’t cursing. It was simply a direct description of sexual intercourse (then a subject impolite to discuss). Not until the 19th century was it used non-literally to insult and offend others, express frustration or pain, and other extremes of emotion, negative or positive.
While racism, bias, and defamation produce real harm (especially as we become conditioned to them), other “swear” words become neutral with use. As reader H.N. pointed out, what is censored or rated in film, what elicits punishment of children, what constitutes religious blasphemy — these things evolve with time, context, and interpretation.
Maybe we easily offended types, as my children would attest I was, are just zoilists. Zoilus was a Greek grammarian and vitriolic critic of Homer (of Iliad and Odyssey fame). A zoilist was an Old English insult for an overly critical and judgmental nitpicker.
Now why does MLP jump to mind?
Sholeh Patrick is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network. Contact her at Sholeh@cdapress.com.