In This Episode
What is the oldest swear word in English? Does swearing help manage pain? We bring you 6 fun lessons on swearing and cursing.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: Warning. This episode contains explicit language. Seriously. I am going to swear a lot in this episode. Please don’t play this around children. All right. Can we play the largest bleep of all time please? [bleep sound]
Kory Stamper: So in 2014, I was an editor for Miriam Webster dictionaries.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: That’s Kory Stamper. She wrote a book called The Secret Life of Dictionaries, and she worked for Merriam Webster for nearly two decades.
Kory Stamper: And I was just proofreading some entries in the letter B. And one of the entries I was proofreading was the word bitch. And as I was proofreading it, I noticed that we had all of these definitions, but none of them were marked as being offensive or vulgar. They were just presented as if you were reading the entry for the word baseball.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: The definitions were written like the female of a carnivorous mammal and complaint like, so-and-so was bitching about this thing. Kory was like, Wait a minute. Bitch is an insult isn’t it? Where’s that in the dictionary? So she decided to trace the word’s history.
Kory Stamper: The earliest uses of bitch go back to old English. So they’re about a thousand years old at this point, and they refer to a female dog. And then starting at about 1400 roundabout there, bitch developed other meanings. It first was used to refer to a lewd woman or an immoral woman. And then pretty quickly after that, any sort of, um, domineering or brash or conniving woman.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: These new meanings were all grounded in misogyny. And because it was a swear word used to degrade women, it was considered particularly offensive to call a man a bitch. So, if bitch had a history of being considered a bad word, why wasn’t it flagged as such in the 2014 Miriam Webster dictionary? Kory looked through the company archives.
Kory Stamper: The best I can figure is that the entry for bitch had been in a Miriam Webster dictionary without any kind of derogatory label, since at least 1934.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: Kory consulted notes from previous editors.
Kory Stamper: I looked through all of what we call pinks. Those are sort of editorial notes that get left in the physical file. And they’re called pinks cause they’re on pink index cards. There are notes with date stamps, back to the twenties and some handwritten stamps to go back to the 1890s. And so it was really fascinating to me to discover that the two people in the files that said, this is offensive, not just bad but offensive were both women as opposed to the dozen or so men who had previously commented on expanding the entry or changing the entry somehow.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: Apparently, those two women were ignored. And the word bitch hadn’t been flagged as offensive by the dictionary for quite some time. So after this, of course, I had to look up some swear words in the dictionary. In every entry, the dictionary describes how offensive it is. Next to the c-word, for example, it says obscene. Then I looked up a word that I accidentally use all the time without realizing that it offends people, fuck. The dictionary described it as usually obscene, usually vulgar. That word usually is doing a lot of work. Looking at this, if you were an alien from out of space trying to learn how to swear in English, this wouldn’t be helpful at all. Swearing can be a cudgel. Or it can be fun. Fuck you sounds very different from fuck you. Social context is everything. There’s so much rich human history to swearing that isn’t prioritized in your literature or language learning classes. So we’re taking it upon ourselves to do some teaching, by changing format up a little bit. We’re going to share five lessons about swearing and taboo language. And maybe teach you some swear words along the way. From Crooked Media and Duo Lingo, I’m Ahmed Ali Akbar and this is Radiolingo. Today’s episode, Foul [bleep] Language.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: Lesson number one. There are different categories of swear words.
Kenneth Luna: These are words that are defined by society and culture as words that have restricted usage in daily life for different sociologically or cultural reasons.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: Dr. Kenneth Luna is a linguist at California State University Northridge, where he teaches a class on the linguistics of swearing called Forbidden Language. When you look at a language’s swear words, it’s all about what a culture finds taboo. Taboos are the forbidden things in our society. The first category we’re going to talk about are words that we find gross or uncomfortable.
Kenneth Luna: So there’s certain themes that seem to reoccur cross-linguistically and, you know, across culturally. So for example, things that have to do with excrement, orifices in the body, bodily fluids, things related to illnesses and pestilence, things to related to genitals, sexual intercourse.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: You can see how those things tie to swear words. Think of words like Culo. Tatti. Ya Khara. Dickhead. A colorful array of bodily insults. And then there are the words that are offensive because they target a specific group, they’re misogynistic, or able-ist, racist Ken calls these sociologically abusive words. We’ll get more into those a bit later. The third category is my favorite, cursing.
Jean-Marc Dewaele: Cursing is wishing somebody a negative outcome.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: That’s Dr. Jean-Marc Dewaele.
Jean-Marc Dewaele: I’m a professor in applied linguistics and multilingualism at Birkbeck University of London.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: Ken and Jean-Marc are going to be our guides throughout this episode.
Jean-Marc Dewaele: So you could say, I’m cursing your ancestors. So you target specific people in the life of your interlocutor. You would say horrible things about their mother or their ancestors.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: A curse in American English would be like, go to hell. Not nearly as cool as many of the Middle Eastern languages have really incredible curses, which I learned when I was studying them and from my many Muslim, Arab, and Persian friends. At a basic level, for example, in Arabic they say يخرب بيتك meaning may God destroy your house. In Persian, you can say—
Justin Mashouf: الهی بمیره That means my God kill him.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: I love how to the point that is. But I loved is how elaborate they can get too.
Kamelya Youssef: [speaks Arabic]
Ahmed Ali Akbar: In Arabic, this translates to, God damn the day your dad fucked your mom to make you. Pretty brutal, and also pretty lyrical.
Jean-Marc Dewaele: It can be pretty funny, and it can also be very taboo because there are certain things that you cannot wish them.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: So there you go, your Radiolingo taxonomy of swear words. Lesson Number 2, all languages have some culturally specific swears, that don’t really translate.
Kenneth Luna: People in the culture and society are the ones who decide what’s allowed and not allowed and stigmatized.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: The process of stigmatization happens gradually and organically.
Jean-Marc Dewaele: The same word in different languages can be really offensive in one language and not at all in another language.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: Cultural differences abound, and that can lead to some funny situations. I’ll tell you a swearing story. My parents really hated swearing. They didn’t even like it if we jokingly said shut up. But you know, I’m a writer. I like words and exploring how they feel. So I’ve always loved swearing. I’m in fourth grade, I heard my uncle say an Urdu phrase, and my parents giggling away, uloo ki patthi. I begged and begged and begged them to tell me what it was and what it means. Finally, they were like, fine. We’ll tell you. It was more of an insult than a full on swear. Ullo ki patthi meant. Son of an owl. I laughed like I understood. Owls are cute and smart, right? How insulting could it be? And it sounded pretty funny too. I told my friends at school and they thought it was hilarious. All of a sudden, at recess, when we’re playing four square, all my friends saying it in their American accent, ullo ki pattyyyyy. It turns out an owl is actually considered a pretty dumb animal in South Asia. So you’re calling someone an idiot. So something that’s insulting in one language, can sound totally ridiculous in another. It’s relative. There’s a lot of variation, even within similar languages.
Jean-Marc Dewaele: One beautiful example here is in Quebecois French, where the most offensive swear words are linked to religious furniture or church furniture. So, a word like tabarnak is a terribly offensive word in Quebecois, French.
Ahmed: Like tabernacle? [laughter]
Jean-Marc Dewaele: Yeah. It’s totally innocent in European or African French.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: Tabernacle absolutely kills me in case you can’t tell. There’s a theory that in Quebec, turning religious objects into swear words started as a form of rebellion against the Roman Catholic church. By casually referencing something that is supposed to be holy, speakers were disrespecting it. Over time, tabernacle came to basically be one of the worst swear words you could utter in Quebec, and people use it the way we do f-bombs.
Jean-Marc Dewaele: All these things can sound funny to us, but they are in fact so powerful and so taboo within these cultures that you have to tread very carefully.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: As an example, Jean-Marc told me about moving from Belgium to the UK, where he now lives. He, of course, speaks excellent English, but it’s not his first language. And that has led to some awkward situations. I know I’ve warned you about swearing in this episode before, but brace yourselves.
Jean-Marc Dewaele: I asked a colleague in the department. I said, you know, Malcolm, what is the most offensive word in English? And he said, oh, um, that would be the C word. I said, The C word? I have no idea what you mean. And he said, well, I can’t tell you, but I can spell it out. It would be C U N T. And I said, cunt? And he jumped, he jumped back, and I thought, wow, is it that powerful? And it is, it really is such a powerful word. And I said, you know, how interesting, because, in Dutch, the word is cont, uh, in, in French, the word is con, and they clearly have the same origin, the same meaning, but they’re not as offensive in French and Dutch as they are in English.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: Even across English speaking countries, the taboo attached to the C word varies. In America it’s a very offensive gendered curse word. But in Australia and parts of the UK, speakers may throw the word around casually when referring to men or woman. It can be fun to learn about other cultures’ swear words. Just remember to tread carefully when saying them, even around university colleagues. And definitely don’t compare an Urdu or Hindi speaker to an owl. Lesson number 3, humans have loved swearing and cursing from the very beginning. It turns out, humans have been writing obscene graffiti on bathroom walls for thousands of years. We know this because archeologists in Pompeii and Herculaneum have discovered some pretty choice ones. Dating all the way back to 78 BCE. I am going to read some of these to you. I was fucking with the bartender. Shitter, may everything turn out okay so that you can leave this place. I hope your hemorrhoids rub together so much that they hurt worse than they ever have before. It kind of sounds like your typical truck station toilet right? It’s not like all the ancients were more conservative than us. No, to me, these ones sounded pretty modern.
Kenneth Luna: What’s fascinating to me is that we’ve seen that swearing has always existed in society since the beginning of time, since the dawn of mankind, however you want to put it, it has existed. The fact that it’s not documented is a separate thing. Because they were so taboo, you couldn’t find them in dictionaries until, you know, relatively recent, right.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: We don’t know the oldest swear words ever. But what about the earliest evidence of swear words? Well, in English it’s the word shit.
Kenneth Luna: Shit has been documented since early old English, like 600 to 950.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: The Ancient Egyptians had some great curses. They found this slab from Ramses the Third’s reign, it’s around 3000 years old. And it has instructions for how a person’s descendants should be leaving daily offerings of bread.
Kenneth Luna: But the slab says that the punishment for those who fail to follow the instructions, and this is the quote, “A donkey shall copulate with him. He shall copulate with a donkey. His wife shall copulate with his children.” So, all these sexual threats and things related with a donkey, they actually turn up in like numerous inscriptions and even legal documents of the same era.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: So people have been swearing probably for as long as language has been around. It’s even been elevated to the level of art in 15th and 16th century Scotland.
Kenneth Luna: There was this artistic swearing that was called flighting. And it’s the trading of ritual insults, typically as part of a contest. So it’s kind of like competition of, you know, going back and forth with insults.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: It’s like a rap battle. But for swears. Humans never change. [music break] Lesson number 4, swear words are gaining and losing power all the time. So unless you’re cursing the day someone was conceived, let’s say, like that Arabic curse that I love from earlier, many people swear to build rapport with others.
Jean-Marc Dewaele: Most swearing I discovered happens between friends. Using words that are taboo with each other, but it’s to make each other smile. It’s to create a connection.
Kenneth Luna: You speak like a normal person as opposed to this, like, elevated more formal way of speaking.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: But that implies swearing is a social good, a social lubricant that can bring people together. But we know that some words most people aren’t just going to throw them around as jokes. I asked Ken, what’s the difference between the swears that are more socially acceptable, and the ones that are more taboo? I’d be very curious to also know, like, why is it that sometimes I will hear what appears to be a swear word, like fuck, and my brain says nothing. And then I hear another one that, like the C word, for instance. And I can’t even say it without my, my whole body, like getting uncomfortable.
Kenneth Luna: So that has to do with the, you know, the evolution of swear words in society.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: So when it comes to the f-word—
Kenneth Luna: The taboo aspect of the word has eroded. It’s more diluted now it’s become more accepted. Just think about it, right. The more we hear a word or, you know, see it written, we become desensitized.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: Ken also gave me some examples from European history, about the way things have become softened, and gradually lost their taboo. During medieval times, it was taboo to use God’s name in vain. So they took an existing word, cock, and used it in place of God. Like the word cocksure, which means arrogant and confident. It’s a euphemism for God sure. Actually, any religious references made in vain were off limits. For example, saying God’s nails was considered offensive, because it referred to the nails that were used to hammer Jesus to the cross.
Kenneth Luna: Instead of God’s nails, they would say snails. Instead of like God’s wounds, they changed it to zounds. And this apparently was Queen Elizabeth I’s favorite swear word.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: People used zounds in a similar way to how many use Goddamn it today. You see this all over Shakespeare’s plays, in Romeo in Juliet for example, after the fight where Mercutio is fatally stabbed, he says to Romeo, A plague on both your houses. Zounds, a dog, a rat, a mouse, a cat, to scratch a man to death. Of course, zounds has lost all of its taboo, doesn’t seem offensive to our ears now. But sometimes the taboo pendulum swings the other way. By the time we get to Jane Austin times in England, it seemed like everything was offensive. The culture was so prim and proper that you were supposed to avoid saying anything that could be considered unseemly.
Kenneth Luna: So you couldn’t say things like leg, breast, or trousers. And [laugh] when they were talking about, for example, cooking chicken, white and dark meat originated as terms to avoid mentioning breasts and limbs, because that was not polite. So instead, oh, white meat or dark meat.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: I can’t believe I didn’t know white meat was just the prudish way to refer to breasts and dark meat for legs.
Kenneth Luna: These are things that we take for granted. That we’re like, they’re like part of everyday speech. Right. And then all of a sudden you’re like, that’s the history of it?
Ahmed Ali Akbar: Today, the most offensive swear words are often those sociologically abusive words we mentioned earlier.
Kenneth Luna: Things related to sexual orientation or race and ethnicity, things related to a people’s ability or disability and things like that. Whereas the traditional ones kind of have been left behind.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: Take the r-word. People with intellectual disabilities used to be called morons, imbeciles, or idiots. In the 1960s in America, the r-word was introduced as a replacement. But over time, people started using it as a pejorative. And now, because of those negative connotations, the r-word has become taboo. This evolution is called euphemization. Words that are used to replace offensive terms over time become offensive themselves. So our lesson taboos evolve with the times. What offends you might not be what offends the next generation. Lesson number five, swearing and cursing help us cope with stress.
Jean-Marc Dewaele: It’s catharsis. You release tension in a very concise and effective way. You don’t need 50 words to explain how you feel, that one word will do.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: This is especially helpful when we’re angry.
Jean-Marc Dewaele: It’s like the verbal equivalent of a physical assault. And there is some theory that, of course, it’s better to swear at each other than to kill each other.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: But swearing can also help in another situation.
Kenneth Luna: We know that it seems to be beneficial for pain.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: Is it demonstrated to actually alleviate pain? I’m just thinking about when I dislocated my shoulder and they popped it back in— Okay, let me tell that story real quick. I was at a friend’s place, joining them in the living room, and I slipped on their stairs. I must have put my arm out weird, and boom. Even though I had never dislocated my shoulder before, I knew it was out of its socket. We rushed to the hospital, my wife is eight months pregnant and showing. They’re like, oh my God are you delivering, ma’am? She’s like, no it’s just this fool with me who slipped down the stairs. And then when the doctor came to pop my shoulder back in, I don’t know what came over me. I warned him. I’m sorry. I have to swear right now. I told, I literally said to him, I’m not swearing at you. I’m just gonna swear at the pain. And I was like, fuck, sorry, fuck. Sorry. You know, until they popped it in.
Kenneth Luna: And I’m pretty sure it helped, right? [laughs]
Ahmed Ali Akbar: It did. I think it did. I think it did.
Kenneth Luna: If you’re undergoing pain, then swearing actually had, this is kind of like analgesic effect, right? So there’s actually something physiological happening.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: There are several studies on a relationship between swearing and pain tolerance. In one study, researchers at Keele University had participants immerse their hands in cold water, we’re talking 37-40 degrees Fahrenheit. They discovered that people who swore were able to tolerate the cold water for longer. In another study, researchers at Massey University discovered that swearing also helped lessen emotional pain.
Kenneth Luna: It seems like it activates certain parts of the brain, like the amygdala part of the brain, which triggers this fight or flight response. And that may lead to a surge in adrenaline. And that’s a natural form of pain relief, right? So that’s, for example, one speculation of how it works.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: By the way, that study that demonstrated swearing is a physical pain reliever? They had participants use standard swear words as well as some controls. One control was solid, which was kind of the neutral one. And another was a made-up word that is very satisfying to say, twizpipe. The standard swear words worked. The others didn’t so much. So though twizpipe is very fun to say, it would not have reduced the pain of my shoulder dislocation. [music break] So, in case you can’t tell, I like swearing. I like how it’s culturally relative in really unpredictable and funny ways. I like the way it feels to explore new ways of saying things. I find it cathartic when I’m annoyed or in pain. And it’s a way to connect with people. But not all swear words are created equal. The words that offend me now aren’t the scatalogical words like shit and fuck. It’s the sociologically abusive terms. Things that are sexist, racist, bigotred, hateful, or ableist. They’re mean and oppressive, and I completely avoid them. And when it comes to any swear word, context is everything. Remember Kory Stamper, who told us about the history of the word bitch? She had a perfect example.
Kory Stamper: Like, I’m walking down the street, someone drives by and yells, hey bitch at me, I would be offended by that. But if I’m hanging out with a friend of mine who uses bitch as a term of endearment, which lots of people do and you know, they said, hey bitch, good to see you. Well, that’s not offensive. It is really about the interplay between two people.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: It’s important to remember, something that’s not offensive to you might be offensive to others. So swear responsibly. Okay, I have to ask, what are your favorite swear words in other languages? Isn’t it funny those are the things we want to learn first? Send them over to me, I’m on Twitter @radbrowndads. Maybe we’ll use them in a future episode. [music break] Radiolingo is an original podcast from Duolingo and Crooked Media I’m Ahmed Ali Akbar, your host, writer and producer. From Crooked Media, executive producers are Sandy Girard and Katie Long. From Duolingo, executive producers are Laura Macomber and Timothy Shey. This episode was produced and co-written by Elizabeth Nakano and story edited by Lacy Roberts. Our associate producer and fact checker is Brian Semel. Our theme and original music is by Carly Bond with mixing sound design and additional music by Hannis Brown. Additional research and production support from Crooked Media’s Ari Schwartz and Duolingo’s Cindy Blanco, Emily Chiu, Alexa Fernandez and Hope Wilson. Special thanks to Crooked Media’s Danielle Jensen and Gabriella Leverette and Duolingo’s, Michaela Kron, Monica Earle and Sam Dulsimer for promotional support.