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The History of F*ck, Sh*t, and Other Bad, Vulgar Words

October 22, 2012
The Merriam-Webster logo.

The dictionary is a wonderful resource to study the history of profanity. But beware! The root “dic” means “to speak,” not “male body part.” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Even though I don’t use profanity much when I speak (and I almost never use it on Dysfunctional Literacy), I have nothing against inappropriate language.  

When I was a kid, my older brother had a copy of George Carlin’s album with his “Seven Words you can’t say on Television” routine.  The forbidden words (sh*t, f*ck, c***s*cker, c*nt (without an apostrophe), motherf*cker, p*ss, and t*ts were remarkably similar to the words I wasn’t allowed to say at home (but it was alright to play them on an album for the whole family to hear). 

At the time, I didn’t care about etymology.  I didn’t even know what some of the cuss words meant.  All I knew was that they were funny and I couldn’t say them without getting my mouth washed out with soap. 

Getting your mouth washed out with soap is worse than it sounds, so I didn’t say these words as frequently as I wanted to. 

George Carlin left out a lot of bad words.  There are racial, ethnic, gender, and sexual preference slurs that are pretty bad, and I would have gotten my mouth washed out if I had ever used them too.  I don’t mind profanity, but I despise slurs, so I think George Carlin was wise to leave those out. 

CUSS WORD ETYMOLOGY 

The cool thing about dictionaries nowadays is that some of them have cuss words in them.  Looking up dirty words in the dictionary would have been fun when I was a kid, but our public school reference books didn’t carry the good stuff.  We could get a laugh out of “fart” (explosion between the legs) and “masturbate” (I don’t remember the dictionary’s definition, but it was pretty funny), but the hard core profanity was nowhere to be found. 

Now you can look up cuss words online and get the etymology along with the definitions.  Man, if we had had online dictionaries in school, I would have gotten myself in a lot of trouble. 

All of the following word origins and histories were found in the  Merriam Webster Dictionary Online .  The sample sentences that I provide below were NOT found in the Merriam Webster Online Dictionary. 

THE HISTORY OF PROFANITY: THE GOOD STUFF (I left out the definitions because everybody knows what they are) 

F*ck-

 F*ck is from the Dutch word fokken which means “to breed (usually cattle)”, and from the Swedish word fókka which means” to copulate” (first known use was in the early 1500s) 

Sample: The cattle are fokken in the fields again. 

***** 

Sh*t-

Sh*t was from the Old English word scite and the Old English scītan which mean “to defecate.” (first known use was in the early-to-mid 1500s) 

Sample: I just stepped in a bunch of fokken cattle scite

***** 

C*ck-

C*ck was from the Middle English word cok (adult male chicken; well, this explains the phrase “choking the chicken.”) and from the Old English cocc (first known use was before the 12th century). 

Sample- When the farm boy was done with his chores, he played with his big, strutting cocc

***** 

P*ss-

P*ss was from the Middle English/ Anglo-French word pisser, which was from the Vulgar Latin word pissiare (first known use was in the 14th century). 

I don’t have a sample sentence.  I also don’t know what “Vulgar Latin” is, but if it had been offered in high school, I might have taken it. 

***** 

T*t-

T*t was from the Middle English and Old English word teat (first known use was before the 12th century) 

Sample- I have nothing except the scene in the movie Witness

The Harrison Ford character and an Amish guy are milking a cow.  The Amish guy says, “You’ve never had your hands on a teat before?”

The Harrison Ford character says, “Not one this big.”

The Amish guy laughs (so does the audience).

I really don’t like it when people quote movie lines, but this was the best I could come up with.

WHAT MAKES A WORD VULGAR? 

Why is it okay to say “defecation” but not “sh*t”?  Why is it proper to say “copulate” or “fornicate” but not “f*ck”?  Why is it tactful to say “male appendage” instead of “d*ck” or “pr*ck” or “c*ck”?  I almost feel sorry for the male appendage because there’s almost no way to mention it without offending somebody. 

It’s all about the syllables. 

If you’re going to refer to a socially sensitive body part or bodily function, you have to use a word with more than one syllable.  “F*ck,” “sh*t,” “c*ck, and almost every other good cuss word has a root word that is only one syllable.  “Fornicate,”  “defecate,” and “appendage” all have several syllables.  Yes, “motherf*cker has four syllables, but the root word is “f*ck,” and any word with “f*ck” is going to be considered a cuss word.  The same principal applies to “sh*thead,” or “sh*tty,” or “sh*tfaced” or “pieceofsh*t.” 

It’s tough to sound profane when the root word is more than one syllable.  When I cracked my head against the cabinet and shouted “Defecation!” I didn’t feel any better. 

When I called my high school nemesis a fornicator of his mother, everybody looked at me funny.  And then I got punched out for talking weird. 

BLAME (or thank) THE PRUDES 

It’s because of prudes that words are considered vulgar at all.  If it weren’t for prudes, everybody could walk around naked in public yelling “F*ck!” all the time and nobody would care.  But yelling “F*ck!” all the time would get old quickly (and I don’t want to see most people naked). 

Even though I’m not a prude (I wrote Best Porn Jokes Ever! so I can’t be a prude), I agree that some words should not be spoken publically.  Some words should not be spoken by kids until they’re adults.  Kids should have something to look forward to, and freedom of profane expression is awesome when you’ve been getting your mouth washed out with soap for 18 years.  I just realized that my mom wasn’t a prude when she was washing out my mouth; she was guaranteeing that I would appreciate profanity when I was an adult. 

Profanity has its place.  It can be a useful stress reliever if the words are used sparingly.  Spout your curse words too frequently, and they lose their power.  The prudes understand this (I don’t know if they really do; it just makes me sound credible). 

So the next time you crack your head against a cabinet, and the only relief from the pain comes from screaming “F*ck!” really loud, thank a prude.

From → Etymology

18 Comments
  1. I love this! Thanks for the post.

    Etymology is what I would have studied had I stayed in college. Have you read “The Madman and the Professor”? Or perhaps, “Reading the OED”. Both are fascinating.

    • No, I haven’t read either one (and haven’t read the OED either), but they sound different and interesting, and I need something different and interesting since I’m still kind of battling reader’s block. Thanks for the suggestions!

      • I’ve never known another person who suffers from Reader’s Block. I haven’t finished a book in a year! I used to read a novel a week! I hate Reader’s block almost as much as writer’s block.

        • Your reader’s block sounds a lot worse than mine. I’ve at least finished a few books this year, but it’s still kind of frustrating. Reading The Thin Man again a couple weeks ago helped.

          • I can no longer handle non fiction at all. Too complex for my addled brain I suppose. I haven’t read The Thin Man in years. I usually go to old favorites when I really need something to read. I’m currently going stir crazy and may try the Trilogy by Tolkein, I can usually get through those.

  2. I wonder if there are any languages with no profanity. Probably not.

    • I hope not. How do you relieve the pain when you crack your head on the cabinet without profanity?

      • Hit your head and scream: “This hurts a lot! It may require a doctor’s visit!” 🙂

        • I may try what my dad used to do when he hurt himself when kids were around: the half curse (“Muth…Fffff… shhhh… Fffff!”). The half curse was always good for a laugh as long as he didn’t see us laughing at him while he was hurt.

  3. Fornicator of your mother… I think I’m going to use that one from now on.

    On second thought, nah… Motherf*cker is so much more powerful….

  4. Joe 'Blondie' Manco permalink

    I had a pretty clean mouth when I was a kid too.

  5. I wonder if vulgarity is less about prudishness and more about education, or lack thereof. You don’t hear many gang members talking like university professors or vice versa. Do the smarty-smarts simply have a greater arsenal of vocabularic alternatives than those of us who are more stupider?

  6. I love this post. In case you want to know, “vulgar” Latin is the commonly spoken Latin, as opposed to the “elevated” Latin of the writers, philosophers, and Latin versions of the Bible.

    • Thank you! I was really hoping there a lovable Germanic tribe called the Vulgars who swore all the time and adopted Latin after the Romans temporarily conquered them (but your real history makes more sense). If I ever write an alternative Roman history novel, maybe I’ll still put the Vulgars in it.

  7. What about the etymology of British vulgarities? What does “bloody h*ll do for one?

  8. Ronda permalink

    Huh. Interesting. It was interesting to learn where these words came from. Thanks!

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