A History of Cursing

Roundup: Talking About History

From the Wall Street Journal (June 16 2004):

No one can prove whether our earliest ancestors swore, but it's dang likely.

Linguists have traced some of Americans' favorite four-letter words to the 11th century. Over the next 600 years, many other profane terms were incorporated into the lower-class vernacular of most languages. By 1785, an English scholar, Captain Francis Grose, had enough material to assemble a Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue. According to Grose,"fusty luggs" referred to a"sluttish woman," and a man's sexual organ was known as a"plug tail." Women's breasts were variously referred to as"apple dumplin' shop" and"Cupid's kettle drums." An exclamation of surprise was"zounds!"; a foolish fellow a"nincumpoop."

Immigrants brought their oaths to America. In the country's early years, most cussing involved religious, rather than sexual, taboos. Taking the Lord's name in vain was a sin, but throughout the ages people coined substitutes considered slightly less blasphemous: As early as 1743 came"golly" and"gosh," and later"ye gods,""by George" and"doggone." Similarly,"Jiminy" began substituting for Jesus in the 1830s, followed by"Jiminy Crickets,""gee whillikins" and"jeez.""Shucks,""sugar,""heck" and"Sam Hill" served other rhetorical purposes.

With westward expansion came a golden age of cussing. By the mid-19th century, wrote Geoffrey Hughes in his 1991 book,"Swearing,""particularly as a result of the opening of the West, American speech had started to acquire its own colorful slang and devil-may-care raciness."

Indeed, in Deadwood, S.D., the setting for HBO's tangy series about a crude frontier outpost in 1876, the characters, both men and women, rarely get three words out of their mouths without using what's euphemistically referred to as the"Oedipal polysyllable." The surly saloon owner, aptly named Al Swearengen, is particularly obscene, turning any four-letter word or its variation into nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs and exclamations. While the curses sound oddly modern, an HBO spokeswoman says the show's executive producer, David Milch, researched the period and place extensively, and claims the language is authentic.

Others agree that the virtual anarchy of many Western communities nullified the taboos of Eastern cities and the old country. On the far side of the Mississippi, observed the Baltimore editor H. L. Mencken,"a wild and lawless development of the language went on." Writing about Montana mining towns, Thomas J. Dimsdale, a 19th-century professor and editor, noted,"The most fruitful source of quarrel and bloodshed is the all-pervading custom of using strong language." Mark Twain, who was equally shocked and thrilled by the blasphemy of riverboat captains, announced that"when it comes to pure ornamental cursing, the American is gifted above the sons of men."

Yet like most writers of his time, Twain sanitized his characters' dialogue. A real Huckleberry Finn, a lower-class teenage runaway, would likely have had a dirtier mouth than the fictional character does, suggests John J. McCarthy, a linguistics professor at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. Most 19th-century journalism and fiction was cleaned up, either by omitting words, using dashes or substituting euphemisms like"pshaw!" or"land's sake!"

That's why it is almost impossible to know with certainty how much cursing ordinary Americans did before voices were recorded. Some written records -- trial and court-martial transcripts and diaries, for example -- give hints about Americans' vocabulary. But since many people, especially in the lower classes, were illiterate, most discourse in places like Deadwood evaporated as quickly as it was uttered....

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