The New York Times recently had a symposium headlined “Why Do Educated People Use Bad Words?” For the most part it’s fairly predictable thumbsucking on the part of a bunch of intelligent people (John McWhorter, Deborah Tannen, Tony McEnery, Lee Siegel, Ilya Somin, and Timothy Jay) who don’t really have anything interesting to say about the topic (“swear words are linked to emotion in a visceral way”—well, duh), but McEnery, who wrote the classic Swearing in English: Bad Language, Purity and Power from 1586 to the Present, has a nice summary of some of his findings:

Purity of speech has been associated for so long with power in public life in the English speaking world that it is almost inconceivable that it could ever have been different. Yet it was — a powerful example of this comes from James I’s participation in an ecclesiastical debate in the early 17th century. When he said that he did not give a “turd” for the argument of a leading cleric, James did not attract opprobrium. He attracted praise — those present were impressed by his debating skills, not appalled at his choice of words. This is unimaginable now. How did the change come about?
Starting in the late 17th century a movement swept the English speaking world which firmly linked purity of speech with power. Groups like the Society for the Reformation of Manners in the British Isles and the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts in the colonies began to fight against sin in all of its forms by preaching and prosecution. A main target for them was bad language….
The hypocrisy of public purity but private impurity also has deep roots. Eighteenth-century campaigners gave up on any attempt to regulate behavior in the private sphere, quickly accepting that people could use whatever language they wished in private as long as their public speech was pure. It is to such campaigners that we can ascribe examples such as Richard Nixon, who simultaneously managed to crusade for an improvement in public morals while revealing himself on the White House tapes to have a full command of bad language.
The campaigns of the late 17th and early 18th century that linked bad language with moral degeneracy, low education and general brutishness were incredibly successful in forming views of bad language that endure in the English language to this day. They were also successful at establishing the nascent middle classes of the English speaking world as a locus of purity and hence a locus of power….

(I stole from McEnery shamelessly in the introduction to the English section of my own curses book.)


  1. In high school, I used to hang out at a pool hall frequented by local Vietnamese triad members. There was a sign on the wall: “Profanity is the feeble attempt of a weak mind to express itself forcefully”. I never did hear profanity in that pool hall. At least not in English.

  2. Odd the NYT symposium was interested only in why educated people curse. What could the particular reasons be? That they’re upset about having spent so much time in the classroom? What next? Why dogcatchers curse?

  3. In Australia it’s normal to refer not to “cursing” but to “swearing”, even if you use scatalogical rather than religious terms. “Bloody” is a swear word, not a curse. Actually, I find the Australian usage rather interesting, as it suggests a religious origin for bad language.
    Then there is the Chinese word 骂 . This literally means “curse”, but the nuances seem to be quite different from English “curse”. It’s an area that could do with a lot more study. Suffice it to say that appears to be at least as much about “face” as it is about “bad language”, although the distinction is also pretty unclear.

  4. Bathrobe in Ulaanbaatar says

    Also, Japanese is a language that has very little in the way of “swearing” or “cursing”. Japanese has the words 罵る nonoshiru and 罵倒する batō suru (Sino-Japanese), but neither is frequently used. Needless to say, it’s possible to insult someone in Japanese, but the vocabulary involved is almost never religious and only to some extent scatalogical. Perhaps the closest to “cursing” is 汚い言葉 kitanai kotoba or “filthy language”.

  5. I have relatives who observe purity of speech, and value it above almost anything else. I find it completely baffling. I watch my language around them, but I’ve never understood the impulse at all. To them it’s clearly a moral issue. Perhaps I’m just too morally soggy to get it.

  6. mollymooly says

    @Bathrobe: in the U.S. “profanity” is the hypernym for religious, obscene, scatological, and miscellaneous swears. In the U.K., the TV announcer warns you if the programme you are about to watch “contains strong language” [e.g. ‘shit’] or “very strong language” [either ‘fuck’ or ‘cunt’. I suggest they use “very very strong language” for the latter for maximum viewer convenience.]

  7. @mollymooly: I find that if they stress the word “very” then you can be fairly sure you’re going to be in the latter case.

  8. I don’t like the BBC warning, because they say “parental guidance is suggested”. Many middle-aged and older viewers don’t have living parents. I find their language offensive.

  9. Trond Engen says

    “Parental guidance is advised”. At least at the international BBC channels we recieve.
    minuscule crown: Many middle-aged and older viewers don’t have living parents. I find their language offensive.
    They should warn their viewers against that:
    “This program contains warnings and advise to the viewers. Viewers are advised to disregard the advise.”

  10. I’d like to see more along the lines of: “Adults are warned that the following program contains weak language.”

  11. Trond Engen says

    “The following program contains no offensive language and no scenes of a distressing or sexual nature. Doing something else is advised.”

  12. John Emerson says

    Children can read too, so those warnings help them select programs? “What’ll it be today, folks, toilet jokes or nudity?”

  13. John Emerson says

    I suspect that there was some coordination with other kinds of imposed decorum, i.e. prescriptive grammar and spelling rules.

  14. In Spanish swearing there is a considerable divide. ‘La hostia’ is the host, as in the Eucharist. Non-religious people use it quite casually to express surprise but religious people never, ever use it though they may use other vulgar expressions. Spanish has no such strong linguistic taboos as English has. ‘Coño’* is the slang word for the vulva/vagina but is used as an expression of surprise, about like ‘shit’ or ‘bloody hell’ on the English language scale.
    *Famously, in Spanish coño is masculine and the slang word for the penis (polla) is feminine.

  15. Is that why “coney” was replaced by “rabbit”?
    (Question addressed to whomsoever. Or A J P Whomsoever, as the case may be.)

  16. Very likely.

  17. (No point asking AJP, he’s off walking the goats.)

  18. Quite right, I was.

  19. “even if you use scatalogical rather than religious terms. “Bloody” is a swear word, not a curse.”
    Bathrobe, “bloody” is a religious term – either “by our Lady” or else just “blood” – Jesus’ blood. Scatalogical – did you think “bloody” was some kind of reference to menstruation – which is hardly scatalogical either?
    “Is that why “coney” was replaced by “rabbit”?”
    That or the English term. And didn’t “coney” replace some other term that was the subject of some pre-Christian taboo?

  20. I remember once reading a quotation by Mark Twain something along the lines of, “Whenever I get sick, I give up smoking, drinking, and swearing, and the affliction soon gets discouraged and goes away.” I can’t seem to document it anywhere online, but for Mark Twain aficionados, there is a similar train of thought here.

  21. “Parental guidance is advised” is pretty dire. First, because it is the parents who are being advised, not the course of action – it is being recommended. Secondly because the phrasing ducks the question of responsibility – I’d prefer “The BBC recommends blah blah blah.” Thirdly, because, even then, the Beeb has the damned cheek to suggest what might be done even though it can have no knowledge of any particular case. So, even better would be simply to say “Beware, foul language.” Then they should shut the fuck up.

  22. The irony being that this McEnery fellow likely can’t swear his way out of a New York Times wrapped bag. Sooner to trust a cussin’ fool than a locus-minded pedant!
    Pretty scanty evidence, the leap of expletive faith, when James I drops a “turd” in AN argument that the King’s Foreign Council were nothing but potty-mouthed! It’s those dead white guys again. Strange he didn’t mention our current president’s public purity versus his private smoke-screening?

  23. Back to my point about “swearing”, “cursing”, “profanity”, “obscene language”, 骂, 罵倒 etc. I haven’t got LH’s book on international cursing, but it occurs to me to ask: does it have a preface on the metalanguage of cursing? All (?) cultures seem to have a concept of “bad language”, but there seem to be different ways of talking about it and categorising it.
    Jim, I knew that “struth” came from “God’s truth” and “blimey” from “God blind me”, but I never realised that “bloody” had a similar origin.

  24. DG: …the metalanguage of cursing? All (?) cultures seem to have a concept of “bad language”, but there seem to be different ways of talking about it and categorising it.
    I’d be interested in reading that.

  25. Bathrobe, “bloody” is a religious term – either “by our Lady” or else just “blood” – Jesus’ blood.

    Actually, that’s a myth (though belief in it may have played some role in forming the word’s current status). The OED says:

    The origin is not quite certain; but there is good reason to think that it was at first a reference to the habits of the ‘bloods’ or aristocratic rowdies of the end of the 17th and beginning of the 18th c. The phrase ‘bloody drunk’ was apparently = ‘as drunk as a blood’ (cf. ‘as drunk as a lord’); thence it was extended to kindred expressions, and at length to others; probably, in later times, its associations with bloodshed and murder (cf. a bloody battle, a bloody butcher) have recommended it to the rough classes as a word that appeals to their imagination. We may compare the prevalent craving for impressive or graphic intensives, seen in the use of jolly, awfully, terribly, devilish, deuced, damned, ripping, rattling, thumping, stunning, thundering, etc. There is no ground for the notion that ‘bloody’, offensive as from associations it now is to ears polite, contains any profane allusion or has connection with the oath ‘’s blood!’

  26. offensive as from associations it now is to ears polite
    I tripped over this expression. Is it a thumping good one, or bloody awful? I can’t make up my mind.

  27. Tim May: Actually, that’s a myth
    Yes. Thank you. I thought it was a myth.

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