By God’s Nails! Careful How You Curse

April 19, 2013, 8:41 p.m. ET

By God’s Nails! Careful How You Curse

Swear words are defined by our taboos—yesterday’s aren’t today’s, and today’s won’t be tomorrow’s


The English language has about a million words, give or take. Of these a very small number—10 or so, plus variants—are swear words, and they get a lot of play. They shock and offend us. They increase our heart rate and make our palms sweat. They can help us deal with emotional distress and even relieve physical pain. The words we use today to cuss someone out or to express our admiration are not the same ones people used in the past, however. Swear words are generated by cultural taboos, and these have changed over the years in some interesting ways. In the Middle Ages, cultural taboos were such that words we consider to be obscene today were perfectly acceptable, if direct. The c-word, for example, was found in medical texts, in literature, in the names of common plants and animals, in the names of streets and even in surnames.

Sard and swive were the medieval equivalents of the f-word—direct, non-euphemistic words for copulation. Far from being feared and censored, though, sard appears in a 950 translation from the Lindisfarne Gospels, in which Christ commands “Don’t sin, and don’t sard another man’s wife” (Matthew 5:27). Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales,” from the late 14th century, is full of words like these. Among the more printable examples is the ending of the “Miller’s Tale,” which sums up the story with: “Thus swived was the carpenter’s wife…And Absolon hath kissed her nether eye, and Nicholas is scalded in the toute” (his behind, where the nether eye is located).In medieval England, there was no such thing as privacy. People slept together, usually naked, on the floor or several to a bed. Houses did have privies—not always employed—but they most often had multiple seats. People could not conceal body parts and actions that we take great pains to hide today. Because these activities were openly displayed, they were not taboo, and thus medieval English lacked taboo words for them.

The real medieval obscenities were religious oaths. A phrase such as “by God’s nails” was one of the most shocking and indeed most dangerous things a person could say in this era. Oaths by God’s body parts, such as “by God’s arms” or “by the blood of Christ,” were thought to be able to injure Christ’s physical body as he sat at the right hand of God in heaven.

Oath swearing began to decline in 16th-century England with the development of Protestantism, which abandoned the Catholic focus on God’s body, and the rise of capitalism, which theoretically replaced God with market forces as a guarantee of people’s honesty. Our familiar obscenities gained power at the same time, as houses were rebuilt with bedrooms and more private privies, allowing people the luxury of shame.

Authors of the English Renaissance, such as William Shakespeare, were quick to take advantage of these new dirty words. Shakespeare’s plays are filled with puns and innuendo—from Hamlet’s “country matters” to the “focative” Latin case in “The Merry Wives of Windsor” to Katherine’s discovery in “Henry V” that the perfectly polite English words “le foot” and “le count” make French obscenities. In fact, pretty much anything that might be bawdy in Shakespeare is bawdy, including “to fill a bottle with a tun-dish” (a funnel), “to hide his bauble in a hole” and “to change the cod’s head for the salmon’s tail.”

The charge of these words was at its strongest during the Victorian era. In the mid-19th century, the human form and its functions were so taboo that any words even hinting that people had bodies were banished from polite discourse. It became impossible to mention legs—you had to use limb, or even better, lower extremity. You couldn’t ask for the breast of a chicken, but instead had to request the bosom, or make a choice between white and dark meat. Nor could you talk about trousers. There were numerous euphemisms instead, including inexpressibles, indescribables, unmentionables, inexplicables and continuations. Charles Dickens made fun of this extreme delicacy in “Oliver Twist,” when Giles the butler describes how he got out of bed and “drew on a pair of —–.” “Ladies present, Mr. Giles,” warns another character.

While the shock value of some words is declining today, our repertoire of epithets will probably expand. In America it is becoming increasingly taboo to sum up or “essentialize” people, as epithets do, whether by size (fat), disability (cripple), or mental acuity (retard). To become truly useful swear words, though, these words will have to lose their literal meaning and become more grammatically flexible. When we use obscenities, chances are that we are really expressing strong emotion; the words’ connotation is more important than their literal meaning. Perhaps one day, far in the future, when we hit a finger with a hammer, we’ll shout “fat, crippled banker!”

—Ms. Mohr is the author of “Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing.”

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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