In the heat of anger, it seems, we need to express ourselves in an inappropriate way just to show the world how pissed off we are. People also swear to shock others, or because they can’t come up with anything to say.
Today, if someone swears inappropriately in a public situation, they might lose the respect of others. However, in the fourteenth century, swearing in public could result in severe physical punishment. Back then, swearing revolved around religion and taking the Lord’s name in vain was a serious crime. Swearing was blasphemy, and people were punished for it.
“After a fine for a first offence, repeat offenders could be subjected to various forms of corporal punishment: iron collar, stocks, tongue or lip piercing, and often death at the stake, plus quartering of the body for good measure in extreme cases,” says Professor Alain Thomas of the University of Guelph’s Department of Languages and Literatures.
In addition to discipline dealt out by local authorities, there was also the matter of divine retribution. Priests told villagers that swearing was the cause of deaths that occurred in the village.
To avoid punishment dealt out by a higher power, people created euphemisms like “gosh” and “darn.”
“Euphemisms are used to soften the blow and to be on the safe side, just in case God is listening,” says Thomas. Euphemisms are often nonsense words. They exist only to replace real swear words. Once the church began to lose power during the last century, using God’s name in vain didn’t matter as much. Over the course of the last century, we have moved towards using words related to the body and sex rather than religion as swear words.
As society became more egalitarian, we became more free to express ourselves.
With their increased use in radio, television, movies, magazines, and the newspaper, certain swear words become more acceptable. But once a swear word becomes cliché, it needs to be combined with something else surprising in order to retain its severity.
For example, combining a swear word with incest (mother-f-er) suddenly creates a delightful new swear word. However, even with increased use, these words still retain some sense of taboo.
“As long as there are doors on toilets, and as long as sex is essentially a private matter, there will be taboo words surrounding these things,” says Thomas.
Removing doors from toilets is likely some time away.
If society becomes a place where there are no doors on toilets and sex is no longer a private matter, swearing will just be based on something else, something that is still taboo.