JESSICA ZHOU/THE VARSITY

Language is unquestionably one of the most beautiful gifts known to humanity.

Over time, there have been significant developments in the English language, including the evolution from Old English, to Shakespearean English, to what is now modern English.

‘Fuck,’ ‘shit,’ and ‘damn’ — sound familiar? In society today, there are certain words that are automatically deemed as inappropriate and rude to say — we call them swear words or profanity.

These are three of the most heard profanities in the English language, and when we hear them, we are quickly caught up in the intonation, implication, and context of the words.

At their core, these funny sounding words are simply letters jumbled together that are laden with baggage and history. Popular culture has even merged ‘fuck shit damn’ together, with Urban Dictionary defining the expression as, “Expressive phrase used when one four-letter swear word just isn’t enough.”

However, what do we know about the actual origins and history of these bad words? And the real question is: how did they come to be in the first place?

‘Fuck’

Out of all the English words that begin with the letter F, this is the only word that is commonly referred to as the F-word. It is a versatile word that can describe almost every emotion — pain, happiness, love, hate, and many more.

It can be used as a noun, verb, adjective, or adverb. A common myth about ‘fuck’ is that, it is an acronym for “Fornication Under Command of the King”: the population was so sparse that the king would order everyone to start having sex.

Supposedly, couples in the act would hang up a sign that said ‘F.U.C.K.’ Clearly, this story is false and has nothing to do with the actual origin. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, ‘fuck’ did not come into existence until the fifteenth century.

‘Fuck,’ possibly derived from the German word ‘ficken,’ meant “to strike” in early contexts, and it frequently appeared as part of surnames with the literal meaning of hitting, rather than having any sexual connotations to it.

As time went on, ‘fuck’ took on a very different meaning. William Dunbar, a Scottish poet, wrote about a man sexually lusting for woman. Dunbar wrote: “By his feirris he would have fukkit,” suggesting the man’s desire to have sex with the woman.

Since then, ‘fuck’ has been gradually associated with sex, and over time, mass media has outright deemed this word to be inappropriate, rude, and offensive.

‘Shit’

Similar to ‘fuck,’ ‘shit’ can also be traced back in history.

Originally, it had a technical purpose, referring specifically to diarrhea in cattle. Essentially, ‘shit’ would be used in many words that had connections to cattle.

However, as time went on, it started to have more meanings than simply diarrhea in cattle; it is now associated with all kinds of feces and often used by people to replace ‘things’ or ‘stuff.’

‘Shit’ has developed from being a technical term to socially unacceptable vocabulary. The same poet who first committed to ‘fuck,’ Dunbar also wrote “schit but wit” in order to refer to an annoying person.

Ultimately, ‘shit’ would be used to describe trash or worthless things. Nowadays, not only can ‘shit’ be used to degrade others, but it can also ironically be used to mean the best if accompanied by ‘the.’ For example, saying something is ‘the shit’ suggests that one had a great time.

‘Damn’

Finally, ‘damn.’ The least offensive of the three ‘core’ swear words.

The origin of ‘damn’ goes back to the Old French word ‘damner,’ which means to condemn. This word was first adopted into the English language around the fourteenth century and would often be found in religious contexts; for instance, damnation referred to God’s punishment.

However, starting from the seventeenth to eighteenth century, ‘damn’ began to be used as a profanity in the context of ‘I don’t care’: ‘I don’t give a damn.’

Although it may not seem like ‘damn’ is the kind of swear word that would be taken seriously now, it was actually considered a serious profanity back in the 1700s up until about 1930; society at the time actively avoided this word because it was considered impolite and indecent.

A large portion of today’s generation rely on swearing in order to boost their self-esteem and ego. Effectively, swear words do have some sort of magical power over us — we learn and pick them up from others when we are young, even though they are taboo.

Then, as we grow older, swearing ultimately becomes a tool to emphasize points and heighten emotions. After all, what’s the first thing you typically say after you’ve stubbed your toe?

Learning the etymology of profanity, which a good amount of people are already attached to, definitely elevates one’s linguistical knowledge. And if you don’t fancy delving into the Oxford English Dictionary, I am confident that Urban Dictionary will amuse and educate you on the slightly more ‘expressive’ words that pop up in our vocabulary.

Stay up to date. Sign up for our weekly newsletter, sent straight to your inbox:

* indicates required

Tags: , , , ,