‘Fuck,’ ‘shit,’ ‘damn’

Exploring the history behind the English language’s most commonly used swear words

‘Fuck,’ ‘shit,’ ‘damn’

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.

Tip of the tongue

First language attrition in bilinguals is more common than you think

Tip of the tongue

It was lunchtime and my co-worker asked me to make a note of what I wanted for takeout. Working as a summer-term English teacher in Tianjin, China at the time, I was eager to try boxed lunches that were popular among the students. I remember struggling and erasing my draft several times before I could admit that I forgot how to write the Chinese character for ‘box.’

This scenario was just one of many since my family’s migration from China to Canada. As a nine-year-old child, I practiced calligraphy, recited poetry, and loved Chinese literature class. If I were to meet my former self, I may not be able to out-compete her in Chinese language skills.

This experience resonates with many bilingual speakers who can comprehend text and speech in their first language but have trouble speaking and writing in it.

Researchers at the University of Essex believe attrition in a healthy bilingual adult ultimately arises from competition between the two languages in the brain. Although both languages are active, one will eventually dominate. In addition, continuous inhibition of the native language can make recalling vocabulary and syntax difficult, since the brain substitutes these with those of the second language.

Age is one of the biggest factors that lead to a decline in native language proficiency.

Children who immigrate before reaching puberty — which is often considered the critical period for cementing language skills — are the most prone to first language attrition because their mother tongue has not been fully acquired yet.

Due to the plasticity in developing brains, linguistic concepts children learn from their first language are not stored permanently. Along with prolonged inhibition by a newly acquired second language, this causes a gradual loss of the language.

On the other hand, adolescents past the critical period are less prone to first language attrition, but the access pathway for the retrieval of the language can be influenced by the second language. For example, vocabulary and grammar substitutions can occur, but the underlying principles remain intact.

Contrary to popular belief, prolonged contact with the native culture’s migrant group cannot prevent attrition. In fact, this can make the speaker more susceptible to interference.

A French study comparing isolated contact and continuous contact with immigrant communities found that frequently switching between two languages and activating the languages together eventually leads to native language attrition.

The brain cannot completely inhibit the second language when activating the first language, resulting in the interference of concepts from both. This gradual loss is characterized by restructured sentences and grammar.

It can be difficult to accept that you are no longer proficient in your native language. Like many other immigrants, I experienced culture shock upon my arrival to Canada. I longed to speak English as fluently as my peers. The desire to assimilate to a new culture can overpower the desire to maintain a native one. As a result, some children may even feel ashamed of their native language due to feelings of social rejection.

Eventually, these thoughts morph into an innate desire to forget the native language, which can have devastating effects on its maintenance.

study on German fluency in Jewish Germans who immigrated to America just before or after the onset of World War II showed that there were drastic reductions in syntax and vocabulary compared to the successful maintenance of German in immigrants who were not affected by World War II.

Typical linguistic factors, such as age and language exposure, had little influence on attrition. Instead, the traumatic prosecution endured by Jewish Germans and their wish for acceptance from American society caused them to distance themselves from German culture, and in turn, the German language.

These factors pose a big problem for immigrants, especially of our generation, because language is so intertwined with culture and identity.

So how do we recover what has been lost? There needs to be just enough exposure to the language — but not too much — to prevent interference. Short periods of intense cultural exposure are the most ideal, especially if that exposure takes place in a person’s native country.

A case study shows that perhaps even a 10-day visit is sufficient and can provide more opportunities for first language activation and language production than typical weekend language schools.

Bilingualism is not a black-and-white concept — it exists as a spectrum ranging from dominance of one language to a balanced state where the two languages are equally active. Languages are fluid and constantly changing along with our environment.

On my flight back to Toronto Pearson International Airport from Tianjin, the man sitting beside me asked if I could help translate his declaration card from English to Chinese because it was his first time flying to a foreign country. He then asked about the cultural differences that he would encounter in Canada. I realized that, despite my brief language attrition, perhaps that is the greatest benefit of bilingualism — the ability to bridge two cultures.