Swearing has become an art form. Whether it’s as a noun, a verb, an adjective or any other nerd word, people have learned how to weave that sucker in there like lingual Picassos, resulting in masterworks of modern cursing that are both beautiful and confusing.
But have you ever wondered just where some of your favorite swear words come from? Sure, no one thinks about it when they’re 10 years old and just learning to swear like a madman playing the world’s most messed up game of Mad Libs, but as you get older, you find that you start to wonder about the whys and the hows of the world. It’s called maturity, people. And in the spirit of maturity, we bring you the awesome origins of these totally ****ing popular swear words that will make you **** out of your ***, you ****sucking ****wranglers. Ahem.
We’ll start with shit, which is both popular and pretty mundane as far as origin stories go. It seems to have originated from the Old English word “scite,” which meant pretty much the same thing it does today. Fittingly, “shit” and its ancestor words seem to be amongst some of the oldest in the language, going all the way back to the Indo-European (which is basically the OG of languages) word “skheid,” which means “to separate or cut,” which, well, that sounds like a very literal definition of shitting to me.
Shit has of course evolved through the years beyond its poop roots to become one of the most versatile words in the language, often used in conjunction with other words. Take “horseshit,” for example, which some artistic genius invented to mean “nonsense” in 1923. Never underestimate the power of the human imagination, especially when it comes to vivid imagery and metaphors inspired by the foul smelling waste dropping out of our butts.
Damn evolved from the French “damner” which means “to condemn,” but “damner” comes from the Latin “damnare,” which means pretty much the same thing. The interesting thing is that it wasn’t originally an “I damn you to hell!” kind of thing, but a strictly legal term that meant “to pronounce judgment upon.” It wasn’t until the church picked it up in the 14th century that it obtained its more spiritual meaning.
And while damn seems pretty tame by today’s standards – I mean, everyone says damn these days, Ned Flanders probably even casually drops it into sentences around Rod and Todd – it used to be a pretty, uh, damn big deal. It was a pretty big scandal when Rhett Butler dropped the “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn” line in Gone With the Wind, which seems ridiculous today, but that’s just how they got down, I guess. It was that moment, though, that signaled the beginning of the end for “damn” as a serious swearword, and over the last several decades it has become the cuddly old grandma to a new, bolder generation of heinous word crimes.
Ass is interesting because it isn’t probably what you think. Yeah, yeah, a donkey, right? Not so fast. It’s kind of a historical accident that ass is associated both with a donkey and with, well, with “ass” ass. That’s because ass is actually derived from the English arse, which our beloved cousins across the sea know and love so dearly. It wasn’t until about 1860 that Americans dropped the “r” and got down with the ass we know and love today.
It was spread by sailors, who are pretty much the godfathers of the cursing game, but there are some who believe that it was actually that filthy-mouthed Shakespeare who first made the switch from “arse” to “ass” in his play “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” way back in 1594. In the play, the character Nick Bottom (note the last name) is magically transformed into a donkey, which Shakespeare may have intended as a word play on both the literal transformation and Bottom’s, well, general assyness, or arseyness, or… you get the point.
Cock is pretty simple. The name came from the rooster, but how it actually happened is something of a mystery. Most believe that the floppiness of the dong reminded our dignified forefathers of a particular barnyard animal, and history was made.
Dick, on the other hand, took a little bit more of an indirect route to our vocabulary. It seems to have originated as Cockney slang, as it was common to take shortened names – Robert to Rob, Richard to Rick, etc. – and then rhyme them. So that’s how Bob became Rob and Rick became Dick.
And once that happened, Dick started to get around. Since Richard was such a common name, Dick started to become common slang for “fella” or “buddy.” So, basically, if you ever get ahold of a time machine and travel back to medieval England, don’t get all offended when some bro hits you with a “What up, Dick?”
The more modern meaning, which is all derived from the term as a synonym for the penis, dates from 1891, when it first showed up in a slang dictionary, and probably comes from – who else? – English sailors. This kind of makes sense if you link the meaning of “Dick” as basically “buddy” since what is our dick if not our little buddy? Those soldiers just got it, man.
Since we took on cock and dick (shut up) it’s only fair that we dive into its counterparts, right? Right. Pussy was first formalized in slang dictionaries as “the female pudenda” in 1879, but it probably actually is derived from a couple of different places.
First, there are the obvious cat connotations – something soft, furry, and… let’s not get carried away, okay? But the word “puss” also is Old Norse for “pocket, or pouch,” and that kinda fits too, right? It’s probable that our modern use is a combo of those two meanings, which I’m pretty sure makes pussy the sort of clever wordplay that only the finest gentlemen use and appreciate.
Cunt… well, I’m almost hesitant to even take this one because let’s face it, this is kind of the nuclear bomb of modern swearing, but in the interest of science – and I am, above all, a man of science – let’s do it.
Cunt actually seems to be pretty old, derived from the Old Norse “kunta,” the German “cunte” or “kunte”, and the Latin “cunnus”, all of which mean basically what they mean today – a lady’s genitals. That sort of common link suggests that the word is probably extremely old, owing to some universal language lost in the prehistoric past. We do have our priorities as a species, after all. It’s also possible that the Greek word “cuneus,” which means “wedge” played a part, or the Greek prefix “geu,” which meant “hollow place,” and later became the root in the word “gyne” which means woman, and is where the word “queen” originally comes from. So basically, cunt is at the root of all language. Makes sense.
Of course, cunt has become the big taboo word, but it wasn’t always this way. As a matter of fact, it was a pretty routine word for centuries, and appears in some of the most formative medieval English literature. The first known English reference, though, comes from a street name in the year 1230 called – and I swear I’m not making this up – “Gropecuntlane.” Well, that’s certainly descriptive. The street was supposedly a popular haunt for prostitutes – naturally.
From there, cunt appears as a line in The Proverbs of Hendyg, from the early 14th century:
“Give your cunt wisely, and make your demands after the wedding.”
Yeah. Real progressive literature back in the day. After that, Chaucer got ahold of it and it spread pretty quickly and was even used in medical writing in the year 1400. From there, it was used pretty regularly as a common term for a vagina until Shakespeare’s time, when it started to be frowned upon. By the 17th century, “cunny” had replaced “cunt” and since then it has become, unlike most swear words, more and more controversial, especially in the U.S., where it has developed some, uh, unfortunate connotations. I’d say more, but I’m being given electric shocks by my editors.
Ah, fuck, the Michael Jordan of swears. There are lots and lots of urban legends about the origin of fuck – everything from an ancient African king named Fuk to medieval peasants being forced to write FUCK – “Fornication Under Consent of the King” – on their doors if they wanted to legally bone – but sadly, they are probably all, to borrow another popular swear, bullshit.
The reality is harder to trace, probably because fuck doesn’t have a single mother or father root word. It has simply always been, guiding us with its magic for centuries. The closest anyone has gotten to adequately explaining it is by suggesting that it’s derived from a number of old Germanic words which meant everything from striking to rubbing.
The first known usage was in the weird poem “Flen, Flyss and Freris,” a 15th century hybrid of Latin and English that contained the line “They are not in heaven because they fuck the wives of Ely,” which sounds like something some weirdo would come up with as a code phrase for a raunchy spy mission, but there you go.
From there, like shit, fuck has taken on a life of its own. It was first used as a noun sometime in the 1670s and was spread by – again, who else? – soldiers and sailors, and after World War I, when seemingly the entire adult male population of the Western world served in the military, it exploded into the monster it is today.
Since then, it has been labeled as the most offensive of all swear words, banned from public discourse, and then brought back into the pop-culture lexicon during the 1960s, when all the old taboos started to be questioned, which opened the door for every asshole dickhead with a shitmouth to drop it like it was fucking nothing. But I don’t give a damn if it is still a taboo, because I don’t believe in holding back from any of you *****. You’re welcome.
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