Sweariwordum Est Maximus Et Sapiens

Wednesday, August 8, 2007 0:34 | Filed in Language, Life

For those of you who can’t translate the pig latin above, it’s the motto of Roger’s Profanisaurus — self-described as “the ultimate swearing dictionary” — and it translates approximately to:

Swearing is big and clever

Which obviously is a parody of the oft-told parental advice that sets out precisely the opposite.

I swear sometimes. I’m far from being the sweariest person I know: that honour must go to a gentleman who I’ll indicate only by the initials P.D., the union Unison, and the fighting of equal pay claims, and a link to this article. Lovely bloke, but makes Roger Mellie sound like Thora Hird.

But I do swear, from time to time, depending on circumstances and company. And I’m not generally offended by anyone swearing, providing I feel it’s used appropriately. Of course, what’s appropriate language for one person is mind-blowingly offensive for the next.

[The next bit will contain swearing so don't pretend you weren't warned!]

I posted a comment on the BBC Ouch! Blog where I referred to some people as “inconsiderate buggers” on two occassions in the one post, and was surprised to see one of the references changed to “inconsiderate sods” and the other to “inconsiderate people”.

If you’re going to excise all swearing from your site, fair enough, but to replace “buggers” with “sods”? Surely they are both in the same category of swearwords — “suitable for conversations with the Vicar”? They’re both relatively minor on the overall scale of swearing, and they both originally related to the same thing – buggery/sodomy although the words are seldom used to refer to that now.

Besides, the words “buggery” and “sodomy” themselves sound somewhat archaic now, with overtones of homophobia and the judicial system.

Anyway, this got me thinking, how offensive exactly are different words? So I wrote down a list of different swearwords and got people to rank them. They came out something like this:

Grade 1: Think very carefully before using…
Grade 2: Watch your step..
Grade 3: Suitable for conversations with the Vicar
Grade 4: Suitable for conversations with your children

It’s probably worth noting that the person I think of as “the Vicar” is a fairly laid-back bloke who you can have a decent bit conversation with, and he’s an all-round good egg who tends not to take offense (apart from when he’s winding you up by pretending to take offense). I can’t personally guarantee every clergyman would find those terms suitable.

Okay, some people will shuffle one or two of those around, but the majority of people seemed to find that there were three broad grades of swearing — with ‘Cunt’ by some way being seen as the most offensive term by pretty much everyone.

But why? What is actually offensive about these words? Isn’t it that people are offended by them because they are swearwords, rather than because the words themselves are somehow inherently offensive?

Bollocks. It’s the French.

A lot of the words seen today as being offensive fuck, shit, cunt, were all originally used as perfectly acceptable terms: fuck from the Viking, originally indicating driving or thrusting, shit for solid wastes, and cunt meaning … well, you know, a lady’s naughty bits :blush: — they all became offensive at some point, and while it’s difficult to put a precise finger on it, it seems reasonable to blame the French.

Or rather the Normans. After all, they were the ones who introduced the idea of a more ‘courtly language’, riding roughshod over the traditional anglo-saxon words, and even if ‘shit’ and the like weren’t demoted from common parlance to the language of the gutter, they would have cast aside by this tendency later:

Shit is a vulgar word in Modern English denoting feces. It is a native English word, but Latin terms for many common objects and bodily functions came to be seen as more distinguished than native words,[citation needed] and thereafter feces became the accepted English noun, to defecate became the accepted English verb, and shit was no longer used in polite company.Wikipedia entry for Shit

Miserable fuckers.

Although it is interesting to note that the King James Bible seems to find the word piss perfectly acceptable:

For the whole house of Ahab shall perish: and I will cut off from Ahab him that pisseth against the wall, and him that is shut up and left in IsraelThe Bible, King James Authorised Version, 2 Kings, Chapter 9 Verse 8

…and that’s not the only reference to the word ‘piss’ in the King James version. You can also look up:

  • 1 Samuel 25:22
  • 1 Samuel 25:34
  • 1 Kings 14:10
  • 1 Kings 16:11
  • 1 Kings 21:21
  • 2 Kings 18:27
  • Isaiah 36:12

Or save yourself the time and just search for the word ‘piss’ on BibleGateway.

I’m not doing this in an attempt to belittle or poke fun at the King James Bible: I’m doing it to emphasise that at the time the King James Bible was written, piss was a perfectly acceptable word.

Plus it gives you a useful out: if anyone complains about you using the word ‘piss’, just explain you’re quoting from the King James Bible and give them one of those references…

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8 Comments to Sweariwordum Est Maximus Et Sapiens

  1. paul canning says:

    August 8th, 2007 at 10:03 pm

    when I was young, I remember trying to big-up myself by using ‘motherfucker’. this was the 70s. in middle england. sheesh …

    I think swearing’s a bit like weeds – plants which we label as something other than just plants. it’s just words. how you use / control them’s the important bit.

    I like the guardian’s attitude to ‘swear words’. use when relevant.

  2. mark fairlamb says:

    August 9th, 2007 at 9:36 am


  3. Rob Mason says:

    August 9th, 2007 at 12:35 pm

    What about bloody and prat…my wife seems to think they are both unacceptable, but I tend to disagree. Whilst not on the same level as grade one, I’d use them in front of my parents and even my kids sometimes (my bad I know).

    Anyway the French are wankers!

  4. mark fairlamb says:

    August 10th, 2007 at 3:37 pm

    it looks like we are coming full circle, with some of the lesser ones cropping up in pre-watershed tv. eastenders and the bill seem to have discovered ‘bloody’ and ‘arse’

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