The English Language is rich and diverse but it includes some words that many find deeply offensive. The taboo words which we call swear words carry a strange power; they can shock, mortify and amuse. There have been swear words in the English Language since Anglo-Saxon times. The oldest swear words are more elusive because even though they were used in common speech, they were rarely written down by the literate and educated. Most of the evidence for old swear words comes from records of court proceedings, where people’s spoken language was recorded verbatim.
A book has recently been published entitled Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing from the Oxford University Press. Written by medievalist Melissa Mohr, who traces the use of swear words back to Roman times. Two of our most common swear words; the ‘f’ word and the ‘s’ word, each have their origins in Old English and Germanic etymologies.
the Oxford English Dictionary states that the ultimate etymology of f*ck is uncertain. It was first attested in 1475, but is likely to be much older. It was first recorded in a poem which combines Latin and English, and it is coded because it was already regarded as a very rude word by then. The poem Flen, flyys, and freris satirises the Carmelite friars of Cambridge. The line which contains the offending word reads “Non sunt in coeli, quia gxddbov xxkxzt pg ifmk”. The Latin words “Non sunt in coeli, quia” mean “they [the friars] are not in heaven, since”. The code “gxddbov xxkxzt pg ifmk” is easily broken by substituting the preceding letter in the alphabet, taking into account differences in the Latin alphabet and spelling: i was used for both i and j, v was used for u and v and vv was used for w. This reveals “fvccant vvivys of heli” which can be translated as “They are not in heaven because they f*ck wives of Ely [a town close to Cambridge]”. We can be certain of the ancient Germanic origin of the word due to cognates in other Germanic languages; German ficken, Dutch fokken, Swedish focka and Norwegian fukka.
The earliest record of the word sh*t is from about 1,000 years ago and is related to Old Norse skita which is cognate to the Old English scitta (sc is pronounced as sh in Old English). The Anglo-Saxon word scittan referred to a cattle having diarrhea. In Middle English it morphed into schitte (excrement), schyt (diarrhea) and shiten (to defecate). The noun sh*t has been used as an insult since at least 1508 and as a condemnation of quality since 1890 when Cora Pearl wrote: “The government is a load of sh*t!”. The adjective sh*t-faced (i.e. drunk) was made up by students in the sixties. Today the word sh*t is vulgar and offensive. It is used as a noun (to refer to fecal matter), as a verb (“to defecate”), as an exclamation and in the plural version (the s*its) it still refers to its ancient meaning of diarrhea. The Germanic origin is evident from the following cognates; German scheisse, Dutch schijt, Swedish skit, Norwegian skitt and Icelandic skitur.
Have a look at the video below to learn about the ruder words of the English language and their origins. Warning: The video contains swear words!