Tag Archives: cursing

On the Origins of Fuck Part 2: But what about the D?

Last week I got to visit the manuscript that started it all. The one with the brilliant little note in the margin insulting some unpopular cleric with one of the earliest recorded instances of the word fuck:

whole page adjusted

Brasenose College MS 7, f.62v [photo mine, with thanks to Brasenose College, Oxford and Llewelyn Morgan]

What this picture shows is one full page of a fifteenth-century manuscript. The two main columns are a section of Cicero’s De Officiis – a moral treatise on good behaviour – which was the second-most frequently copied text of the Middle Ages. And at the bottom of these two columns someone has come along and written the following:

1.  false are the works wich this Abbot writ in the abbie of Osney alias Godstow 1528
2.  O d fuckin Abbot

This handwriting is found on several pages throughout the manuscript and, very unusually, it gives us a date – 1528 – so we know exactly when it was added.

Writing notes on manuscripts was common practice. Manuscripts weren’t viewed as they are now, and they weren’t equivalent to our modern books. We see a printed book as a complete object; to write on it is to defile it. Medieval manuscripts, despite being rarer than our mass-produced books and MUCH more expensive, were constantly added to, first by editors and correctors, then by later readers or students. In fact, this was a practice which continued for centuries, as described in this excellent post about Mr Bennet’s library. 

On this manuscript there are actually two layers of annotations: the handwriting shown here, and the work of a second, much more prolific person, who wrote all over it, clearly engaging very closely with the main text.

But to get back to the fuckin Abbot.

The first line tells us something about the possible identity of the abbot: the Abbot of Osney in Oxford in 1528 was John Burton and, as it happens, he wasn’t a particularly popular abbot.

At that time fuck was a word used to describe sex. It wasn’t used as a swearword as we’d use it today. So the ‘fucking’ here is probably being used literally: ‘Oh, that abbot who fucks a lot’. (Someone has tried to find evidence of this but the worst they could find was one pregnant nun nearby who may, or may not, have been shagged by the Abbot. If he WAS trying for Casanova’s record, he kept it quiet). 

‘BUT WHAT ABOUT THE D?’ I hear you cry.

 close up

The only mention of it that I’ve found suggests that it’s an abbreviation of damned or damn, as in, ‘O damned fuckin Abbot’.* This isn’t an unreasonable thought: as I discussed in an earlier post, medieval scribes loved abbreviating. They loved it more than they loved doodling in margins and sharpening their quills.

However, when they abbreviated they typically added a mark – a dash, or a squiggle – to show that something had been missed off. Not always, but enough that the absence of such a mark here is unusual.

But how likely was it that damn would be used then?

Unlike the so-called Anglo-Saxon four-letter swearwords, the gritty, grubby nasty ones which we like to imagine hark back to a harsh medieval life, damn is originally from Latin, and came into English via French. In Latin, damnāre meant ‘to inflict damage upon something’ or ‘to condemn to punishment’.

When damn arrived in English, some time before the fourteenth century, it had a <p> in it, as you can see in these two examples:

‘For hadde God comaundid maydenhede, Than had he dampnyd weddyng with the dede’ (For had God commanded maidenhood, then he had damned marriage with the act (of consummation)). Chaucer, The Wife of Bath (c.1386).

‘He wolde pray god for hym that he myght knowe whether she was dampned or saued’. William Caxton, who introduced the printing press to England (1484). 

There are a few theories to explain the appearance of <p> in damn and in words like it (although I should note here that as damn arrived in English from Old French dampner it’s not, strictly speaking, exactly the same).

In Latin, Old French, and Middle English the second syllable of damn when declined was still pronounced (e.g. ‘dam-NED’). The addition of that syllable changes the way the ‘-mn-’ is pronounced. Now, the ‘n’ is silent, but in Middle English it was pronounced.

This consonant cluster falls at a tricky point in the syllable break between making an /m/ with your lips and an /n/ with your tongue on your alveolar ridge (the hard bit behind your upper teeth and before your palate), where you need to coordinate the switch between the two. The mouth’s way of getting around this is to insert a ‘transitional sound’ between them (this is officially called stop epenthesis). In the case of /-mn-/, a /p/ is produced because, like /m/, it has bilabial articulation (both lips). In English this <p> is first seen written down in the thirteenth century, particularly in the West Midlands, and when damn arrived from French it fit in quite nicely with the existing pronunciations.** The <p> was even included in damn when it wasn’t declined. In 1400, ‘I damp þe’ was ‘I damn you’.

You can see this process at work in words like dreamt or empty, where the mouth has to make a /p/ in the process of going from /m/ to /t/. Both dreamt and empty gained a <p> in their spellings in Middle English, but empty is the only word to still have it preserved in its modern spelling. It’s quite a nice fossil.***

Damn started out as a verb, to damn, and over the centuries it has become more versatile, doing all kinds of damn things, like:

becoming an adjective in the fourteenth century (appearing later in, for example, ‘Out damned spot’),
a noun by the seventeenth century (e.g. ‘Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn‘),
and an interjection (‘Damn!’).

Then, as today, to damn had two main meanings: the first is to imply damnation, to suggest that someone is condemned to Hell. The second is a profane intensifier much like very, as in, YOU DAMN DIRTY APE! (it performs the same function as a slightly swearier very (‘YOU VERY DIRTY APE!’). By the 1500s, the date of the tricky D, this second meaning was definitely in use and it wouldn’t be unexpected to see it in this manuscript.

I just don’t think it was.

Instead, I think this is a mistake, or a false start. You can see in the picture that the ‘d’ is smudged but nothing else is. There are no other smudges on any of the other things written by that person and the letters around it aren’t smudged. I think that this was a half-hearted attempt to rub out the D which may have been an intended damn, or some other word.****

Normally a scribe will correct a mistake by scraping the vellum (animal skin) with the point of a knife. It leaves that spot a bit roughed up, but you can write over it and, if you don’t look too closely, no-one will ever know. Here, for whatever reason, the Sweary Scribbler hasn’t fully erased the mistake. Maybe because there wasn’t a knife-point to hand, or maybe because it’s time-consuming and delicate work and this isn’t formal writing meant to be presented neatly, it’s just a note.

I’m not saying it DEFINITELY wasn’t meant to be a damn(ed) fuckin Abbot, I just think it’s unlikely.

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Is Swearing Really So Bad?

As is fairly obvious from the title, this post contains strong language. If you’re not keen on that, feel free to run away, but I would suggest you read on – perhaps it might change your opinons a little!

I fucking love swearing. It’s excellent fun, and really quite cathartic. Nothing like a good old cry of ‘shitting tossing arse buckets of wank!’ to soothe the soul.[1]

However, I may well be shooting myself in the foot in choosing it as a topic for my first blog post. Thing is, swearing may be about words, but it is far from being a matter of purely linguistic interest – to fully understand swearing and taboo language as a concept, we must delve into history, sociology, neurology, psychology and cultural studies. Each sheds a new light on swearing, and to leave any out is to ignore an important aspect of the topic.

However, I am but one person, and this is but one blog post – one I would like to keep under the length of War and Peace, preferably. I can’t explain everything; I’m not an expert in any of these disciplines. But I do have OPINIONS, and the ability to read lots of things and attempt to summarise them in an interesting and informed manner, therefore I am going to tackle the topic anyway. Fuck it, why not?

I wonder if the last sentence of the preceding paragraph jarred with you. For many, that was likely the case (though for those more familiar with me and my vocabulary, it wouldn’t have come as much of a shock). Many of us stumble on swear words almost instinctively – they grate, they startle, they stand out, and that is precisely what they are designed for. Swear words, as a group, don’t have an all-encompassing feature that makes them phonologically or grammatically unique (they DO have aspects of interest there, but shh, I’ll get to that in a minute), nor do they have a single collective meaning. What brings them together is the effect they have on people, how they make us feel, their pragmatic impact. Swearing is one aspect of taboo language – in basic terms, things you feel you shouldn’t say, or restrict yourself form saying in certain contexts.

But what interests me is – why? Swear words are just arbitrary jumbles of letters. When uttered with a particular illocutionary force, yes, I can completely understand why they would be considered reprehensible: if someone called me a rancid little fucker, I would be duly offended. But I would also be offended if someone called me a loathsome stuck-up try-hard, yet if I uttered any of those words in isolation, I doubt many would bat an eyelid. Swear words have this inimitable quality that sets them apart from all other vocabulary, and I find that FASCINATING.

Swearing and linguistics
Swear words, like any other, have their own etymology, grammatical idiosyncrasies and dialectal variation. The exact origins of fuck, for example, are a little bit fuzzy (unsurprisingly, many early dictionary-writers were reluctant to include it in their tomes), but it most likely developed from a proto-Germanic root *pug, meaning to strike – a root which produced cognates such as the Dutch fokken (to breed/strike/beget) and the Norwegian fukka (to copulate).[2] This ties in nicely with the way we use the word in constructions like fuck this! – in these instances, strike this! is much closer to the user’s intended meaning than copulate with this! (Unless the fuck this! was being issued as a command, of course, though I dread to think in what situation that might occur).

I have pondered, in the past, whether the phonetic makeup of swear words triggers distaste in our minds in some way. After all, the most abhorred of English words (and a firm favourite of mine) – cunt – is made up of two hard, plosive sounds and a short, back-of-the-mouth vowel, and is one of those words that is capable of being spat rather than said. Of course, the variation in syllabic makeup of swear words means that this theory is easily rebuffed – but there is some linguistic merit in investigating the shape of taboo words.

Timothy Jay (1992) gave 49 students a list of 120 words that could be considered taboo, and asked the subjects to rank them on a scale of ‘offensiveness’. He found that shorter words of Anglo-Saxon origin (fuck, hump, screw) were considered more offensive than longer, Latinate words (copulation, coitus, intercourse).[3] Naturally, many of us wouldn’t consider the Latinate examples to be swear words at all; perhaps it was the short, blunt sounds of the Anglo-Saxon words that encouraged their adoption as taboo variants in the first place. This is an interesting thought, and one which might go some way to explaining why my mother hates it when we use the word twat, because she ‘just doesn’t like the sound of it’. (Additionally, the Romance languages – Latin and French – were used in the courts and by the gentry, while Old English was used by us peasants, again perhaps contributing to the former’s prestige and the latter’s lack thereof.)

Swearing and neurology
Language is considered a ‘higher’ neurological function, and is processed in the cerebral cortex, while emotion and instinct – ‘lower’ functions – take place in the deep, dark crevices of the brain. However, studies suggest that, rather than being processed as a string of phonemes which combine to make an utterance, swear words are stored as whole chunks, and the act of using them is closer to a motor function, processed by the same part of the brain which deals with emotion, bypassing the language centre.[4] This suggests that swearing is far more instinctive and reactionary, and that the use of swear words may have little to do with one’s spectrum of vocabulary. Which leads me neatly on to…

Swearing and people
People judge swearing. They judge it a LOT. And it is on this judgement that my aforementioned OPINIONS come into play. To those who say that swearing is a sign of a limited vocabulary, I refer them to one Malcolm Tucker, and kindly ask them to knob off. Just because someone chooses to use a swear word, doesn’t mean they can’t think of anything less shocking to say; the force of a swear word, the taste of it on your tongue, that unquantifiable effect it has above all other word choices – those are all reasons to use it. As Nancy Banks-Smith simply and eloquently puts it, ‘Trust me, Larkin did not swear because his vocabulary was limited. He swore because he was angry’.[5]

But regardless of my opinions, one of the most fascinating aspects of swearing and sociolinguistics is why people react to these words so violently. As David Mitchell has previously mused[6], why are we so offended by wanker, but not banker (ah, so many potential jokes, so little blog space)? As Christopher M. Fairman explores in his fantastic paper on the interaction between fuck and constitutional law[7], what is it about the arrangement of these four letters that could potentially land you in jail?

It’s odd, even when a swear word is used in a context that is completely devoid of potentially offensive meaning, many people still complain. For example, when James Naughtie tripped on his words when introducing ‘Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt’, he was forced to apologise to the Radio 4 listeners who complained. Naughtie’s mistake was a slip of the tongue – a hilarious and unfortunate one, but a slip of the tongue all the same. The mind boggles as to how this could be deemed offensive just because it took the shape of a taboo word.

The curious thing is, swearing wasn’t always frowned upon. In Anglo-Saxon and Norse culture, it was commonplace to undertake in flyting: the act of hurling long and elaborate insults at your peers. Studies suggest this was a form of social bonding, not meant to offend, but to let off steam and entertain. In fact, scholars of swearing, such as Tony McEnery, suggest that current attitudes towards swearing weren’t formed until the late 1600s – when the issue of social class came into play.

Swearing and class
In 1690, certain English citizens decided that society was slipping into sin, and this was bloody well not top drawer. The Society for the Reformation of Manners (SRM) was born, and made it their crusade to clean up Britain. While laws against swearing did exist at the time, they were rarely called into action, until the SRM lobbied for new and better ones (ones which saw the accuser receive a cut of the accused’s fine, just saying). The SRM were middle class, and saw their reformation as a way of regulating the working classes, therefore entrenching the belief that swearing is associated with commoners (and, by extension, poor morals and a lack of education). Interestingly, there was no attempt to prosecute the gentry and upper classes for their lewd tongues.

While, of course, these laws did not persist, the attitude did, becoming ingrained in society and being echoed in Mary Whitehouse’s efforts in the 1960s to Clean Up TV. Both campaigns play to Moral Panic Theory, in which ‘a condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests’[8] – and swearing remains a moral panic that rears its ugly head with some frequency, often in the right-wing press. Thus, the concept of swearing and a lack of vocabulary, education and moral standard are so tangled together that it would take a hugely concerted effort to extricate them.

But, when it comes to swearing, a hugely concerted effort is really what’s needed, and that might not even be enough. One of the most fascinating things about the concept of swearing is that it is a self-perpetuating taboo. ‘Obscenity lies not in words or things, but in attitudes that people have about words and things’ says Alan Walker Read – and he could not be more right. A good deal of swear words are merely used as phatic talk, expressing social relationships, or as emphatic talk, to add oomph to an utterance – yet these instances still fall under the umbrella of swearing, and thus of vulgarity. There’s a reason for this: the taboo of swearing persists because to use a word brings with it a thrill of breaking the rules, and to refrain from using it cements its taboo status. Basically, we’re fucked either way!

It’s hard to see a way out of this vicious circle of swearing-as-taboo, and on some level swear words losing their edginess defeats the object of adding that fizzle of shock into a vanilla sentence. But one thing linguists can do, at least, is to debunk a few swearing myths and stereotypes, and celebrate a much maligned aspect of language for the joyous, productive and and complex bastard it is.

[1] #things I have said more than once: http://twitter.com/#!/curlybeach/status/8832081375264768
[2] It did not, as the urban myth states, develop as an acronym of ‘Fornicating Under the Consent of the King’; in the Middle Ages when the Black Death was rife, the story goes that villagers had to watch how many kids they popped out, and we made to seek express permission from the monarchy to get their freak on. And while we’re here, shit didn’t develop as an acronym of ‘Store High In Transit’, either. Take THAT, commonly-held misconceptions.
[3] Jay, T (1992) Cursing in America. Philadelphia, John Benjamin.
[4] http://people.howstuffworks.com/swearing4.htm
[5] http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2003/jul/07/television.artsfeatures?INTCMP=SRCH
[6] http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/jun/28/david-mitchell-swearing-television?INTCMP=SRCH
[7] http://www.cosmopolitanuniversity.ac/library/Fuck.pdf
[8] Cohen, S (2002) Folk Devils and Moral Panics. Oxford, Routledge.

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