On Wednesday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, or to give his full name, Alexander Boris De Pfeffel Johnson (yes, really) swore in Parliament.
During a particularly ill-tempered PMQs, he quoted shadow education secretary Angela Rayner who used the phrase ‘sh*t or bust’ describing her party’s strategy of major increases in state spending.
But while the House of Commons and for that matter the House of Lords are supposed to be the bastions of high-brow oratory, every now and again, a swear creeps in…
In fact, according to Hansard records going back to January 1st 1800, the word ‘sh*t’ has been used just 51 times across both houses and 13 times in the last decade.
It’s OK, this isn’t another diatribe on the comings and goings of the sh*tshow that is British politics, it got us thinking about the origins of our favourite swear words (but not that one, obviously.)
Swear words allows you to express feelings of anger and passion with an extra punch and while they are often deemed the tools of the trade for imbeciles and football fans (the two are eminently interchangeable), their etymology – the origin and history of words since the writer is a condescending pr*ck – is fascinating.
According to the Queen of Dictionary Corner and world-class lexicographer Susie Dent, ‘The occupation with cursing is not simply a childish preoccupation with profanity, it’s a sign of an age-old love affair with the intricacies and nuances of our native tongue.’
When we are young, swear words are, as Christine Wang writing in mashable.com so beautifully says, ‘deliciously taboo.’ She continues; ‘As we age, our dependence on swear words increases to the point where as an adult, we find that the magnitude of our emotions can only be captured by swearing.’
But while we have become reliant on swear words to make our points, very few of us know from where they originated so if you’ve ever wondered where they come from, look no further and if you’re looking for proper water-cooler fodder, this is the one!
The F Bomb
We don’t need to say it but you know what it is. It represents well over 30% of all swear words used on Twitter and like BA claims to be the world’s favourite airline, it is the world’s favourite swear word.
Its origins are a little less clear than its modern meaning. Common belief is that the word derives from ‘focken’, a German verb meaning ‘to rub’, ‘fock’, the Swedish word for the male appendage and the Dutch verb ‘fokken’ meaning ‘to breed.’
Other possible roots are from Indo-European words for ‘strike’ or ‘hit’ and in fact the earliest mentions of the word were more to do with hitting than sexual intercourse or what you scream when you tread barefoot on a piece of Lego in the middle of the night when you go to the loo.
The quite magnificently named Henry Fuckbeggar (c.1290s) was so named because he was rich and used to beat the poor rather than do anything else to them, an early example of nominative determinism, the hypothesis that people tend to gravitate towards areas of work that fit their names.
Many believe, quite wrongly as it turns out, that it’s derivation is from the post-plague Middle Ages where the monarch basically ordered those that survived to repopulate the country and decreed that people should ‘Fornicate Under Consent of the King’. Complete boll*cks as it turns out.
The S Bomb
Sh*t has an equally rich and varied history as well as the same innocent start to life.
From the Germanic and Scandinavian languages and eventually into Old English, ‘scitte’ meant ‘to purge oneself’ or to have diarrhoea and we also had ‘scite’ (dung) and the verb ‘scitan’ meaning ‘to defecate’.
Interestingly, it also gives us a snapshot of life from the Middle Ages where places were named based on what one could see. As an example, the Domesday Book lists Schitebroc – now Skidbrook – in Lincolnshire and it literally means ‘sh*t-stream’.
Writer: I wonder if that’s where the phrase ‘skid marks’ comes from?
It was also used to reflect the often horrific conditions in which the poor had to live. Schiteburne Lane – now Sherbourn Lane – in London translated literally to ‘shit-stream lane’ and Schiteburglane in Romford to the east of London uses ‘borough’ in the middle, meaning a fortress, to paint a vivid picture of a bog standing proud as a mockery of a palace in the middle of town.
Where the word most certainly doesn’t come from is the acronym S.H.I.T which was, ahem, floating around the internet in the late 90s referring to crates of manure on freight ships getting wet, fermenting and exploding. Ship High In Transit stamped on the side suggested that the crates had to be kept on deck to prevent them from getting wet but this story is a load of old sh*t.
The First B Bomb
We refer to bitch rather than any of the others you’re thinking of (although we may come to those shortly).
Literally a female dog, the word bitch in this sense has been around for well over a thousand years as ‘bicce’ or ‘bicge’ and possibly even earlier as the Norse word ‘bikkja’ or ‘bikkjuna’. As a derogatory term for women, it has been around since the mid-fourteenth century when it was first seen in The Chester Plays:
‘Who callest thou queine, skabde bitch?’ Or ‘Who are you calling a whore, you miserable bitch?’
The Dictionary of Vulgar Tongue published by the (presumably fake-named) Captain Grose refers to the word as ‘the most offensive appellation that can be given to an English woman, even more provoking than that of whore’ and it wasn’t until as late as the 1930s that it be came a byword for the verb to complain.
The Second B Bomb
The one meaning ‘testicles’ dates all the way back to the thirteenth century, specifically to Whycliffe’s Bible from 1382 in which it says ‘Al beeste, that … kitt and taken awey the ballokes is, ye shulen not offre to the Lord …’ or ‘any beast that has been castrated is unsuitable as a sacrifice.’
It wasn’t until the mid-seventeenth century where it developed a coarse meaning, so much so that Dr Johnson omitted it from his 1755 dictionary and didn’t reappear until as late as 1972.
Interestingly, a joint research project in 2000 commissioned by the BBC, the Broadcasting Standards Commission, the Independent Television Commission and the Advertising Standards Authority called ‘Delete Expletives?’ placed ‘boll*cks’ eighth in terms of its perceived severity, rather appropriately between pr*ck (7th) and ‘ar*ehole’ (9th) with a quarter of all survey respondents believing it should never be broadcast.
What a load of…, well, you know.
Anyway, we digress. So, Boris swore in Parliament and you’re not allowed to do that. He also called Jeremy Corbyn a ‘chlorinated chicken’, a ‘big girl’s blouse’ and ‘Caracas’ due to his alleged links to Venezuela or something.
We wonder what the 30th century historians will make of that lot?
Catch you soon.