In the popular Netflix series, History of Swear Words, host Nicolas Cage explores the use – past and present – of the 6 most common expletives in the English language.  This documentary is the latest in a series of books, articles and studies that speaks to the unspeakable. Join us now for a 5-part anthology, as we jump on the naughty word bandwagon and delve deeper into the topic of cussing. In this second article, we look at curses, taboos and the history of two popular swear words.

Whether we hate them or use them, we cannot deny that swear words play a special role in human language. Their status is so unique that they’re even treated by the brain differently from other words. Let’s try to see what gives swearing its power to shock and awe.

Word Magic

In Disney’s 1959 animated feature, Sleeping Beauty, evil sorceress Magnificent uses the power of words to cast a fatal spell on beloved Princess Aurora after being excluded from the royal christening. “The princess shall indeed grow in grace and beauty loved by all who know her,” she says, “but before the sun sets on her sixteenth birthday, she shall prick her finger on a spindle of a spinning wheel and die.”[1] Magnificent’s curse illustrates what experts now believe: that swearing originated from the idea that utterances have enough clout to influence reality. To curse someone meant to use words in a way that could doom its victim to calamities and misfortunes.

Societies of old have all leveraged the mystical power of words to swear and curse, but in modern times, bad words endure by drawing on our taboos. Foul language has been divided into two main categories of proscriptions. The first category refers to visceral words – that is those related to sexuality and other bodily functions.[2] We’ll let anthropologists figure out why basic human functions are considered taboo, but for now, let’s just point out that this class of bad words exists in most societies. The second group is deistic cursing, which refers to the use of holy words outside their religious context. To illustrate the nuances between the two classes of expletives, let’s look at the origin of two popular four-letter words.

The F-word and it sketchy history

With the flexibility of a circus contortionist, the F-word can be combined in any number of colourful ways as a noun, a verb, an adverb or an adjective. Its origin has been difficult to pin down, but in 2015, historian Paul Booth made headlines when he found the word used in 1310[3] – a full 63 years before its previously established first occurrence in 1373. The word is believed to come from the Dutch verb “to strike,” which may or may not explain its later usage in connection with sexuality. Regardless of its history, we do know that by the 19th century it had become the multitasking expletive we now know and, unlike some swear words, it continues to wield its power today.

Damn – how swear words die

Parents might still forbid their kids from saying it, but damn as a curse word no longer has the shock value it once had. This religious swear word comes from the Latin verb Damnare, meaning to condemn someone to hell or to find someone guilty of a crime.[4] It was considered blasphemous in the Middle Ages when the fear of eternal punishment was a source of great angst for believers. Exit the idea of hell as a threat to humans and the word damn loses its naughty-word status.

Given the ebb and flow of society, are all swear words doomed to die one day? No one can know for sure, but as long as taboos exist, cursing will remain an important part of our social fabric. And that’s a damn good thing!

[1] Sleeping Beauty (1959), Full Transcript:

[2] Dr. Emma Byrne, Swearing is Good for You: The Amazing Science of Bad Language, Profile Books Limited, UK, 2017.

[3] Ishaan Tharoor, The F-word is even older than you think, Washington Post, September 15, 2015:

[4] Interview with Melissa Mohr, author of Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing, in Netflix documentary, History of Swear Words – Damn.