How did 'swear words' become swear words?

I’ve always wondered this, how, why and when did those certain swear words become ‘bad’ words?

I was arguing/debating with a younger girl awhile back and happened to push a button of the girl’s and she made a comment with the words: ‘hell’ and ‘damn’ in the comment.
My answer was saying that I was not going to lower myself to cussing and she responded back that she didn’t see any cussing. :dubious: When did hell and damn go from cussing to NOT cussing?

In addition when I was younger the word: ‘suck’ was a cuss word, one that I was not allowed to say, but then I would hear it as I got older even by adult who would tell me that that was not a swear word.

So how do these words get to be defined as a ‘bad’ word? What makes them so terrible? and who decides that they are? The two that I would (and do) completely understand are the F- word and GD (actually a small bit less for GD ever since finding out recently that the word ‘God’ is not actually God’s name so therefore GD can’t completely be considered blasphemy… or can it?)

But words like ‘bitch’ that actually are supposed to mean a female dog that isn’t fixed. Or Hell which is an actual word for an actual place, etc etc etc.

They are culturally defined as such, I think. Each culture/language develops its own profane vocabulary independant of other cultures/languages.

but WHY?

Who gets to come up and suddenly say. ‘okay, from now on, the word: ‘why’ is a swear word and any child who says it get their mouth washed out with soap’?

Didn’t a while back like the 1800’s they would still say those words? Damn and Hell were not considered to be swear words like that have/had been more recently (I’d say within the last fifteen years) Why are words like Bitch, or Ass considered to be profane when they are literally animals?
Isn’t the word wench supposed to be profane in some places? Or even something like ‘whore’? Madam used to be a good thing to be called, now it’s considered improper if not another profane word.

Can’t have this discussion without the "Seven Dirty Words"as defined by the late-great George Carlin referenced.

Profanity was originally simple to define: it was taking something sacred and treating it with abuse or irreverence. That’s why old curses like “God’s guts,” and “God’s wounds” were profane – you were using them without the proper reverence. Most profanity originated this way and had nothing to do with sexual or excremental terms, as they are in English today. In some languages, that’s still true; you can say something like “Jesus’s donkey” and be swearing.

“Damn” and “hell,” of course, had the connection to the devil, which is what made them shocking.

Most English profanity nowadays has its roots in Victorianism. Anything to do with sex became profane. It probably started before Victoria, but the basis was the same: people started deciding that anything to do with sex was best not spoken about. By using a sexual term, you were breaking that rule and outraging people. Thus it had the same effect as the older, religious-based profanity.

Sometimes, though, there is no explanation. No one really knows why the term “bloody” became a curse word; it just did, and no one is sure why. It most likely derived from a version of “bloody” as an intensifier. The OED says:

Ultimately, it’s all very arbitrary. Consider the word “occupy,” which, for over 400 years was too risque to be used in polite conversation: it meant “to have sex with.” Nowadays, not so much, though I am amused that if William Shakespeare time traveled to 2012, his first thought on hearing about the Occupy Wall Street movement would be that it meant “Screw Wall Street.”

Carlin’s “Seven Dirty Words” wouldn’t work in Maori or Italian. It’s specific to the English language we all know and use.

There’s another path to profanity, and that’s insult. I’m thinking of the way that “vache (cow)” is a mild profanity in French when it’s aimed at a person, kind of the way “bitch” is perfectly fine when describing a female dog and not so much when it describes a female person. When the term’s use as an insult totally eclipses its original use, it’s profanity.

The most extreme case of that was the Old Norse word “sorðinn” (I know I’m not getting the spelling right) which originally meant “entered” and came to be known as, well, “penetrated from behind.” Now apply that term to a man in uber-macho viking society, and you can see how even saying that word led to murder and mayhem.

Growing up in Catholic schools, I was taught (by the nuns, of course) that “damn” (or, more fully, “God damn it / you”) was unacceptable to say because it indicated that you were calling upon God to damn someone (or something), and that this was (a) a punishment which should not be bandied about lightly, and (b) not something which a mere mortal should be presumptuous enough to ask God to do.

There’s still a lot of this in Quebec.

There’s two overlapping processes.

One is the creation of the new. We don’t think much about this, but almost every sentence we say is something brand new, that’s never been said before with those exact words in that exact order. Some linguists say that this implies deep things about the genetic basis of language, that humans have an innate grammar that enables them to layer their birth language over grammar so that it comes out in an understandable fashion. That’s for another discussion, but the result is that people play with language all the time. Any groups of friends will develop new words and phrases or at least new meanings to old words and phrases. Sometimes these will be used outside the group and they spread. All words accrete meanings; every common word in English now has many more meanings, shadings, and uses than it did 500 years ago.

Rude, insulting, obscure, blasphemous, dirty, vulgar words are as commonly used as words get. They have a history of getting dull from overuse, so newer terms and variants get invented all the time and swear words fall in and out of use. Shakespeare used swive, we use fuck. Nobody knows exactly where fanny came from, although it’s a nickname for Frances so it has a female association. It means the vagina in British usage and is quite dirty but somehow moved to be a mild, inoffensive euphemism for buttocks in America. It just happened over time.

That’s creation of words on the bottom that bubble up. The opposite side of the coin is prohibition from the top trickles down through society. Any kind of propriety can create taboo words. Certain words can’t be said about the King or used in the presence of a pastor or are forbidden in polite society or schools or on the air or wherever. That immediately causes a class of euphemisms to be spawned because those thoughts never go away. Euphemisms are funny things. Sometimes they stick around forever and sometimes they get tarred with the dirt and become taboo words themselves. But if the specific kind of propriety fades, then the taboo words are no longer taboo. Hell and damn are words that are specifically Christian. If that taboo-ridden Christian culture fades away then so will the words it found unsayable.

Some people use this as proof that our culture has gone all to hell and the damn kids today have no values. They’re full of bovine excrement.

EM: Hell’s already there, to the point that most Christians I know just think of it as a word children shouldn’t say, like butt was in my time. Damn has become so innocuous that it seems to have been replaced. Why say, “Damn you” when you can say, “Fuck you”?

Of course, the experience of others may differ.

From the Online Etymology Dictionary:

late 13c., wenche “girl or young woman,” shortened from wenchel “child” (12c.), from O.E. wencel, probably related to wancol “unsteady, fickle, weak,” and cognate with O.N. vakr “child, weak person,” O.H.G. wanchal “fickle.” The word degenerated through being used in ref. to servant girls, and by mid-14c. was being used in a sense of “woman of loose morals, mistress.” The verb meaning “to associate with common women” is from 1590s.
The wenche is nat dead, but slepith. [Wyclif, Matt. ix.24, c.1380]

Not long ago I read a novel called “Time Spike”, where a group of modern-day Americans got kicked backward through time and ended up allying themselves with a group of 19th-century American soldiers. The leader of the 21st-century group had to have a talk with his people about the kind of language they used around the 19th-century people. He noted that, while these soldiers freely used profanity like “fuck” and “shit”, they strictly avoided any language that even hinted at [Christian] blasphemy and would be horrified by casual use of “God damn!” or “Jesus Christ!”

In modern times, words are deemed inappropriate as a result of those who feign the most offense.

Absolutely, as long as you define “modern times” as any period after language was invented.

The word “ass”, as in one’s bottom, is not etymologically related to “ass” as in “donkey”. Rather, it derives from “arse”, which lost the “r” before the “s” by the same process by which, well, “curse” became “cuss”.


ass [ass]
(plural ass·es)

  1. animal resembling horse with long ears: an animal resembling a small horse with long ears, sometimes used as a beast of burden. The donkey is a domesticated descendant of the wild ass.
    Genus: Equus
  2. offensive term: an offensive term that deliberately insults somebody’s intelligence, consideration for others, or general value (slang insult)

[ Old English assa , via Celtic < Latin asinus ]
Encarta ® World English Dictionary © & § 1998-2005 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.
And yet people use it to mean each other. shrugs.

And I was going to add ‘bloody’ when I got home, I was told by a friend that yes ‘bloody’ is technically a swear but it’s more so when used with ‘hell’ added to the end of it (ie: bloody hell!)

mister rik: doesn’t help me, was that a ‘yes’ ‘no’ or ‘maybe’?

And in answer to the other: My mom was watching the ‘bloopers’ from old time movies like back in the 50’s or even 40’s and she was surprised to hear the actors using words like ‘fuck’ and ‘GD’ all most as easily as we (almost most people anyways) do now.) and I thought it was even more taboo back then than it is now. (Like you hear even seven year olds saying f-you).

Reality: LOL! Awesome. Actually it almost fits don’t ya think?

Well, the definition I provided pretty much spells it out as a “yes, sorta” :smiley: I think the “final” usage would be closer to “slut” than “whore”. Like the definition says, it started out as a general term meaning “girl or young woman”, but evolved into a more specific term for “serving girl”, i.e. a “waitress” at an inn or alehouse, or a young, female household servant.

If stories are any indication, the serving wenches at inns were common “targets” for amorous traveling men, soldiers, and sailors on shore leave, and thus became the subjects of these men later boasting of their exploits with these “lusty wenches”. Similarly, a married man might be carrying on with one of the household servants behind his wife’s back, and when his wife finds out about it she angrily tells people about catching him playing hide the sausage in the linen closet with “the wench”. It’s easy to see how, in that context, “wench” would evolve it’s less savory connotations, and how women who weren’t fornicating would not want to have the word applied to them. So the original meaning fades into obscurity in favor of the uncomplimentary new meaning.

Dictionaries record usage. For history you want an etymological dictionary. is a good source for this. And they show that the two usages have separate histories.

Yes thats what it means and therefore seems pretty obvious to me that it would be considered a profanity when used in reference to a human female.