Pride and Profanity: On the history and application of foul language

I’d like to thank Mr. Mike Huckabee, self-appointed moral arbiter, for inspiring me to write this post. I’ve been meaning to for a long time, because it relates to one of my favorite facts about the development of the English language, but his most recent round of sexist nonsense prompted me to finally do it. It seems Mr. Huckabee is clutching his pearls over the fact that women, astonishingly, curse. Specifically, New York women, but as a born and bred Virginia belle, I’m afraid I have to break it to Mr. Huckabee that we Southerners, too, swear. Like fucking ladies. What’s more, this isn’t a recent development. Women didn’t start swearing at the same time they got all uppity with their whore pills and their wanting to vote. Women have been experts at the profane for pretty much as long as there’s been language.

1341798306124_7698241We English-speakers have the Dutch to thank for a lot of our profanity. A fair bit came from Germanic and Scandinavian dialects, but in the late 15th-century, we get an influx of new dirty words from the Netherlands. Why? Because swearing like a sailor is nothing new. See, in 1476, William Caxton introduced the printing press to England, and it took off like a shot (particularly when Richard III eased restrictions on them during his brief reign). Printing presses need paper. The Dutch had a lot of it to trade. So English ships start spending a lot more time in Dutch ports. Literally and, we must suppose, figuratively. The English sailors, while picking up paper from the Netherlands, also pick up precisely the words you’d expect them to learn in taverns and brothels. They bring the words back to England, where they proliferate, not just mouth-to-mouth, but on that very paper, which helped English-speakers learn all sorts of new vocabulary — the nice and the naughty.

So, if Mr. Huckabee is troubled by our goddamn dirty mouths, he can blame William Caxton.

I learned a lot of this while researching a paper on sexualized insults in grad school — and part of what I learned is that women in the early modern period swore as profusely and as creatively as men. How do we know? Thanks to court cases for slander and defamation, well-preserved in ecclesiastical records. Frankly, the words that passed their pretty little lips would blister poor Mr. Huckabee’s fucking ears. Some of my favorites:

  • gull snowted whore
  • hott arsed Bitch
  • saddlenosed whore
  • scurvie fatt arst quean
  • gouty legged whore
  • burnt-arse whore
  • tinckers truell
  • curtaile jade
  • And, in one instance of breathtaking verbal stamina, a woman reported being called: “Tinker whore, tinker’s bitch, whore, quean, drab and scold, dronkard, dronken whore, dronken quean, dronken harlot, dronken drab, and dronken scold, a noughtie, an evell and a bad and lewd woman.'”

You may notice that pretty much all of those terms have to do with attacking another woman under the context of sexual deviancy. (There’s also a weird association of tip-tilted noses with transgression, which I find a bit concerning on behalf of my own face). When political, economic, and social systems deny women true power, words are often the strongest weapons they have — and it’s generally easier to attack each other than to attack the men holding the power — and when your value as a human being has been socially linked to your sexual chastity, then attacking that is the easiest way to make yourself of superior worth to another woman. That hasn’t really changed in 400 years, sad to say. Unfortunately, a lot of the profanity women use today is still in the service of tearing each other down thanks to the burden of internalised misogyny.

There’s a lot to unpack about why people use the words they do, how language can help you to claim or cause you to relinquish power, how certain words get coded as appropriate or inappropriate, whether or not some derogatory terms are worth reclaiming, and so forth. And certainly, there’s a time and a place for formal and informal language, and part of being a grown human is knowing when and with whom you can talk in certain ways. There’s been a big discussion in the romance novel community over the past few years about the value of saltier terms for body parts versus the oft-mocked epithets (bratwursts, indeed), and a lot of genre fiction has to decide whether profanity enhances the tone or takes a reader out of the story (particular in historical and fantasy genres — as though no one cursed before the Industrial Revolution). What can you get away with? When is the use of a single word a hill worth dying on? And then there’s the fascinating evolution of which words are “worst”. Once upon a time in Western culture, religious-themed cussing was the worst, punishable by law, but now, “damn” and “hell” and invocations of deities are considered the mildest curses. Thanks to the Victorians, we’re much more squeamish about profanity related to body parts and functions, and, of course, of those, we’re most troubled by the ones about sex. The dirty words themselves haven’t evolved much in a while, but the weight we give them ebbs and flows.

Language isn’t just the tool we use to negotiate culture; it’s part of what we engage with, feel our way through, and trip over as well. But I’ll be damned as a tinker’s drab-tailed whore if some busybody dude with his head still lodged in a half-Victorian, half-Leave-It-To-Beaver fantasy of female delicacy gets to pass judgment on me and my words based on what he’s decided is “trashy”.

Fuck that noise.

If anyone wants to read my full paper “”Thou art an whore an errant whore a bitche yea worse than a bitche’: The Language of Sexual Slander in Early Modern England”, which delves into more of the details of why early modern women used these terms, who they used them against, where they stood when they used them (and why that matters), and why that developed as a ground for power-play 400 years ago, then download away! If you want to learn more about the history and grammatical application of swearing, I highly recommend the blog Strong Language, which examines profane predilections from a solid linguistic grounding. (One of my favorite posts regards just how many fucks one can give). Go forth and cuss better-informed, my friends!

The Romans and Social Media

Cicero’s Web: How Social Media Was Born in Ancient Rome

Just a quick note on this article I stumbled over today, positing that social media is just one link in a chain going back at least 2000 years. It’s got me interested in the book, for sure, and it’s gotten me thinking about the transmission of knowledge in classical times (and, for Aven‘s purposes, what changes when you have magical means of sending messages as well as mundane channels). I particularly enjoy the implication that social media is a natural correction of the effects of the corporatization of media (an argument I’ve also seen regarding fanfic).

What I think goes one step further is that isn’t just the distribution of information that goes back so far — it’s the need to comment on what everyone else is saying and doing. Roman poets were famous for this, for everything from incisive political commentary that could end in banishment to the Black Sea to exposing the dastardly doings of dinnertime napkin-thieves. They also chattered about the sex lives of the rich and famous with a perverse enthusiasm and dogged persistence that would be admired by any modern tabloid.

Truly, the act of getting up in everyone’s business is an ancient one.

History in Fantasy

I read a pair of fun Tumblr articles today from The Writing Cafe: “Your Fantasy Story Is Bothering Me, Pt 1 and Pt 2“. Apart from being a good giggle, it reminded me of a personal thesis I have: that a good fantasy writer ought, too, to be a good historian. I think this is true even if you’re writing second world fantasy, not earth-based AUs, because what a solid grounding in history gets you is an awareness of how worlds work.

7263041032_31c992469e_zYou get perspective. No country exists in isolation. Recently I’ve been reading A History of the World in 100 Objects, which really drives that point home. The earliest human civilizations engaged in trade. During the supposed “Dark Ages”, buried hoards in England had jewels from Sri Lanka. So think not just about where your characters live, but who their national neighbors are. What goods do they import and export? Who are they in competition with and who are their allies? (This topic can intersect a lot with making sure your fantasy world is diverse, too). Is your story’s focus nation relatively isolated? Then there needs to be a reason, and it needs to be feasible. Consider how Japan has periodically closed its ports. It’s easier for a country to isolate if it’s an island — but even so, the severance is rarely complete. The rest of the world doesn’t stop existing just because one nation stops participating in trade (a pet peeve of mine when it comes to a lot of dystopian fiction). And there need to be repercussions. What goods is your society without, if it can’t import them? What does it have a surplus of? How does the lack of new influence affect the culture? Who in your society is in favor of isolation and which citizens agitate for reopening the borders?

Then there’s politics and government. I went to a fascinating presentation at a convention once about how different kinds of societies give rise to different kinds of governing structures. You don’t get complexly structured bureaucracies in small civilizations; you get them when you have a lot of people spread out over large distances. And then, to manage that sort of sprawl, you have to have good roads and a solid system for transferring messages — traits shared by Achaemenid Persia, imperial Rome, Han and Tang China, and the Yuan Mongols. Higher literacy rates tend to lead to more democratic tendencies — or at least to more people agitating for them. Is power centralized or de-centralized? Are there gender disparities in who can hold power? Economic restrictions? Is military control tied directly into political control or is it a separate system? A lot of fantasy, with its medieval-western-Europe focus, tends to reflect an agricultural-based feudal society, but there are so many other options.

KangnidoMapReligion’s another big aspect of world-building that can be augmented by knowing your history. Faith doesn’t just pop up out of nowhere — it’s a product of topography, agriculture, climate. Your landlocked city probably isn’t going to revere a god of the oceans — not without really good reason, at least. Maybe the city was taken over by a different, sea-based culture somehow? Or maybe the city hasn’t always been landlocked? Did the geography change for natural or magical reasons? Do the people feel their god abandoned them? That’s a whole story right there. You can also think about how new religions grow, absorb, and replace the faiths that come before them. People don’t give up their beliefs readily, and even in violent, imposed conquest, certain traits will still carry over — look at how many pagan traditions from across Europe got re-envisioned in Christianity. The speed with which a religion grows has a lot of history-based influences as well: Think of the differences between early Christianity and early Islam. Christianity began as a religion of the disenfranchised, and poor folk, traditionally, don’t have a lot of mobility, so it took a few centuries before it got enough traction to become the dominant force in the land. Islam, however, gets its start with folk who had money (Muhammed being of the merchant class and married to the crazy-successful and seriously awesome Khadijah), and people who have money have access to that most convenient of conversion tools: armies. And, while Christianity got its start when the Roman empire was strong and ascendant, Islam started when the Byzantines and Sassanids were pretty weak. So Islam expands with unprecedented speed. How many religions are in the world of your story? How did they grow? Which are dominant? Which are old and which are new?

I could go on like this forever, because everything has history behind it. Every object you touch every day is just a recent point in a chain of events — and that’s true for every object your characters touch, too. It’s true for what they eat, how their houses are decorated, how they dress, how they talk, and what they talk about. That’s not to say that you need to give explicit descriptions of the historical context for everything, of course. You’re writing a story, not an encyclopedia. (A mantra I occasionally have to repeat to myself, with how much I love world-building). You do need, though, to be aware. If your characters are wearing silk clothing in a land without silkworms or have ivory jewelry in a land without elephants, some reader is going to wonder why.

So go forth and read, friends! Or listen! As I’ve posted before, there are some great history podcasts, and even when they nominally focus on, say, Rome or England, so much information about other nations always gets pulled in as well, thanks to the glorious interconnections of our world. Or look at some maps. Just exploring can be a great way to get ideas or to enhance what you’ve already constructed.