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!

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