Welcome To The Bitchery

Well...bless my stars! If you're a regular reader, you may have been surprised by the strong reaction the latest article about swearing provoked. We usually get into some rollicking discussions around here, but the comments on this article really illuminated some differing viewpoints on swear words.


One of the most common complaint against swearing was the socio-economic baggage attached to it — simply put, that swearing often gives people the impression that you are uneducated, uncultured, or from a lower-class background.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. The thing is, there is a solid linguistic basis for associating swearing with a lower class of society or education. And it goes back to the Norman Conquest of 1066. (Obviously, I'm just speaking to English here.)

The biggest direct result of the Norman Conquest was societal — the largely Saxon ruling class of England was promptly unseated and replaced with "a foreign, French-speaking monarchy, aristocracy, and clerical hierarchy. This, in turn, brought about a transformation of the English language and the culture of England in a new era," an era in which French speakers set the rules.

This meant that English (Germanic based) became the language of the lower-class Saxons, and to some extent became the language of tradesmen and farmers. Latin-based French, on the other hand, became the language of the educated, the noble, the wealthy and the powerful.


Many of our oldest words that deal with trade and travel are also short Germanic words that evolved from this point (usually, the shorter the word, the older it is) — our usage of words like "ship," "port," "fare," and "whore," just off the top of my head (sorry, that was an interesting connection to make, but if you know your history it's not such a big leap), developed from Old English and Germanic, and stayed in use.

On the other hands, the more complicated contributions to our language tend to come from French, and Latin, eventually the official language of the Roman Catholic Church, and by extension, the educated clergy. Think pretty much any word that ends in "-tion" or "-ment."


Where it gets interesting is when we see these trends continuing over the years, and seeping into society. Some of the best examples are in Shakespeare. The Bard turned this social distinction into an art form. In some cases, like the fairies in "A Midsummer Night's Dream," he deliberately mixed Germanic and Latinate vocabulary for visual effect. In others, he used the two vocabularies to create a strong sense of contrast. In any given play of Shakespeare's, the nobles, the lovers, and the heroes abound with flowery, Latinate speech. But when things get bawdy, or lower-class, or vulgar? Bring on the German vocabulary. (Compare Mercutio's Queen Mab speech, or his thinly-veiled horny musings about Romeo, with Hamlet's speeches.)

We teach language the same way today — simple, short words form the basis of our world from childhood, and we gradually progress to the polysyllabic, the Latinate. And if you go far enough, you eventually meet someone (usually in college) who speaks in almost nothing but Latinate words, because they sound intellectual and impressive. In English, a large portion of our nouns are Germanic, while the bulk of our adjectives are Latinate.


So what does this have to do with swearing? Well, how would you classify our swear words? Fuck, shit, damn, hell, bitch, whore, cunt, ass: all can be used as nouns, five can be used as nouns or verbs. All are short, hard words, indicative of long linguistic life and Germanic or Norse origins. In fact, let me look them up for you (if you want to check this out for yourself, I recommend the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots).

Fuck, shit, whore, hell, ass, cunt - Germanic/Old English

Bitch - may be Old French or Old English

Damn - Latin

It's interesting to think that we still associate these hard Germanic words with the lower class, the uneducated, the crass. We use Latinate versions of these words, too, but they are technical, elevated, scholarly: fornicate, excrement, defecate, posterior, derriere, vulva, vagina, pudenda, condemn. They mean the same thing, but they're acceptable.


Our educated elite do this. Our politicians do this. Latinate words often feel more neutral, more technical, more correct than their blunter, more loaded counterparts. Have we managed to maintain the socio-linguistic divide through the centuries? Possibly.

(Also, interesting thought about how from the Norman Conquest on, the concept of being in trade was considered lower than not being in trade. Obviously there are multiple influences there, but the linguistic parallel is noteworthy, particularly when watching British cinema and comparing speech patterns. But that's a whole other topic.)


Could it be that there is not actually any particular merit in the use or disuse of these words, aside from the cultural merit that we've inherited from the times when the only people who used them were the conquered? If so, that's quite a few centuries of socio-economic baggage all hinging on a few monosyllabic words.

So I guess from now on I might go with... bless my stars and garters?

Share This Story

Get our newsletter