Pardon me, but should I be offended?
Language has always been interesting to me. I love to play with words and explore the origins of the words we use today. Language is like a living organism; constantly expanding and changing. The meanings of words change over time; sometimes to such a degree the usage becomes unrecognizable. Anyone who has read the original version of Beowulf, one of the oldest written poems in the English language, would know what I am talking about. Written in Old English, the poem is a rather lengthy and troublesome read and is therefore often translated into Modern English which should not be confused with today’s English.
In case you are wondering, Old English refers to the English language spoken in England, Southern Scotland and Wales from about the 5th century to approximately 1150 AD. It is sometimes also called Anglo-Saxon. It is believed to be a mixture of three Germanic dialects. You can read more about the Anglo-Saxons here.
English today has morphed into something that would be barely recognized by the Anglo-Saxons if they heard it today, but nevertheless, there are many Anglo-Saxon words which have been retained in our language. The majority of those words are pretty mundane, but for some reason most of our modern curse words have Anglo-Saxon origins. English words which are Anglo-Saxon in origin are typically mono-syllabic and onomatopoeic (which is a fancy way of saying they sound pretty much like what they are). If you are a native speaker of English and aren’t sure what a word means, there’s a good chance that it is not rooted in Old English.
Below is a list of a few every day Old English terms that are now considered to be vulgar and offensive. Here’s what I find especially interesting. These are also words that were initially used in every day speech, then became so offensive most people would avoid using them. Even more interesting is that these words are now appearing more commonly in every day speech and becoming less offensive again! How did that happen? I’ll tell you later…
Shit: Old English term for feces. There was a time when there was simply no other way to describe the act and the by-product of a bowel movement, and if you think about it, doesn’t the word sound a bit like the act?
Arse: Once spelled ærs, this is the Old English term for buttocks. We English speakers like to refer to either Latin or French when we say otherwise impolite things. Doctors refer to your gluteus maximus but derriere (the French word for behind), is the polite term for what is only a body part that you sit on and really, who cares what you call it?
Ass: Old English derivative referring to the donkey (assa), but oh those old American Puritans! They changed arse to ass and then made that a bad word too! American donkeys have never been more confused. Modern day Brits, still use arse in its pure form and to them, an ass is still a donkey.
Bitch: The term for a female dog derived from the Old English term bicce. Interestingly, in English when we call a woman a bitch we are referring to her nasty personality. The equivalent in other languages refers to her being a whore, or to put it more politely, a woman of ill repute.
Cock: This Old English term for rooster was spelled cocc and appeared in written form around the year 900. Wæpen (pronounced like weapon) is the Old English term for penis (interesting modern day usage of that word). Penis is Latin in origin and entered the English language in the 1500’s. The American Puritans preferred to refer to roosting birds, rather than cock, because somewhere along the line the word took on a sexual meaning. Can’t have that!
Fart: The Anglo-Saxons sure loved those body function sounds. Feort was the original spelling which referred to the passing of wind from the arse (ærs). I was once told that men fart but women fluff. Do you agree?
Tits: Some sources say the term is Old English, other sources say Middle English and Scandinavian in origin. The Old English version was titt and was a natural way to refer to women’s breasts. Wherever it came from, it is now considered a vulgar term.
That brings me to a new point, which is that the notion of there being "vulgar language" is actually based wholly on pretentiousness. What, you say? Vulgar refers to that which is common or low class. After the Norman Conquest of Britain, Anglo- Norman French became the language of nobility and Anglo-Saxon was spoken by the remaining 95% of the lower class population. Eventually, the lower class of Anglo-Saxons began to intermarry with the upper classes and insert more Norman French into their vocabulary. The cultural value of not wanting to be seen as a commoner is partially responsible for the emergence of Middle English.
The point of all this is to tell you that wars, migration, social values, culture and general usage affect the evolution of language. Many of the naughty words in the English language are only deemed so because of lower class people not wanting to appear common (being pretentious). Using those words would have been akin to letting people know their dirty secret. Religious fervor and taboos around sex and the human body further reinforced the notion that certain words are offensive to use and furthermore could also be indicative of a person’s lack of piety. Who wants that kind of social judgement? Insert uproarious laughter here.
In more recent years, as people become less influenced by religion and more exposed to language through media, our naughty words, are becoming more frequently used. The shock value of words like shit, piss and the like is now diluted due to frequency of use. There is a certain C word that even I can’t bear to write, but is frequently used without thought by people in the UK. North Americans consider it to be an extremely vile word, but male Brits call their guy friends that, almost as though it were a term of endearment. Interestingly, it was a medical term found in medical texts during the 1500’s. It was never intended to be dirty. Somehow, the C word got replaced by Latin words. Latin has a way of taking the harshness out of our language. That C word has a Germanic origin, as do the Anglo-Saxon words mentioned above.
All of this makes me think about why we really get offended by word choices to begin with. Words are just words. They only mean what we are told they mean, and intention counts for something too, doesn't it? You wouldn’t otherwise be offended, would you?
Check this out! George Carlin did a comedy routine about words. Quite funny. Loosen up and have a laugh!
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