Renée 🐝 Cormier

5 years ago · 5 min. reading time · ~10 ·

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Pardon me, but should I be offended?

Pardon me, but should I be offended?


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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 (previously written with a k, c or q) 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!


Check out my other beBee blogs!

Few public relations & communications specialists have as diverse a background as Renée Cormier. Add published author, employee engagement specialist, sales and marketing strategist, entrepreneur and educator to her list of accomplishments. In her career Renée has held leadership roles in sales and marketing, developed and implemented national marketing strategies and was responsible for teams as large as 28 strong. She brings a wide range of experience and talent to her work.

Renée really shines in communications. She is known for developing and implementing comprehensive communications strategies and generating results through flawless implementation. With such strong business acumen, passion for her work and a natural talent for business strategy, Renée is definitely considered an important resource for her clients. Is your business in transition? Do you need help with your communications or public relations efforts? Contact Renée through her website.

Follow me on Twitter @reneecormierpr.






Renée 🐝 Cormier

1 year ago #32

Ken Boddie

1 year ago #31

And then, talking about being offended and the potential to offend, how about this old post? 

Ken Boddie

1 year ago #30

Well worth reactivating this old post, Renée. But you missed out the most obvious Anglo Saxon four letter ‘f’ word, used by so many to relieve frustration, but which, in essence, describes the sound of joy down under. 😂🤣😂

Renée 🐝 Cormier

5 years ago #29

Thank you, guys! Federico \ud83d\udc1d \u00c1lvarez San Mart\u00edn xxoo

Renée 🐝 Cormier

5 years ago #27

I could sure come up with some dirty combinations from that list! Good thing I'm not much of a drinker. :)

Renée 🐝 Cormier

5 years ago #26

Mais oui!

Renée 🐝 Cormier

5 years ago #25

Yes. I have a similar problem with the word queer, which of course means odd, but to some it always seems to mean homosexual.

Renée 🐝 Cormier

5 years ago #24

Javier \ud83d\udc1d beBee is there a way to delete comments 28 and 29 from the stream?

Phil Friedman

5 years ago #23

Are you done yet, Renee? Is it safe for me to open my eyes and take my fingers out of my ears? Wait. What was that you said about my thumb and a donkey?

John Rylance

5 years ago #22

What is or isn't acceptable changes over the years. Imagine if a critic wrote this today "The Beggars Opera made Gay rich and Rich gay. Googling the quote puts it way down the listing after much about rich gay people. It illustrates how word meanings can change and turn innocent remarks into taboo ones. It is risky to describe a happy person as gay.
I love to play with words. I did hate Old English when I had to read it. Translation whore here. I use expletives very occasionally--yes--for shock value. Tends to wake people up. Thanks for a great post.

Pascal Derrien

5 years ago #20

Upper class you said :-)

Ken Boddie

5 years ago #19

I agree with you, Renée, that the 'shock value', of what many of us refer to as Anglo-Saxon words, decreases with repetition. The coarseness of those 'Old English' words in your list, however, still tends to raise hackles and offend the ear for those not bombarded with them daily, and repetitive use of 'Fs' and 'Cs' even more so, particularly when the intention of the verbal bombardment if to sling insults. Personally I have always found that a good command of expressive language, with a wide range of fittingly chosen adjectives before a well chosen illustrative noun, achieves the insult slinging objective in a much more effective manner, particularly if those adjectives are not in common daily use. It appears that there were whole flotillas of such successfully combined insults in Shakespearean times and, indeed, a beBee post was written on this, some time back, by a worthy proponent. Unfortunately, I have retained neither the post link nor its author. I do, however, have a list of some of these Shakespearean adjectives and nouns, from which the following alliterated combinations have been drawn: "frothy, fly-bitten, fustilarian"; "bawdy, bat-fowling, baggage"; "puny, plume-plucked, puttock"; and "churlish, clapper-clawed, codpiece." Having watched your entertaining George Carlin video, Renée, surely there can be no doubt about the intended context of these word combinations?

Renée 🐝 Cormier

5 years ago #18

Thanks for those shares, Lance!

Renée 🐝 Cormier

5 years ago #17

Yes, Aaron, we are often judged by the way we express ourselves, and that isn't always fair. Glad you liked my post.

Lance 🐝 Scoular

5 years ago #16

👌👍 👥ed 🐝🐝🐤🐳🔥🚲

Renée 🐝 Cormier

5 years ago #15

Haha. I'm not immune to using that one myself, although I certainly never did when I was growing up.

Renée 🐝 Cormier

5 years ago #13

Thanks for sharing, Sara Jacobovici.

Renée 🐝 Cormier

5 years ago #12

Thanks, debasish majumder for the comment and the share!

Renée 🐝 Cormier

5 years ago #11

haha! Take the compliments whenever you can get them Praveen Raj Gullepalli. West Indian dialects are especially interesting. They use curse words rather freely, in my experience.

Renée 🐝 Cormier

5 years ago #10

Thank you, Sara Jacobovici, for you thoughtful comments and quote. I love it (or at least my personal filter is impressed). I will order one of Rose's books today. Also, I agree with you regarding the critical element of non-verbal communication (another subject that fascinates me). Non-verbal cues speak volumes!

Lisa Gallagher

5 years ago #9

I couldn't agree more, it's the intention behind using the words, not the words themselves. I admit, I swear when I'm with people I feel close to. I find nothing wrong with it. Sadly, we have to be careful because there are still so many who are offended by the use of 'swear words.' If I went into McDonalds eg, and said, Hey, I want to order that kick ass new burger, what do you call that shit again to an employee, I'm sure I get a stink eye or best case - a hearty laugh (probably at my expense) so many of us feel we have to be careful. Great buzz Ren\u00e9e \ud83d\udc1d Cormier, enjoyed reading the history behind these words. I also enjoyed the George Carlin clip, he was so spot on. We went to see him years ago in Cleveland, and we did laugh our 'asses' off!

Sara Jacobovici

5 years ago #8

Great read by Ren\u00e9e \ud83d\udc1d Cormier.

Sara Jacobovici

5 years ago #7

Part Two: You expressed it beautifully Ren\u00e9e \ud83d\udc1d Cormier, “Language is like a living organism; constantly expanding and changing.” I just don’t want to see the words disappear, get condensed in capital letters, LOL, and disappear. For me, communication is still at the core of this, so allow me to share this quote: “We express ourselves all the time, in all sorts of ways. And we listen to one another. But we do not simply, passively receive a communication. We construct the message (and even the sender!) for ourselves, using a mix of what we have heard, what we hope we did not hear, who we are, who we think the message sender is, what our values and expectations are, what our moods and contexts are, our memories of previous interactions, etc. So, misunderstanding between two people is inevitable, no matter how much they try to communicate, no matter who they are, no matter what their relationship. This situation is inevitable, and it should be accepted rather than fought.” - Gilbert J. Rose

Sara Jacobovici

5 years ago #6

Part One: What a wonderful post Ren\u00e9e \ud83d\udc1d Cormier. Well written! I love the topic and your perspective. (Also, you including the George Carlin video.) I often joke that as a non-verbal therapist, I talk a lot. I think that’s because it’s all language and communication; non-verbal just came first. Unfortunately, too often we let go of the non-verbal and focus predominantly on the words and are not aware of the fact that is the non-verbal we are really listening to; facial expression, body language, tone of voice, and so on. That is why texting is such a challenge. That is why I became concerned when I read, “Today Oxford Dictionaries announces the emoji, commonly known as ‘Face with Tears of Joy’, as its “Word” of the Year for 2015.” I love the changes language goes through and the time and culture influences, as well as the “root” of words.
Words are words - it's the intent and the perception that makes them meaningful. I agree with Sarah Elkins - the only bad word is hate and everything else in moderation.

Renée 🐝 Cormier

5 years ago #4

Susan \ud83d\udc1d Rooks, since you like words, too, you may like this post!

Renée 🐝 Cormier

5 years ago #3

Yes, absolutely. I wrote this post because someone was offended by my use of the word, shit, in my previous post. This post is about the evolution of language and the fact that the taboo words people use today were not originally deemed to be offensive.

Renée 🐝 Cormier

5 years ago #2

Clever strategy :)

Sarah Elkins

5 years ago #1

When our boys were little, I told them there were no bad words, just bad intention. So our "bad" words weren't about being vulgar, they were about a diverse and broad vocabulary. I suggested they listen closely when people started throwing around THOSE words, every other word being the same, and decide how it made the person sound. "Does that sound smart to you? I think smart people use a larger variety of words, don't you think?" The only bad word in our house is hate. Everything else in moderation. ;-)

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