‘Think the English are always polite? Don’t swear on it!’ quips a Daily Mail article, which reports that ‘the average Briton will use up to fourteen curse words each day’. Women, reports the Evening Standard, are even worse in this regard than men. ‘No matter what age they start, the British seem far more fluent at swearing than Americans’, argues a BBC article, noting that we ‘are more likely to link colourful language with having a sense of humour than with coarseness or vulgarity’.
Looking at English history, it soon becomes clear that swearing has always been an integral part of Englishness, despite the waves of condemnation issued forth by those of a more tender disposition.
In pre-modern England, words we consider to be ‘swearing’ today were often used in a more matter-of-fact way, as attested by old place names. Chute Street, in Exeter, for example, was formerly known as ‘Schytebroke’, or ‘Shitbrook’, as the brook (stream) that ran along it was used as an open sewer. The brook still runs beneath the modern road, and is now known as the ‘Shutebrook’. The former ‘Pissing Alley‘ in London is another example of such a functional place name.
There were many streets named ‘Gropecunt Lane’ in the Middle Ages, as they were associated with prostitution. Later generations have renamed them out of embarrassment. Examples include Grape Lane in York and Grope Lane in Shrewsbury. Other similar street names included ‘Cocks Lane’ and ‘Love Lane’.
Following the [Norman] conquest England was thus a two-tiered society, divided upon linguistic grounds. The peasants, who served, spoke a West Germanic language, Old English, the ancestor of both modern English and modern German. The nobles, who ruled, spoke Old French, a Gallo-Roman dialect descended from Latin and spoken in northern France, the ancestor of modern French. Here, then, is the answer as to why our swear words sound so much like German ones; it is precisely because this language is ‘vulgar’ (a word derived from Latin and meaning ‘of the crowd’). Those words that we now call swear words have acquired their power to offend, at least in part, because a long term cultural prejudice has taught people to view the French vocabulary of the conquerors as elevated and cultured and the Germanic vocabulary of the conquered as distasteful and crass.
This association of ‘bad language’ with the common man has endured, for swearing is still referred to as something ‘vulgar’ today. Samuel Johnson’s seminal dictionary of 1755 lists ‘Bilingsgate‘ as a term which means ‘ribaldry; foul language’. He explains that this is ‘a cant word, borrowed from Bilingsgate [sic] in London, a place where there is always a croud [sic] of low people, and frequent brawls and foul language’. Ashley Montagu, in his The Anatomy of Swearing (1967), states:
Women … as distinct from ladies, of the lower classes never ceased to swear as colorfully as their men. Indeed, ‘to swear like a Billingsgate fishwife’ still is as much as to say that the performer has reached the apogee in the art of swearing.
An early attempt at cleaning up the language of the English people is found in a 1623 Act of Parliament, which states:
For as much as all profane Swearing and Cursing is forbidden by the Word of GOD, be it therefore enacted, by the Authority of the then Parliament, that no Person or Persons should from thenceforth profanely Swear or Curse, upon the Penalty of forfeiting one Shilling to the use of the Poor for every Oath or Curse.
The swear box was now a part of law!
The modern English conception of swearing really got going in the 18th and 19th centuries:
The 18th and 19th centuries’ embrace of linguistic delicacy and extreme avoidance of taboo bestowed great power on those words that broached taboo topics directly, freely revealing what middle-class society was trying so desperately to conceal. Under these conditions of repression, obscene words finally came fully into their own. They began to be used in nonliteral ways, and so became not just words that shocked and offended but words with which people could swear.
Despite the prudish sentiments of the time, it wasn’t just ‘commoners’ who were adept at using such language. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, Sir Francis Grant stated with disapproval that ‘many dare reckon it Breeding to Swear, Gallantry to be Lewd, Good humour to be Drunk’. In Daily Life in 18th-Century England (1999), Kirstin Olsen notes of swearing:
In theory, it was a crass, working-class vice, but in practice, men of all classes, and women in the working classes at least, swore. England’s gloriously varied obscenities were condemned by moral tracts, outlawed by Act of Parliament, combated by reforming societies, and chastised in the Spectator as ‘foolish’ and ‘superfluous’. Yet it continued.
Popular swearing of the time included ‘son of a bitch’ and ‘son of a whore’, ‘bastard’, ‘slut’, ‘piss’, ‘fart’, ‘bloody’, ‘shit’, ‘arse’, ‘fuck-fist’ and ‘fuck-finger’ (male and female masturbators), and, of course, ‘fuck’ itself. A 1793 handbill attacked a Peer for ‘sitting his arse in the House of Lords and doing nothing’.
With the Town Police Clauses Act 1847, a crackdown was again attempted. Fines or imprisonment for up to fourteen days were the punishment for:
Every person who publicly offers for sale or distribution, or exhibits to public view any profane book, paper, print, drawing, painting, or representation, or sings any profane or obscene song or ballad, or uses any profane or obscene language.
As ever, though, the English continued to swear.
The Public Order Act 1986, our modern equivalent, states that:
A person is guilty of an offence if he uses threatening or abusive words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour, or displays any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening or abusive, within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby.
It was a losing battle in the nineteenth century, and it continues to be so today. Indeed, in 2011, a High Court judge ruled that people should not be punished for hurling obscenities in public because such words are now so common they no longer cause distress.
Not everyone in England is comfortable with swearing, of course, even today. Celia Walden, writing in The Telegraph, for example, notes of her daughter:
I’d rather she didn’t end up like the tiny mite I once saw fall out of his pushchair in Shepherd’s Bush, look accusingly up at his mother and calmly enunciate the words: “Bloody hell.”
Walden, though, has been softened up by moving to the US. As the BBC America blog notes: ‘Folks here tend to dismiss cursing as coarse and vulgar whereas, for Brits, it can signify affection or a well-rounded sense of humor’.
Swearing is an integral part of English culture and has been for centuries. We have arguably turned it into an art-form, and it’s one of the many aspects of our language that make it the rich and varied wonder that it is.