Five facts about English swear words

Tom Howell’s The Rude Story of English tells a history of English’s base origins — and can really help you up your vulgarity game.

The Rude Story of English

Fed up with history books about aristocrats and dull linguistic taxonomies, former lexicographer and professional word nerd Tom Howell set out to describe the birth of English from the ground up. The result, The Rude Story of English, recounts the tongue’s history as a saga, following the probably mythical Hengest in his exploits among the Jutes and Angles as our language’s unlikely early hero.

The title itself is a play on words — Howell uses “rude” to mean not just a history of vulgar words, but also that the history itself is a bit sketchy. It’s of course impossible to trace exactly how and when a new language came into being, particularly a mutt tongue like ours.

“I’m not just looking at swear words,” he says. “I kind of want the book to be rude in every sense of the word. Like, rude can mean something that’s approximate or inexpert or rough or kind of cobbled together or lively, so I kind of play with all the definitions of rude as I’m trying to spin this super-complicated thing, a language, into a story, into a heroic epic.”

That said, the book is riddled with scraps and anecdotes about the language’s base origins, including an excellent primer on ritual Scottish insults (just add –begotten or –gett to any animal, slatternly woman or your mother and voilà, a new diss), offering new options for even the filthiest of mouths.

Here’s five things you probably didn’t know about swearing in English:

1.     The term “swear words” comes from the middle ages, when vows were taken as literal truth. Kind of like Jesus and/or Christ today, words like swear, pledge, avenge or oath were vulgar when taken in vain. Basically, if you showed an episode of Game of Thrones to a 15th century Anglo, it would sound like The Wire.

2.     Swear words never mean what they mean. “By the time you’re actually saying the thing, you’re usually not thinking of the meaning of the word, exactly,” Howell explains. “It’s sort of got its own magic or fun of saying it — like, when most people use the F-word, they’re not actually talking about sex. And that’s how it tends to work. Swearing tends to empty out the semantic content of the word, to become its own sort of direct weapon.”

3.     Most of our present-day swears have been around for ages, but weren’t always dirty — both “ass” and “shit” appear in very early English translations of the Bible, but both were considered descriptive rather than vulgar.

4.     There was a fad in early English to swear on pieces of Jesus. Howell says, “there was a bit of latitude in what bits of Jesus you took to swear by — by his nails, by his eyeballs, by his gonads or something. You could swear on that. People used to swear a lot by or on things, instead of just yelling a curse word.”

5.     The first known book written in English includes at least 19 dick jokes. “It’s a big long thing about the passion of Christ, all very serious,” says Howell, “and then you flip the page, and it’s a penis riddle: ‘now here’s a quick test: I’m a tall shaggy thing that likes to go in holes, what am I?’” ■

Tom Howell and illustrator Gabe Foreman launch The Rude Story of English at Librairie Drawn & Quarterly (211 Bernard W.) on Wednesday, Nov. 27, 7 p.m., free

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