This post con­tains swear words, so if that offends you, please note that you’ve been fore­warned.

Have you ever won­dered why some words are swear words but oth­ers aren’t? Why is shit con­sid­ered vul­gar, for exam­ple, but defe­cate isn’t? Why is fuck pro­fane, but cop­u­late isn’t. Why can we say der­rière in polite com­pa­ny, but not ass?

Well, ulti­mate­ly, it comes down to class.

Oxford Dic­tio­nar­ies has a pret­ty thor­ough run through of the his­to­ry of swear words, begin­ning with the Nor­man Con­quest of Eng­land by William the Con­queror. Pri­or to that point, the Eng­lish were speak­ing, well, Eng­lish. It was Old Eng­lish, actu­al­ly, a West Ger­man­ic lan­guage.

Under William’s rule, how­ev­er, Old French start­ed creep­ing into the vocab­u­lary, par­tic­u­lar­ly among roy­al­ty and nobil­i­ty. Before long, the Eng­lish were lin­guis­ti­cal­ly divid­ed into two class­es: the rich, who spoke Old French, and the peas­antry, who spoke Old Eng­lish.

It is no coin­ci­dence that mod­ern swear words in Eng­lish have Ger­man­ic roots. Fuckshitass, hellbitchcunt, and cock are all descend­ed from Ger­man­ic words. (Damn is the out­lier, being of Latin roots.) These words became swear words because they were looked down on, because they were of an infe­ri­or lan­guage spo­ken by an infe­ri­or peo­ple.

The idea that we even have words that are con­sid­ered more vul­gar than oth­ers is typ­i­cal of clas­sism. In fact, that clas­sism from a thou­sand years ago per­sists today. Every time some­one says that “swear­ing is unciv­i­lized”, or that we should be able to have a con­ver­sa­tion “with­out swear­ing every oth­er word”, or that some­one who doesn’t swear is “hon­ourable, respectable, and shows true class”, or that by swear­ing we aren’t “adding to our vocab­u­lary”, they’re per­pet­u­at­ing the clas­sism instilled by the Nor­mans.

Will swear­ing ever become accept­able in all soci­ety? Maybe, but it will take a long time.

About Kim Siever

I am a copy­writer and copy­ed­i­tor. I blog on writ­ing tips most­ly, but I some­times throw in my thoughts about run­ning a small busi­ness.

Fol­low me on Twit­ter at @hotpepper.

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