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 derriere 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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