Heather's Monthly Articles
A Concise History on Swearing
May 2013

When Dame Helen Mirren recently turned the night air blue with her tirade against the drum-beating members of Batala London, the world took note. It wasn't just the Dame's queenly attire that attracted attention. Anyone whose enjoyment of a theatrical production has been lessened by noise emanating from outside the theatre can well appreciate the actress taking time out during the intermission of her recent West End hit The Audience, in which she plays Queen Elizabeth II, to ask the drummers to stop until after the show had finished.

 

A Concise History on Swearing
Dame Helen Mirren as Queen
Elizabeth II in The Audience.

"Quiet! I'm trying to do a play in here! People have paid a lot of money for tickets," scolded the pearl-clad Mirren. But it was the less-than-regal language she used to back up her request that prompted news watchers to prick up their ears. Mirren's use of what she called "a few thespian words" seemed to cause a lot more fuss this side of the pond than in Britain, a country in which expletives are as commonplace as fish and chips and Harry Potter. That's probably because most British swear words have been around longer than America was a mere twinkle in Columbus' eye.

A Concise History on Swearing
A Norman castle.

Blame it on the Romans. Along with the roads they constructed throughout Britain, they laid the groundwork for profanities which today might only be found in medical dictionaries. They also did their utmost to ensure the vulgarisms survived the passing of time by incorporating into the slender roads enough twists and turns to make even the mildest of travelers mutter a dirty word or two. The Roman army left Britain around AD 410 and the Anglo-Saxons promptly invaded in their wooden boats, bringing with them words and terms that, while commonplace to the attackers, would nowadays warrant an R-rating. Many of today's crudest swear words derive from those times.

A Concise History on Swearing
Depiction of Anglo-Saxon life.

Then along came les normands-pardon my French. William the Conqueror, whose invasion in 1066 led to the creation of the Doomsday Book, intimidated the inhabitants of the British Isles by building huge castles which he gave to the Barons that had assisted in the conquering. These Barons, along with their retinues, "lorded" it over the commoners, whose Saxon language, like the Saxons themselves, they considered crude and unsophisticated. By deliberately introducing French words into the vocabulary, they created a lasting social class divide, and while over the next two centuries the language would blend and become the vernacular as we know it today, prejudices around expletives still exist.

A Concise History on Swearing
Prime Minister David Cameron.

A word that is perfectly acceptable to say in French, "posterior" or "bosom," for instance, in Anglo-Saxon English would be considered vulgar or offensive. It's just not polite. In reality, wordsmiths have found that the upper classes, being secure of their position in society, swear more than the striving classes. They can say what they want, whereas the rising middle classes have to watch their Ps and Qs, mind their language, and a daily doffing of one's hat doesn't go amiss either.

So when Prime Minister David Cameron denied he had made a parliamentary faux pas by swearing in the House of Commons earlier this year, it was probably a mild attempt at concealing his aristocratic roots. Cameron is a great-great-great-great-great grandson of King William IV and his mistress Dorothea Jordan. I'm sure there's a word for that, but I'm far too bourgeois to say it.

 

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