Every culture has its swear words, nasty and highly offensive terms that pack a powerful punch when we're not in polite company. But many of our swear words have diminished in potency over time, a sure sign of their ever-changing nature. Here's how you can expect to be swearing in the future.
Alright people, seeing as this is an article about profanity, I've had to include a number of highly offensive terms. Like, really bad ones. If you're seriously bothered by scatalogical, blasphemous, racist, and sexist swear words, you may not want to read on. Consider your sensitive selves warned.
Now, if we're going to predict the curse words of the future, it's important that we understand the nature of profanity, why it exists, and how it changes over time. To learn more about the past, present, and future of profanity, I spoke to Jesse Sheidlower, a language expert and author of The F-Word, a detailed history of the word "fuck."
Sheidlower told me that we're swearing more than ever these days and that we can fully expect to curse our way into the future. As for the specifics, it's a matter of predicting the taboos of tomorrow.
That there is such a thing as profanity is interesting unto itself. Some swear words, like shit and fuck, are simply synonyms for acceptable words, like feces and copulation. It's just that we as a society have "agreed" that certain words are derogatory and inappropriate. In a way, it's like recognizing that money — which is just a piece of worthless paper — has value.
But there's more to it than just; profanity has a kind of taxonomy to it and there are different kinds of swear words. As Sheidlower told io9, there are different categories of offensive language, including religious blasphemy, sexual terms, terms referring to body parts or functions, racial or ethnic slurs, and so on. We often use these words to show strong or intense emotion. Or, we can use them to desecrate and demean someone or something. Profanity also takes on the form of words, expressions, physical gestures, or other social behaviors that are deemed shocking, vulgar, or simply obnoxious.
As a species capable of foul language, we've been doing it for quite some time. I asked Sheidlower if profanity is universal to all cultures, and when it first emerged.
"It's hard to answer this because the word 'profanity' is used in a wide variety of ways," he explained. "Traditionally it refers only to things that are religiously profane, like things that are blasphemous — though it is now often used, as you are using it, to refer to other forms of 'unacceptable' language."
He says that it certainly seems to be the case that all languages associated with stratified cultures have forms of language that violate social norms in one way or another.
"This is also the case for many other cultures, though it's harder to tell because the cultural differences obscure our understanding," he says. "In any case, language that offends religious sensibilities is very old indeed; there is a great deal of it in Sanskrit, Ancient Greek, and Latin, for example."
We then got onto the subject of the f-word — a term that's been around for ages, and one that still packs a tremendous punch.
"The word 'fuck' first appeared in the late fifteenth century, and it was considered taboo even in our very first example," he explained. "There was a poem that satirized a group of monks, and one line, written in a mixture of Latin and English, went: 'They are not in heaven because they fuck the wives of Ely [a nearby town].' The word 'fuck' was written in a cipher, with each letter replaced by the following letter of the alphabet, suggesting that, even then, the word was offensive."
Sheidlower also explained to me that 'fuck' is not derived from any acronym, such as "for unlawful carnal knowledge" or "fornication under consent of the king." For whatever reason, these stories have just shown up some 500 years after the word first appeared.
An interesting aspect to profanity is that we use a bunch of words today that seem harmless, but were terrible swear words in the past, like 'bloody,' 'bleeding,' 'bugger,' and many others.
"That's right — our standards of what is offensive change over time, as our cultural sensitivities themselves change," noted Sheidlower. "Religious blasphemy was once incredibly powerful, so 'damn' was almost unspeakable, and even euphemisms like 'zounds' (for 'God's wounds') were serious oaths."
As religion holds less power over our daily lives, explained Sheidlower, such words are either disused or are relatively mild. Similarly, as our attitudes towards sexuality have relaxed, terms for body parts and sexual acts are increasingly acceptable. For example, "leg" was once regarded as somewhat bawdy, with "limb" being the preferred substitute.
I asked him if we swear more now than we did in the past.
"It's hard to compare because there are so many different things to consider — not least, what you mean by 'swearing.'" he responded. "Words that used to be offensive are now less so. Our conversation and writing is now much more informal than it used to be, so words that were once confined to very casual situations can now appear in many different contexts. It's more socially acceptable for different groups of people to use 'offensive' language than it used to be. So yes, it's probably safe to say that we use such language more than we used to, but this doesn't necessarily mean that we are using 'bad' language or are being insulting or anything like that."
Curious to see if this was true, I went to Google's Ngram Viewer to see if we're using more swear words in our literature. I decided to go with three fairly standard curse words, "shit," "fuck," and "cunt."
The graph pretty much speaks for itself.
Other more formal research shows that recorded conversations contain about 80 to 90 swear words. That's about 0.5% to 0.7% of all words. Fascinatingly (at least to me as a Canadian), a 2010 Angus Reid Public Opinion poll showed that Canadians swear more often than Americans and Britons when talking to friends, while the British are more likely than Canadians and Americans to hear strangers swear during a conversation.
I then asked Sheidlower what our top-shelf swear words are today and why they're perceived as such.
"In general the worst words today are racial or ethnic terms, with 'nigger' being the prime example," he replied. "This, as with any other kind of language use, reflects our current cultural thinking; sex isn't so bad nowadays, racial hatred is very bad indeed. The word 'cunt' is so fraught because it combines female sexuality — always more extreme than male sexuality — with antagonism towards women."
He explained to me that, in the UK, where "cunt" is frequently used as a term of abuse towards men, the word is still powerful, but nowhere near as in the US and Canada.
So, given that sexual and scatological terms are much less strong than they used to be — and that it's a trend that's likely to continue — can we predict with any certainty the profane words of the future?
"Racial and ethnic terms will be the worst words for the foreseeable future," says Sheidlower. "However, these are not 'general' terms, and cannot be used in general contexts. For this, it's likely that 'fuck' and 'shit', while declining in power, will continue to be widely used for some time."
Sheidlower is definitely on the right track. To predict the swear words of tomorrow, we have to predict the various ways we will choose to be insolent, vulgar, irreverent — and even overtly unaccommodating.
So, in addition to slurs that target people who are racialized, I suspect that words which are used against other marginalized identities (like the LGBTQI communities), the socially stigmatized (like obese people), and the physically and mentally "different" (including both mental and physical disabilities or non-"normative" or non-neurotypical characteristics) will also be used. Already today, words like "faggot," "dyke," "tranny," (a transphobic term) "retard," "retarded," and "quad" are deemed offensive and completely inappropriate — if not hateful. I've even heard people use the term "aspy" to describe someone's autistic-like behavior. There are also slurs that are demeaning to women, including "slut" and "whore."
And phrases like "that's so gay," "on the spec," and hashtags like #nohomo are starting to fall outside of polite or "correct" usage. Other words like "fat," "psycho," and "insane" may likewise fall out of favor. I also know that the term "schizophrenic" is considered offensive by some who would rather be described as suffering from schizophrenia.
At the same time, some minority groups have reclaimed ownership over some derogatory phrases, like "gay" and "nigga." Though in the latter case it's a term strictly reserved for in-group usage and reclamation.
So as you can see, we'll still have plenty of ways to be offensive in the future.
Top image: ollyy/Shutterstock.