Curse Words’ Etymology
  • 3-minute read
  • 12th October 2022

Curse Words’ Etymology

Have you ever wondered where curse words come from? Humans have been using profanity for at least a thousand years, and some more popular ones have been around for nearly as long. Read on to learn where some of these terms come from.

Hell

The Proto-Germanic term haljo refers to the underworld, and the Proto-Indo-European term kel means “to cover” or “conceal.” These terms, which have often been connected, give us the likely origin story of hell. However, in the Bible, the term may have originated somewhere else. In Norse mythology, Loki’s daughter rules over the dead, and her name is Hel.

Damn

Another religious-based word, the D word, comes from the Latin term damnare, meaning “to condemn.” This verb derives from the noun damnum, meaning “loss” or “harm,” which is also the source of the English word damage.

Although this word is tame now, it was considered one of the worst expletives from the 1700s to the 1930s, and you’d be hard pressed to find it in print during that time.

The S Word

The Old English term scitte means “purging” or “diarrhea,” and the noun scytel refers to excrement, so these words play a role in the S word’s origin story. The verb form of the S word traces back to the Dutch term schijten and the German term scheissen.

From there, sh** has taken on a life of its own, being used in the many creative ways we hear it today. In 1508, poet William Dunbar used the word for an annoying or terrible person, describing someone as a “schit but wit” or a “sh** without wit.” In the late nineteenth century, it began to be used in reference to worthless things, and in 1929, it took on the meaning of misfortune or bad things happening.

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The F Word

Of course, the most powerful expletive is also one of the most popular. The origin story of the F bomb traces back to the Norwegian fukka and Swedish focka, which both mean “to copulate.” This original meaning wasn’t considered offensive for at least a few centuries, but in the nineteenth century, it took on its more rude, aggressive use.

The English, being a bit more conservative, felt the word was too taboo to include in the original Oxford English Dictionary, so we don’t have any evidence of its use in English until 1503, when fukkit appears in the second edition of this dictionary.

Ass/Arse

The Old English word ass refers to a domesticated quadruped. These animals have often been depicted as clumsy or idiotic. Shakespeare may have been one of the first to use the term as a metaphor for “making a fool of oneself” in his play A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in which he wrote, “This is to make an ass of me, to fright me if they could.” The Old English term arse also refers to the rump of an animal, leading us to the many uses of the A word that exist today.

Proofreading and Editing

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