5 Swear Words That Are Older Than You’d Think

The ancients — potty mouths, just like us
5 Swear Words That Are Older Than You’d Think

Language detectives love digging through history and discovering when various words first sprang into being. Then, they look farther down on their research list, and they see a swear. This is when the etymologist says, “Oh, fuck.”

Swears defy the historical record. The very fact that it was taboo to use such words means that anytime we spot one in records, people must have been using it privately much earlier. Still, we do spot some early appearances of these swears, sometime much further back in time that we’d expect. 

The Ancient Greeks Flipped Each Other the Bird

The middle finger has been obscene for thousands of years. The extended middle finger comes off as a phallic symbol, so people have been using it to say “fuck you” or “up yours” even longer than they had phrases that said the same thing. We know people were flipping each other off even back in Ancient Greece and Rome. One illustrative example appears in a Greek play, The Clouds, from the fifth century B.C. 

Scene from Aristophanes's comedy Clouds.

via Wiki Commons

It was by jokemeister Aristophanes, so you know it was a riot. 

Socrates is a character in this play. When listing stuff his students can learn, he mentions “what is meant by the dactylic.” A student says he knows that already and sticks up his middle finger, to which Socrates replies, “You are as low-minded as you are stupid.” 

This is a joke that that needs some explanation today. A dactyl is a sort of rhythm in speech, used to describe what syllables are stressed in poetry. It also means “finger” in Greek. We do something similar in English, referring to “feet” in poetry. The student says he knows what a finger is — and demonstrates this by dismissing Socrates with a middle finger. 

The Clouds caused a bit of an uproar. Not because it was profane but because it roasted Socrates so hard that (according to some accounts) this is what made people decide it was time to investigate him and put him on trial. This trial, of course, ended with the man found guilty and condemned to drink hemlock, so let it never be said that art can’t shake the world. 

‘Shit’ Was a Swear in the Bible

The Bible has its fair share of dirty parts. Mostly, this consists of Old Testament kings having all kinds of sex, which is described either as something sinful we must all avoid, or as pure poetry because a poet wrote that one book. More relevant to today’s topic is something from the New Testament — Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Paul talks about how pointless his life was before he found Jesus. “Whatever were gains to me, I now consider loss for the sake of Christ,” he writes. “I consider them shit, that I may gain Christ and be found in him.”

Folio from Papyrus 46

via Wiki Commons

A sentiment echoed by the hit gospel song “My Life Would Suck Without You.” 

Naturally, if you pick up an English copy of the Bible, it’s probably not going to stick the word “shit” in there. It’ll more likely translate this part as “garbage” or “rubbish.” However, the Greek word that we see in the earliest translations of this text, skubalon, meant not just any garbage but dung.

We also mustn’t translate it as dung, though, because that doesn’t pass along the figurative meaning here, of something worthless. No, “shit” would be the best translation. You want no substitution — only the real shit will do. 

‘Motherfucking’ Is Written into 19th-Century Texas Law Records

Law records are a great source for how people used to talk, since they provide transcripts of actual people speaking. They aren’t exactly a representative source, since people speak more formally in court than they do in everyday life. Still, people in court will sometimes have to quote what other people said in everyday life, and that is how “motherfucking” entered the Texas legal record in 1889

M.H. Levy shot and killed J.M. Joiner outside a saloon, and the court had to consider whether this counted as manslaughter or murder. Joiner had earlier called Levy a “son-of-a-bitch.” The court now debated whether this constituted a “use of insulting language toward a female relative.” If it did, that would be grounds enough to reduce the offense to manslaughter.

19th Century Saloon in Castroville, TX

Texas State Historical Association

You don’t mess with a man’s momma, and you don’t mess with Texas. 

It did not count, ruled the court, so they had to examine additional preceding adjectives to gauge the situation. Joiner had called Levy “that goddamned lying, thieving son-of-a-bitch,” said one witness. Another witness said it was “that goddamned lying, cow-thieving son-of-a-bitch, Marshall Levy.” Then a third witness went further and described the line as “that goddamned motherfucking bastardly son-of-a-bitch.”

The court ended up deciding Levy pointed a gun at Joiner in response to these insults, Joiner reached for his own gun and then Levy fired. This meant Levy was soon going to be in danger of being shot, but he provoked that situation by taking out his own gun. This was not homicide, but the motherfucker was convicted of manslaughter. 

‘Son-of-a-Bitch’ Is Shakespearean

That court transcript contained the phrase “son-of-a-bitch,” which appears in print elsewhere in America in the 19th century. The first place we see it in American literature is the John Neal novel Seventy-Six. Side note: The book’s title coincidentally uses the same meter as “son-of-a-bitch,” both phrases starting with a dactyl. 

In this Revolutionary War-set book, published in 1823, a soldier describes being fired upon. “I wheeled,” he says, “made a dead set at the son-of-a-bitch in my rear, unhorsed him and actually broke through the line.” This profanity made the book a bit controversial when it came out. Neal would go on to die in ’76 — 1876.

But 1823 was hardly the first time anyone called someone a son-of-a-bitch. We even see the insult pop up in Shakespeare. In King Lear (loosely inspired by Shakespeare’s favorite show, Succession), Kent calls Oswald “the son and heir of a mongrel bitch.” This is just one part of a longer monologue that consists entirely of insulting Oswald.

Clearly, calling someone the heir to a mongrel bitch goes one step further from merely calling them a son of a purebred bitch. Still, that’s not the sickest burn there. That award goes to “eater of broken meats,” meaning someone who eats others’ leftovers. In the world of Succession, there’s no harsher insult than to call someone a freeloader. 

People Were Recording “Fuck” as Far Back as They Recorded Audio

When Thomas Edison invented the phonograph, the very first thing he recorded was himself reciting the nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” That original tinfoil recording did not last, though you can find other recordings of the man reenacting this recitation:

Other people followed Edison’s example and used that rhyme as a stock text when trying their own recordings. In 1885, just a couple years after Edison scratched the first voice onto a cylinder, we have the following recording done by Charles Sumner Tainter at Alexander Graham Bell’s lab. He, too, does “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” but he changes some of the words. For example, he says the lamb’s wool was “black as coal.” 

The goal here might have been to say something different from the usual rhyme, to test how clearly the words were being recorded. You can discern words from unintelligible rumblings if you already know what to listen for, but unfamiliar words require higher fidelity. It seems these changed words tripped our technician up. “Everywhere that Mary went,” he says. Then: “Oh, fuck.”

He then returns to reciting, surely assuming that only the final recording would be saved and that they wouldn’t hold on to his captured profanity. But that profanity will be preserved, forever. It stands as a reminder that our ancestors were, just like us, a bunch of fuckups. 

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