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Origin of Swear Words: Linguistic Analysis

Updated: May 10, 2020

The next time you decide to swear or use any obscene language, you may want to have a look into their origin and identify what kind of narrative you're engaging in. It's not difficult, you just need to check their etymology and see where they date back to, before they appeared in our Tick Tock's, shaggy-dog stories and memes! You'll be baffled by the results! In this article, I've collated a couple for you which you've heard in your lifetime at least a dozen x 100 times.


F*** (n), means the physical act of sexual intercourse. Overtime, this developed an aggressive connotation and is used obscenely. The term originated from the Norwegian term fukka: ‘copulate’, Swedish focka ‘push’ (from ‘fok: penis’), ‘strike’ or ‘to move back and forth’ in Indo-European (C16). Despite ‘f***’ scarcely appearing in old and middle English texts, the euphemistic references to damn, God, hell and shit were considered less offensive than f***. The f-word was common although it wasn’t considered a swearword in the 15th century. Rather, it appeared as a direct and impolite word for sexual intercourse. For instance, married couples who took permission from the king to procreate, commonly referred to this as: ‘Fornication under consent or under the command of the king (f***)’, whilst soldiers in the British Imperial Army who reported sick had ‘found under carnal knowledge’ stamped on their document. Although it was unclear whether the physical act or the expression of dismay was conveyed, the term was also used by an anonymous monk in the 15th century when reading a guide to moral conduct and felt compelled to express his anger by scribbling: ‘O d f***in Abbot’. Although there are various reports arguing that the acronym only came into shape in 1960’s when the traditional taboos on printing were beginning to decline. Today, ‘the fuck’, is commonly used as an intensifier to express annoyance, hostility, urgency and exasperation in an interrogative or passing statement as: ‘What the f***? What’s his f***? ‘f*** all, dumb-f***, f*** a rana’ and ‘my f***!’ to express amazement. The term can therefore function as a face threatening act and comradeship in bivalence (that’s f***ing awesome).’ The lack of emotional involvement is also found in the term. When someone may ‘fuck someone up/something over’, and this refers to something, or someone being ruined. Interestingly, men in military culture expressed a defensive bravura in excessive consumption of alcohol, but also in the warding off the wish to surrender to female tenderness by the use of the F-word. Today, men use the term ‘walk up fuck’ to refer to readily available women, and which could signal men’s constant attempt to demean women, in order to boost their own masculinity.


The term ‘bitch’, also bicce, meant a female dog (1000 AD). Bitch was not confined to dogs, but beasts with exposed genitals (known as bhagas in Sanskrit). Beasts, latin for bestia also referred to as bistia, bisse or bische in French, and later becoming biche. Somewhere in the progression of this meaning, geast came to refer to female beasts and since then, bitch became synonymous with women.

The term only developed a negative connotation in the 15th century, after which it became normalized and used either in a derogatory way, as a sign of endearment or for general emphasis in colloquial speech. The opprobrious reference to a woman is strictly common in literature. In fact, The Viking era gives us an idea of how bitch was used before the Anglo Saxons worshipped gods. Freyja, one of the Gods who was associated with love affairs and fertility was accused of having a loose character since she was sleeping around with gods, elves, giants and dwarves. These worshippers venerated their desires, but in Christian belief this action was similar to a dog in estrus, and therefore explaining why Freyja was called a female dog, or ‘bitch’. The term later developed an array of meaning beside a lewd, sensual women or prostitute, but an unpleasant and extravagant wife, and which explains the phrase: ‘son of a bitch’ (biche sone). In the 18th century, the term was still dominantly perceived as virulent for women, more so than ‘whore’, and this was shown in the Chester play when a character demands ‘who’re you calling a whore, you miserable bitch? Today the term is likely to be used as “playground colloquialism” by teenagers or youth. However the term is also used more loosely as a term of address between women friends to signify comradeship ‘I’m free bitches!’ and "biatch" to add humour or emphasis. Or an irksome issue: ‘this is such a bitch’. The verb phrase, ‘to bitch’, or to complain or gossip spitefully originated in the 19th century from the slang phrase: ‘pour the tea’, and in this context, ‘to bitch’ was exclusive for women who would habitually gossip over a cuppa. The overall sense of the term is negative and has impacted women over the centuries, beside the sexual connotation of the term. In fact, the misogynist of all, Trump called Clinton out during their campaigns: ‘lock the bitch up’. 


The term bastard, in its basic meaning refers to an illegitimate offspring born out of wedlock, as well as something that is irregular and inferior. Bastard originates from the medieval Latin bastum to mean a ‘packsaddle’. A ‘packsaddle son’ fils de bast is a son of a mule driver a traveller who uses a packsaddle for a pillow and is gone by the morning. The term may therefore infer that a bastard is a child who comes from an unstable ground. Although in the late 17th century, bastard or squeaker in cant simply meant a bar boy or any other child. The common proverb, ‘Don’t let the bastard grind you down’, often given in the cod Latin version - 'nil carborundum illegitimi' was profusely used in the Second World War by General Vinegar Joe Stilwell. This may have originated from the sense of the phrase ‘bastard tooth’d file’ meaning; take out the rough and smooth cuts the bastard file made. Today, however, it has little importance as a legal term and has retained the older sense of the term to mean abuse especially for a man or boy. There are various senses to the term including the insult offered to an unpleasant person, a fellow chap (‘You're not a bad bastard, Hunter,’ he said, ‘in spite of your lousy cooking’). But more so, it is commonly used beyond the original sense, referring to something difficult or unpleasant: ‘this task is a real bastard!’ and as term of address to someone close ‘you lucky bastard’. The phrase ‘lazy bastard’ also means someone who instead of reading a manual, asks others often via a newsgroup, for information and advice.


The earliest image of the term was the old English hōre of Germanic origin which meant prostitute or harlot. The Old English *hoor, which is the pronunciation in some dialects and the Middle English homonym hore to mean ‘physical filth, slime’ and ‘moral corruption, sin’ from Old English horh. The wh- form became current in 16c. In 1785, whore was associated to buttock, bilk and blower (from blow; or ‘stolen the goods’ and bilk meaning cheat, a poor whore, coachman of his far) and game of bawdy with lewd women, forward girls and young whores. The term is generally derogatory in meaning and refers to either a woman who has casual sexual encounters (prostitute) or a woman who is selling herself for transactional purposes. However, the main meaning of the term is abuse, and refers to a promiscuous or unprincipled female. Although ‘whore’ in the US can be used in a non-sexual reference denoting a fanatic or obsessive behaviour, such as a‘party-whore’ ‘coke-whore’ ‘book-whore’ ‘study-whore’ ‘camping whore’.

The whore of Babylon was an archaic term, appearing in a derogatory context in the Roman Catholic Church. The whore of Babylon was a figure described in the book of revelation as a woman who was sitting on a scarlet beast with seven heads and ten horns: her hands were full of abominations and filthiness due to her fornication and affairs. On her forehead, the Roman Catholic Church by the early Puritans referred to her as: ‘Babylon the great mother of harlots and abominations of the earth’. This extended to the term ‘field whore’ – a rare, derogatory term referring to a rare prostitute, or a woman exploited by soldiers on active service, prison guards or a camp prostitute.

At Articulately, we develop critical thinking skills so every word is thought about twice before usage or dissemination. Follow us on our socials to find out more about the work we do.

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