I have some questions about obscenity.

A remarkably large fraction of obscenities in English are highly idiomatic, in that they don’t make any apparent grammatical sense, and in many cases it would be rather hard to explain to someone else just why the phrases in question are obscene. This doesn’t seem to be quite as prevalent in other languages; French and Spanish tend to favor full noun phrases or imperatives, and Hebrew favors complete sentences whose meaning as a curse is fairly obvious.

My question is: Does anyone have some thoughts about the origins of these phrases? Not the origins of the specific words – that’s a different question – but what the original sentences or constructions were which, over time, degenerated into irregulars in English?

Some examples: “shit” and “fuck” as isolated interjections. Many of the phrases associated with “fuck” don’t have any obvious reason for their obscenity beyond the simple presence of the word; e.g. “fuck off,” “go fuck yourself,” “what the fuck.”

For comparison, there are some grammatically sensible cases: a wide range of vocatives which implicitly compare the target to something unpleasant (“asshole,” “bitch,” “son of a whore,” racial epithets sundry and varied). French gives more complete phrases – “va te faire enculer” (“go get fucked up the ass”) could be interpreted as somewhat threatening (“I’m going to fuck you up the ass”).

For comparison on the matter of why things are obscene – the vocatives, again, implicitly compare people to the unpleasant, so that has a certain sense. But Hebrew curses typically don’t have any words that are per se impolite; they run more towards “may the earth open up and swallow him.” (And thus the need to borrow obscenities from other languages when one wishes to be vulgar rather than invocative)

This post had nothing at all to do with the contents of today’s news. Really.

Published in: on September 2, 2004 at 20:32  Comments (7)  


  1. I bet it’s all the Victorians’ fault, somehow.

  2. Or the Puritans. Or David Bowie.

  3. I’ve often wondered the same thing. The only thing I can think of is that it’s class based. For instance the root of “beef” is in upper-class english, and “cow” is in lower-class english. So, the “base” words for unpleasant things also imply the lower-class, thereby making them impolite/wrong.
    But then, the puritans were just nuts…
    But obscenities are old, well before the puritans. And my memory is slipping, but one of the 10 commandments was “don’t take the lord’s name in vain.”, or something like that, in the (poorly translated) King James version (which I grew up with). But what that actually means has been construed to be a lot of different things over the years. I’m sure rabinical law has had a lot to say about it….. 🙂

  4. A great number of things, about as contradictory as what everyone else has to say about it. But blasphemy is a somewhat deprecated form of obscenity in English; in most circles “Jesus H. Christ on a unicycle” doesn’t really raise much more of an eyebrow than “Great flipping Cthulhu on a pogo stick!”
    As to the first thing, that’s definitely a factor in how single words became obscene, but not necessarily the phrase grammars…

  5. In Made in America, Bryson suggests that “fuck” in its idiomatic use is only really around during and after WWII, where it emerges as identical to “hell” as a noun — “shot to fuck,” “what the fuck,” “shut the fuck up.” I think “fuck off” and “go fuck yourself” make perfect sense. “Fucking” fits in for “goddamn” or “damned” in “this fucking car won’t start” or whatever.
    The only one that doesn’t make any grammatical sense is “the fuck”/”the hell.” Look at expressions like “the hell I will!” or “do I fuck” (not common in the US, I guess).
    I’m not sure that “shit!” is any weirder than “merde!” which is a perfectly acceptable obscenity in French.

  6. true, it was a bit off-topic, as you had noted.
    And in most circles I know, the cuthulu line would raise more eyebrows (granted, confused ones, but…)

  7. “The hell” and “the fuck” are often abbreviations” of “what the hell is this?” or “what hte fuck is this?”. Aka, “what is this fucked up thing?”
    “the hell I will!”, is I think, derived from “like hell I well”, which is from “no way in hell would I do that”. Which I think would come from “I wouldn’t do that even if I had to go to hell if I didn’t.” But that’s just speculation.

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