U2 singer Bono infamously uttered what many consider the “worst” swear word in the English language during the 2003 Golden Globes. The U.S. government, through the FCC, responded with what they called the fleeting expletive policy, which stated that broadcasters could be fined for allowing even a single curse word on live television.
But on Tuesday, a federal appeals court in New York concluded that the rule was unconstitutionally vague and tossed it out.
It’s probably safe to assume that as long as humans have been speaking, we’ve been cussin’ and cursin’. What can the connection between “curse,” “swear,” “cuss” and “profanity” tell us about all the words we aren’t supposed to say, yet say with great frequency?
Placing a curse obviously isn’t the same as uttering curse words, but both concepts start with the Christian Church. Originally, the sense of curse as “the expression of a wish that misfortune, evil, doom, etc., befall a person, group, etc.” wasn’t so different from using profanity, which in an early sense is speech directed against God. In earlier times, a word against a God could be seen as a wish of misfortune on others, and perhaps wishing harm on other people could be seen as belittling the faith in the divine.
Cuss is simply an American alteration of curse, and its meaning “to say bad words” was first recorded in 1815.
How does swear come to simultaneously mean “to bind oneself by oath,” and “to use profane oaths or language”? The earliest swear words were identical to curse words — taking the Christian God’s name in vain, or speaking of acts that were considered sinful.
While there is a general consensus about what some adult words are — such as the f-bomb dropped by the U2 singer — others are up for debate. One of the judges in the FCC ruling addressed this point, writing that some expressions, such as “pissed off” or “kiss my a**,” were not universally agreed-upon profanities. A good rule of thumb: if you’re not sure if a word is an expletive, look it up in a dictionary (or on a dictionary Web site.)