Where The Bleep Did That Curse Word Come From?

What the *&@%!

We all have our favorite curse words to use when we're feeling angry, frustrated, upset, excited, surprised. Curse words give us a colorful vocabulary that goes beyond our everyday ways of expressing emotion. But, where did those filthy (yet cathartic) expressions come from? Well, we took a deep look into some of the most common swears around.

Content warning: there will be vulgar language ahead ...

shit

Shit comes from the Old English scite, which was originally a neutral word for “diarrhea,” especially in cattle.

By the 1500s, people began to use this curse word to mean "an offensive and despicable person (usually a man)." Here's an example from 1675: "He had basely slanderd him calling shit, thief, beast." (Tuck that insult combo in your back pocket!)

By the late 1800s, the word could refer to anything "regarded as worthless"—and from there, it, er, exploded in popularity, giving rise to countless new uses and phrases (give a shitshit happensshit for brains, to name a few). These days people also use it to describe a large amount of something (shit ton, anyone?), an unfair situation (shit sandwich), and fun or amusement (shits and giggles).

asshole

As a vulgar term for the “anus,” asshole is recorded in the 1800s. Arshole, with ass being a variant of arse, is even older, recorded in the 1400s.

Fast forward to the 1950s, when the word became more commonly used in reference to a "contemptible person." Today, we've obviously kept this usage, showcasing our extreme distaste for someone by calling them ... this term.

(Of course, if you drop the -hole, you're just calling that person "a donkey." But you knew that, right?)

the F word

There have been many tall tales about the origin of fuck. (No, it’s not an acronym!) But, while not recorded until the 1500s (profanities weren’t historically widely written down), fuck is probably from an ancient root meaning “to strike” (compare to Middle Dutch fokken, “to strike”).

Just like shit, the word fuck has countless applications: it's a noun, a verb, and interjection. The use of fuck as an insult (you stupid fuck) is an Americanism from the 1920s. These days, you can fuck around, over, about, up, and off; the list goes on. Our filthy, foul mouths have created a fuck for every occasion.

Worried about how often you let this word slip? Scientists say a good curse can give someone a boost of strength and may also be a sign of someone's "verbal fluency, openness and honesty."

bitch

Yes, bitch originally meant “female dog.” And it still does today, though you are likely going to turn some heads if you call Ms. Floo-Foo McPoodles a bitch.

Bitch develops from the Old English bicce. It wasn’t until around the 1400s bitch was recorded as a disparaging word for a woman. It’s still disparaging today, though some women have reappropriated the word—in some instances by respelling it as betch or bish.

goddamn

Many people consider this curse word doubly offensive. It contains damn, from the Latin damnare, meaning “to condemn,” and God, considered blasphemous (taken in vain) in this context.

That double offensiveness hasn’t stopped plenty of folks from using it—since at least the 1400s, when the term is first recorded.

motherfucker

This swear word is younger than you may have guessed, first recorded in the 1900s—though talking trash about people’s mothers is, alas, nothing new.

The phrase motherfucker (referring to someone or something despicable) was originally documented during an 1889 case argued at the Texas Court of Appeals. It was there a witness referred to a defendant as "that God damned mother-f—ing, bastardly son-of-a-bitch," and it so horrified the court it censored that one word in its official transcript.

In the World War II era, motherfucker became a more popular way to say someone or something is irritating or ruthless. As the 1950s rolled around, the word took a turn for the better, if you can believe it. It can be used to describe someone "formidable, strong, or otherwise admirable." (Just ask Miles Davis, who supposedly favored this word and once complimented a young percussionist with,“You’re a motherfucker.”)

hell

We've all heard (or used) the phrase, go to hell at least once or twice in our lifetime. But did you know that hell is recorded before the year 900? It comes from the Old English hel and hell, a term for the abode of the dead in mythology—and especially for the wicked, hence the Christian Hell.

Hell is related to a number of similar words in Germanic languages, like the Old Icelandic Hel, goddess of the underworld. The ancient root of hell and its Germanic cousins probably meant “to cover, hide.”

piss

The word piss might not be as offensive as some of the other curse words on this list, but it's still foul. It can refer to anything from using the restroom to being exceedingly angry.

The word piss is first recorded around 1250–1300, from French pissier, ultimately from a Latin word meant to imitate the sound of, well, peeing. In the World War II era, it became an intensifier (piss-poor, piss-ugly).

bastard

When formally used, the word bastard simply means a child who is "born out of wedlock." However, when used as an expletive, it refers to an "unpleasant or despicable person."

The word bastard has been evidenced since at least 1250, and comes from the Anglo-French bastard, in turn from the Medieval Latin bastardus. The original sense of these words is taken as the offspring of a polygynous marriage (having more than one wife) of lower status. It became an insult by the 1800s, and in 1848 it appeared along with its now obsolete synonyms harecoppe, horcop, and gimbo ("a bastard's bastard") in The Dictionary of Archaic and Provincial Words.

crap

The word crap (meaning "to talk nonsense" or "excrement") is one less distasteful way to say shit. Nonetheless, the word is still considered a crude curse word.

OK, this is a very visual etymology. Crap is first recorded around 1375–1425, originally referring to chaff, dregs, and other such remnants and scraps. It’s not until the 1800s we see crap recorded as slang for excrement. In the 1930s, we see crap as slang for “stuff,” as in Clean up all the crap in your room!

Want some more of the good stuff?

Check out the best fake swears on screen in our slideshow: Blurgh! You Fracking Smeghead!

The Dictionary Is More Than The Word Of The Day

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