The Five Oldest Curse Words We Still Use

In case you missed it, my book, The Book of Word Records, is now for sale in fine bookstores everywhere! (You can find it especially easily in Barnes and Noble, where it’s been placed on the Humorous, Helpful, and Odd table at the front of every store.)

So, hey, how about a free excerpt? This is my favorite section of the book, namely because it deals with bad words and they’re easy to make jokes about. Also, this posting contains jokes that were cut from the final book for being too gross! Just for you guys!

The Book of Word Records
Barnes and Noble

The Five Oldest Curse Words We Still Use

There’s nothing like a good old swear word to break the monotony between songs at your kid’s Christmas Pageant, but did you know that some of those words that make your mama blush are actually pretty old? They weren’t just fooling around on Deadwood. They really did use those words. In fact, some curses could have showed up in shows set in earlier times and still have been historically accurate.

Now, due to a certain civil suit (and possible violation of some U.N. propaganda laws), we’re not allowed to actually print some of these words, but you’ll know what we’re talking about. Hopefully. You #$%@.

5. Sh*t

Before you open your mouth, it’s always a good idea to know your you-know-what. So, we’re gonna tell you all about it. But not, like, in a breaking into your bathroom kind of way. We learned our lesson about that two Christmases ago.

Anyway, the s-word has quite the history behind it. People have been referring to their dookies with similar words for centuries. First, let’s talk about excrement. (Boy, that’s a sentence we didn’t think we’d hear again so soon after our court-mandated therapy sessions concluded.) Specifically, the Latin word excernere, which means “to separate”, as in to separate your waste from your body. It was a common enough term in Ancient Rome for taking the Browns to the Super Bowl, if you follow our meaning.

But Old English had a similar term, and with a similar definition. Scite (pronounced similarly to how Scottish people pronounce the s-word today, like “kite”) also meant “to separate” or “to cut”, the latter of which brings some unpleasant imagery to mind. But here’s the thing– despite the Roman conquests of Europe, we didn’t get it from them. In fact, Proto-Germanic, which predates Roman incursions into Europe, had the word skit, which had the same meaning as scite. So how did both cultures end up using similar terms for their poos?

In turns out that both language’s mother tongue, Proto-Indo-European, has the answer. As far back as 3000 B.C., the word skheid, which also meant “to separate”, was used as a term for making brownies. That’s over 5,000 years of sh*t, friends and neighbors. Think about that next time you’re in the bathroom for a while.

4. Ass

Hey, alright, we looked over the court documents and we’re still allowed to say ass! Let’s celebrate that ass! Much like the s-word, ass is far older than you’d believe. Of course, they say ass in the Bible, but they’re talking about donkeys, so that doesn’t count, as our Sunday School teachers had to constantly point out. That form of ass actually has a totally different etymology from the butt form of ass that’s frequently shouted at televised football games.

Donkey-ass (keep your mind on the subject at hand, please) is most likely from the Sumerian word ansu and just happened to merge with the other ass over the centuries. The other ass, as you might know if you’ve ever watched British TV/movies, was originally “arse” and the American accent has rounded it down over time so much that even Britain is saying “ass” now, too.

Arse comes from the Proto-Germanic word arsaz, which also migrated into Old Norse and High German (“ars”), Old Frisian (“ers”), and even Ancient Greek (“orros” or ὄρρος). That’s some impressive ass movement, and it hasn’t even really changed, definition or pronunciation. You could probably call some old logger in ancient Europe an ass and he wouldn’t even have to pause before pounding the crap out of you and skinning you with his teeth or something.

But, of course, that’s not quite the beginning of ass, either, because it seems our good friend Proto-Indo-European, the root language for most of the Western world, also had some ass going on in the form of “h₃érsos”. P.I.E., which has a delicious abbreviation, didn’t have a written language that we know of, so that’s just a pronunciation key for what scholars think it probably sounded like, but it sounds something like arse. Sort of. We think.

3. Piss

Two words in a row that we aren’t legally prohibited from repeating in written form! In fact, we are morally obligated to talk to you about urine, but that’s a story for another day. Piss is like the s-word’s slightly less gross (in that you can do it in front of your friends as long as your back is turned [sorry, ladies] and if you’re out in the middle of the woods or in the yard and drunk at a party) but still pretty gross cousin, and it also happens to be pretty old, as well.

You may recall, if you read it at any point in school, that in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, “The Miller’s Tale” very specifically refers to a character getting up in the middle of the night, “risen for to pisse”, and yep, it means exactly that. Dude had to wee. (Funny stuff happens from there, including farts and a hot iron to the “ers”, and you should already know what that is. Give it a read if you haven’t.)

So we know, right out, that it’s at least as old as the 14th century, when Chaucer wrote the book. In fact, pissen was a decently common Middle English term, and not even all that rude. It’s believed to have come from an Old French word, pissier, which itself was borrowed from Latin, but not the traditional, Classical Latin.

There were actually two kinds of Latin– the written word (Classical Latin), which we still have extant copies of now, and the dialectical, non-standard, spoken Latin, referred to as “Vulgar Latin”, and not because they had words like pissio, which meant, well, piss. It’s the more traditional form of vulgar, meaning “common” or “ordinary” instead of dirty (which makes it an auto-antonym as well!) It’s like how we consider conversational English to be a bit looser than written English today.

As for where the Romans got it, the answer appears to be simple onomatopoeia. Peeing makes kind of a “psss” noise when you really get right down to it, so those crude old Romans turned it into pissio because they knew how to party, and that involved a lot of wine, and that kind of explains everything, doesn’t it?

2. F*ck

If there’s any word in the English language that has more misinformation spread about its etymology, it’s the f-word. From vague backronyms to outright crap stories about “plucking yew”, it’s a freaking messy minefield that kind of makes you want to scream, well, a certain four-letter word, right?

Let’s knock those out right away: It’s not an acronym for anything and never has been. For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge, Fornicating Under Consent of the King, and whatever else you’ve heard are all total urban legends. As for it coming from French archers who managed to not get their fingers cut off, come on. That story is way too ridiculous to be anything more than an overwrought joke.

Although the word was exceptionally taboo until recently (and it’s still considered to be one of the worst now) and banned in print, it does still pop up here and there throughout the centuries. Perhaps the oldest usage is in an anonymous 15th century faux-Latin poem called “Flen flyys”, which includes a line that reads:

“Non sunt in coeli, quia gxddbov xxkxzt pg ifmk.”

That last part isn’t in alien, but is actually encoded with a simple cipher. The line should really read:

“Non sunt in coeli, quia fvccant vvivys of heli.”

When “translated”, the line reads “They [meaning the monks the poem is mocking] are not in heaven because they f–k the wives of Ely,” with fvccant being an attempted Latinization of ye olde f-bomb. Those are some pretty harsh words for a time when religion still reigned supreme, which is probably why it got encoded and was written anonymously.

Of course, it didn’t just pop up overnight like that. Scholars believe the word probably developed from Germanic due to similar words like fukka in Norwegian, fokka in Swedish, fokken in Dutch, and ficken in German. As to where they all got it, that’s where things get a little murkier, but it’s possible that it’s just a slang term that arose from Proto-German, which had the root word fuk-, meaning “to strike”, which itself probably came from our old buddy Proto-Indo-European, whose root word pug– (also meaning “to strike”) may be the origin, as well as definitely being the start of the Latin word pugnis, which meant “fist” (we are not talking about that, thank you). Now how’s that for a f*cking history lesson?

1. C*nt

Whoa, the c-word. The big nasty. In the modern era, it’s quickly overtaking the f-word as the rudest thing you can call someone (especially ladies) now that the latter has gotten tame enough that you can toss one into a PG-13 movie (occasionally two or even three). Funny enough, however, both words actually have very similar etymologies.

In Middle English, the word existed much as it did today, but instead had spellings like coynte and queynte. In fact, before about the 13th century or so, see-you-next-Tuesday wasn’t a bad word at all but was essentially an innocuous, straightforward word for vagina or vulva. It became slightly naughty by Chaucer’s time, and by Shakespeare’s it was pretty offensive, but for a long time it wasn’t much worse than “hoo-hah”.

Prior to its appearance in Middle English, it showed up in several Germanic languages, such as kunta in Swedish, kott and kotze in various forms of German, and kont in Dutch. Much like the f-word, though, beyond that things get hazy. One of two proposed Proto-Indo-European root words include gon-, which means “create” and is seen in modern words like “genital” and “gonad” (high-five if you just giggled at gonad like we did).

The other possible P.I.E. origin is the root gwneh-, which means “woman” and can be seen in words like “gynecologist”. It may also be responsible for the similar Latin word, cunnus, which just meant woman normally, but could also be used for exactly what you think it could, and that version was quite offensive then, too (they had more appropriate terms like, well, vagina and vulva, which is where we get them). In spite of the similarities, cunnus has not yet been established as being directly, etymologically linked to the big C, however. (Not cancer, the other big C. No, it’s not actually big. That would be weird. Look, let’s just stop talking about this.)