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May 7, 2024 7 mins

Swearing, cursing, cussing, giving somebody the finger…they’re kind of ubiquitous these days, but they’ve been around for thousands of years. And now researchers say that yelling out your favorite four-letter word can even lower your blood pressure. But where in the &^%* did it all start and how has it evolved?

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Speaker 1 (00:00):
Damn it to hell. Well, that got your attention, right,
How and why did we start cursing, swearing, even gesturing
when we got angry, or were simply shocked or amused
by something we saw, or because of something somebody did
to us. I'm Patty Steele. What the started the cursing trend?
That's next on the backstory? The backstory is back. Sometimes

(00:29):
don't you just want to grit your teeth and spew
out some vile language. I know it's not very classy,
but at the end of the day, it's a release
of sorts. In fact, Mark Twain said that under certain circumstances,
profanity provides a relief denied even to prayer. I guess
what people have been swearing for at least as long

(00:50):
as they've been praying. He also said there ought to
be a room in every house to swear in. It's
dangerous to repress an emotion like that. How did it start?
And how has cursing evolved? Well? Actually, did you know
that all mammals have an impulse to vocalize when feeling
strong emotions pain, fear, joy, even sexual excitement. A good

(01:15):
scream gives us a sense of release from all those feelings.
Cursing increases our heart rate, even makes us sweat, but
it helps us deal with emotional upset, and studies show
a good swear word can even relieve physical pain. Of course,
how we curse today is really pretty different from how
people cursed centuries ago. What people consider to be cursing

(01:39):
has always depended on what was I don't know, sort
of taboo at that given point in time. It might
be considered crude, or it might be blasphemous. The earliest
expletives were phrases that had to do with religion. For instance,
some of the worst curses in medieval days included God's bones,
God's nails, or really any thing to do with God

(02:00):
that wasn't religious. In the fourteen and fifteen hundreds, cursing
was actually pretty much accepted as a perfectly normal way
to add emphasis to what you were saying. Some popular
curses included calling someone a licorice, glutton, freckled, bitter jobber,
noal goose cap or a ninny lobcock. All name calling

(02:22):
in those days, but amazingly one of the worst curses
you can utter today. The sea word was perfectly acceptable
in those times. It was found in medical textbooks, in literature,
even weirdly as part of street names in areas that
were known for prostitution. For instance, one town in Glastonbury, England,

(02:42):
was called grope seaword lane Wow. A couple of words
were the equivalent of the F word, including sard and swive,
just basic words for copulation. One book included the edict
don't sart another man's wife. By the late fifteen and
early sixteen hundreds, there was a reform movement of sorts

(03:02):
that decided swearing was a no no, and as they
got nicer language wise, they began to combine two or
more naughty words, creating new slang, but with nicer terms
like gadzooks, a curse used in place of God's hooks.
In the sixteen hundreds, the word zounds, a shortened version
of God's wounds, showed up in Shakespeare's plays, and in

(03:25):
the eighteen hundreds people in Ireland used the word bijabbers
as a nicer way of saying by Jesus. Even today
in England they used the term bloody, which originally was
God's blood. Now the phrase four letter words was first
used to describe swear words all the way up in
the nineteen twenties, and there was a good reason. Of

(03:45):
the approximately eighty four commonly used American English swear words,
twenty nine of them have four letters, including the F word,
the S word, the C word, the H word, and
the D word and what about naughty gesture? The most
popular these days is the middle finger aka the bird,
but that gesture has been around for thousands of years.

(04:08):
It was used as a sexual thread of sorts in
ancient Greece and Rome, and was basically seen as a
phallic symbol. By the early eighteen hundreds, it became a
common sign of disrespect, most common among actors, celebrities, athletes,
and politicians. The first documented case of somebody flipping the
bird in the United States was in eighteen eighty six.

(04:31):
It happened when Old hass Radbourne, a baseball pitcher for
the Boston bean Eaters, got his picture taken flipping off
a member of the rival New York Giants. By the
twentieth century, mass media began to make cursing more mainstream.
In fact, Gone with the Wind, producer David O'selznik had
to fight to get the now classic line Frankly, my dear,

(04:54):
I don't give a damn into the flick, telling regulators
this word as used in the picture is not an
oath or a curse. The worst that could be said
of it is that it's a vulgarism. And in the
nineteen sixties, comedian Lenny Bruce was arrested a bunch of
times on obscenity charges for using explicit language in his act.

(05:14):
In nineteen seventy two, George Carlin was arrested for performing
his seven Dirty Words You Can't Say on Television act
while performing at an outdoor festival in Wisconsin, not on TV,
but in public. A year later, his routine was played
on the radio, which led to a number of court
cases about what words should be banned from broadcast, radio,

(05:35):
and television. All of that was just fifty years ago,
but that common usage has really exploded. The entertainment industry
has done the most to normalized cussing. But these days,
the film industry's classification and rating administration goes through every
line of every flick and they decide exactly how many

(05:56):
naughty words it takes to get your movie and r rating.
Mel Brooks said, I've been accused of vulgarity. I say
that's BS, and trust me, he didn't just use the initials.
I bet that felt really good. Hope you're enjoying the

(06:19):
Backstory with Patty Steele. That's me. Please subscribe if you will,
and if you have a story you would like me
to dive into, just dm me on Facebook at Patty
Steele or on Instagram at Real Patty Steele. I'm Patty Steele.
The Backstory is a production of iHeartMedia, Premiere Networks, the

(06:39):
Elvis Duran Group, and Steel Trap Productions. Our producer is
Doug Fraser. Our writer Jake Kushner. We have new episodes
every Tuesday and Friday. Feel free to reach out to
me with comments and even story suggestions on Instagram at
Real Patty Steele and on Facebook at Patty Steele. Thanks
for listening to the Backstory with Patty Steele. The pieces

(07:00):
of history you didn't know you needed to know.
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