Not long ago, scientists demonstrated proof that cussing when hurt actually relieves pain. Anyone who has heard about the fact that recovered black boxes from crashed planes most frequently end with blue language–has been a coach at a birth, and heard an otherwise mild-mannered woman blistering the wallpaper–practiced at a dojo and heard someone who has just taken a hefty hit yell a word in the same tone that they usually yell their Chiai–wouldn’t be surprised. At least, my reaction was kind of, “So you’ve finally caught up with the obvious, eh, just like ‘Dogs have emotions.’ Rah science!”
When I was first thinking about this subject, I realized that many of the terms used are not exactly interchangeable. Swearing is not cursing, which is not cussing. Swearing used to mean swearing oaths–an important part of many cultures. If you look at Beowulf you discover that oaths are not cussing at all–the insults are flyting, which is a different matter, often ritualistic. Oaths are meant to be kept–a person’s oath was their honor. Often these included oaths before a deity. God is mentioned many times in Beowulf but you won’t find a single one of those tough warriors using ‘God’ in their cussing.
In recent decades ‘oath’ has been used in fiction as a politeness for cuss words (“The villain uttered a coarse oath as he tied the maiden to the railroad tracks”) unless it’s specified (“She raised her right hand and swore her oath of office.”). “Vow” tends to be used for those types of oaths now–“Marriage vows.” “Vow of vengeance.” “Vow of silence.”
I think oaths are pretty much gone, as is is the notion that one is as good as one’s word. Many say that is because we have become such a secular society. My tentative theory is that that is not quite right. One only has to look at the mind-boggling duplicity and ethical and moral swamp of the later Roman republic to see that religious cultural trappings in no way held back those determined to do what they were going to do. Caesar and Pompei and Cato and Augustus used religion to serve them, like they used gold and power and clothes and rhetoric. So did many of the more colorful Renaissance popes . . . among others.
My feeling is that moral and ethical breakdown is related to enormous cities full of plenty. Those in the cities do not have to worry about survival in quite the sense of rougher days, so they don’t have to worry about tight bonds of kinship and community that not only can be the difference between survival and non, but make life worth surviving for. Now, if we don’t like the people we’re around, it’s easy enough to move, and find a fresh bunch of people. And if there are people with a lot of wealth and power, they are going to attract those who will do or say anything to get a piece of the action. “As good as your word?” Tchah! What’s your word, spin? The notion of personal honor seems lamentably out of fashion.
Ideally religious conviction includes moral and ethical conviction. We’ve seen enough hate spewed in the name of religion to know that religious language is not an automatic ticket to goodness–but neither is an officially non-religious state. Outlawing religion did not, from any evidence I saw, make people behave one iota better toward their fellow human in the Soviet Union. From what I see, both religious and non-religious people can be raised with moral and ethical awareness, or with moral and ethical torquing to justify “us against them.”
‘Cursing’ is even older, the idea of making a formal curse so that harm would come to another. There was certainly magical thinking here, but cursing could also be a social signal to go after the cursed one. And his or her family, friends, and possessions.
‘Cussing’ I think of as using impolite language. The crazy thing about human cussing–and it probably reflects the extraordinary inconsistency of human behavior and thought–is that cussing isn’t constant except in a very narrow range, usually having to do with excreta. Styles and modes seem to vary not only from culture to culture but from region to region and in time. Cussing that relates to sex can vary wildly, but some of the most opaque cussing is that relating to class. Like ‘toff’– which comes from ‘toffee nose.’ Then there are periods of history where cussing can get you into serious trouble . . . which means it dives underground when laws are passed to curtail it. It doesn’t go away any more than hierarchical behavior goes away.
Sometimes it loses its zing. Like “Drat!”, which is considered fairly innocuous, once meant “God rot your bones!” which wasn’t innocuous at all during the middle ages. “Plaguey” is merely a quaint adjective, usually put into the mouths of cliche pirates, along with “Arrr!”–no one anymore says, “Plague take you!” which was an extremely serious imprecation indeed after the mid 1300s, when half the population of Europe died within about a year. “Zounds!” was “God’s wounds!”–one of those expressions one swore by, incomprehensible now.
I don’t think there’s much swearing ‘by’ any more. A hundred years ago it was okay to swear by something that didn’t cross serious religious boundaries–so in early nineteenth century novels, men say, “By Jupiter!” but “By G–!” is written for the real blasphemer. Religious imprecations still resound all around us, secular though the society is. But when someone asks God to damn us, we no longer make the sign of the cross to ward it, much less drop flat in order to avoid a direct hit from a heavenly lightning bolt. It makes us angry just the same, even if we don’t fear we will be instantly blasted to the eternal rotisserie on this person’s word.
As always, cursing inspires its own euphemisms, like “effing” or “f***”–we know what it means, but we’re not saying the word. A sort of magical thinking without much magic.
Much more fun to contemplate are the origins of phrases like the holies–“Holy Toledo! Holy Smoke!” that seem to be obscure. Then there is “Holy cow!” which is funny in the West, if you are ignorant of its origins, which is a slam at the Hindus and their cherishing of all life forms, including cows. In fandom, there’s “Holy crom!” 150 years ago, ladies could exclaim “Fiddledeedee!” The tone of voice had to give it the necessary oomph, which Vivien Leigh understood quite well when she tossed her hair and stamped her foot in Gone With the Wind.
Back in the seventies, when many friends were trying hard to divest themselves of the phony trappings of the past and create a totally gender-equal, classless society, I remember a few earnest conversations about the matter of cussing. “Holy crom!” was popular. Some women felt that so much male cussing had to do with violence against women, and of course there were the many, many socially acceptable bigoted terms meant to keep racial or social groups outside the main group. I remember one woman declared that from now on, cussing had to be expletives of heinous acts, and it didn’t work to have long phrases, so she proposed exclaiming “Rape!” As I recall, when I saw this in practice, hearers either laughed or seemed uncomfortable, but it did not catch on. Nor did some earnest phrases that I saw put forth in forgettable allegorical stories as well as in real life–“You anti-egalitarianist!” or “Classist!” (which I thought would have been better for the use of the good old-fashioned “Snob!”)
Sometimes terms do catch on, such as Yankees, and gay (which apparently goes clear back to Chaucer, but narrowed in meaning all during the 20th c). Some of these terms not only catch on, but get co-opted by the group being slammed, so that the epithet becomes a badge of pride.
Anyway, the writer who wants to posit cultures does have to consider this aspect of behavior, even if only to dismiss it. Speaking as a reader, I like it when the details of a culture feel real. I also enjoy it when writers make up their own cuss words. But it’s tough to make them convincing. If the people in your culture think that the deadliest insult of all is “Horse-feathered chicken-beak,” the world-building details have got to convince me that there is meaning in those words, or else I’m going to snicker. In spite of the fact that here on earth, there are cultures where calling someone a pig-dog is a terrible insult, as is “May your father’s teeth rot!”