Are today’s swear words really all that dirty? In an article on the evolution of profanity, Slate’s Matthew J.X. Malady analyzes what it means that cursing is less of a big deal in modern society. Censorship has become less prevalent, and even the curse words that one held the most power are fairly innocent now. Malady reports that today’s most taboo words are the “sociologically abusive” ones, such as “retarded” and “fat.” In the past, curses were inspired by adherence to religious ideals, so the worst words usually had to do with sex or blasphemy. And it turns out that some of our most seemingly innocuous words once fit into that category: “In the 16th and 17th centuries,” Malady writes, “the word occupy was commonly used to refer to the act of sexual penetration, which, among other things, places the Occupy Wall Street movement in a whole new light.” Here are some other everyday words that have an unsavory past.
In the Victorian era, legs were so private that the word “leg” itself was considered a swear. According to Deseret News, “At the dinner table, it wasn’t acceptable to ask for a leg or a thigh of chicken, which is why people started using the term ‘dark meat.’ (People also put skirts on tables and beds, so the furniture legs wouldn’t show.)” Other polite substitutes for “leg” included “limb.”
This was the Greeks’ catch-all term for foreigners. “They thought that Greek wasn’t just the best language, it was the only language that made any sense at all,” Cracked reports. “All other languages just sounded like people saying ‘bar bar bar bar.’ Thus the word ‘barbarian.'”
Image via Columbia University
Pretty much every word preceded by “semin-” is just as etymologically dirty as you’d think. “Seminar comes from the Latin term, ‘Seminis’ which means semen,” says Cracked. “This is used figuratively because it is a spawning ground for ideas… Likewise if you ever hear some important person referring to a ‘seminal’ moment or idea, same thing. It’s the ejaculation that gave birth to something new.” That’s actually pretty poetic, to be honest.
This word was also off-limits in the Victorian era for its association with male fertility; apparently “polite people said cow brute, a gentleman cow, a top cow, or a seed ox.”
It’s hard to picture this word as outright offensive, as it refers to someone who defaces property. But so does its original definition: after the Germanic Vandal tribe invaded Rome, the Romans decided that it was a good name for all destructive types.
This hasn’t been a serious swear word for a long time, common as it was among comically innocent TV kids of the ’50s and ’60s. However, it used to be considered legitimately blasphemous, as it’s a contraction of “god’s body.” Shakespeare didn’t shy away from the word, and his use of curses like “golly” made them seem a little less edgy, according to io9.
While “trousers” sounds overly proper in modern times, this was another word polite Victorians didn’t use. Instead, they called their pants by such catchy alternative names as “inexpressibles,” “nether garments,” and, um, “sit-down-upons.”
“Scumbag” may seem harmless these days, but The New York Times was wary about printing it after Indiana Representative Dan Burton used it against President Clinton. Why? It originally means “used condom,” and the publication didn’t want to offend older readers.
And the testicular words keep on coming! “Avocado” is derived from “ahuacatl,” the Aztec word for “testicle.” This also extends to “guacamole,” as its translation in Nahuatl is basically “testicle sauce” — but that won’t stop me from eating it.