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Four letter words

Words by Mia Abrahams
Illustrations by Zoe Efron

We come from a country of enthusiastic cursers. I think swearing might actually be one of our nation’s most impressive talents—other than creating Cate Blanchett and completely disregarding our human rights obligations. There is something cathartic about letting a bad four-letter word rip. In fact, swearing has been scientifically proven to help us deal with physical pain. In a study, researchers found subjects were able to keep their hands immersed in very cold water longer when they said shit rather than shoot. While today we use swear words in a myriad of creative and inventive ways, their origins are far older (and stranger) than we might realise.

Fuck:

Has there ever been a word so versatile? Anger, surprise, pain, lust, pleasure and awe can all be described with a little help from our old friend the F-word. I mean fuck, what would we do without it?! Fuck has Germanic origins, and can be traced back to similar words meaning striking, rubbing, or having sex. There are various claims about what was the first use of fuck in the English language. My favourite was recently discovered in a book from 1528, proscribing moral conduct. In anger at the monastery management, an anonymous monk with incredible foresight scrawled the now ubiquitous phrase “fuckin Abbot” in the margins. Etymologists are uncertain whether the “fuckin” was a reference to having sex, or to extreme dismay as to the tightness of a pair of medieval Speedos. In the 1500s, fuck was commonly used as a direct, but not particularly rude, term for sexual intercourse. It wasn’t until the early- to mid-nineteenth century that it began to resemble the fuck we know and love today.

Since its origins, fuck has infiltrated popular culture. Its literary debut was made in James Joyce’s masterpiece Ulysses, which drew the ire of censors and was banned in Australia until 1937. Seventy-two years later, Britney Spears, another creative visionary, pissed off many uptight parents with her song ‘If U Seek Amy’, which sounds a lot like F-U-C-K me. Now, in 2014, Martin Scorsese’s three-hour advertisement for cocaine—sorry, ‘film’—The Wolf of Wall Street boasts a fuck count of 569, averaging 3.18 uses per minute.

Shit:

There is some serious Real Housewives style drama surrounding the etymological origins of the word shit. I’m not naming names, but someone started a rumour about shit that is just, like, totally not true. The story goes: back in the 1800s, certain types of manure were used on ships as fuel for long voyages. Stored below deck, the manure would become wet and ferment, methane would build up, and when eventually someone came downstairs with a lamp, BOOM! The shit hit the proverbial fan. So, the manure had to be stored higher up on the ship’s deck, and thus was stamped “Ship High In Transit” (SHIT).  This is a great story, but as one angry etymologist complains, “These fabrications, when anything but clear jokes, are deliberate and audacious lies … they are the equivalent of a computer virus.” (I told you etymological drama was serious shit).

Shit’s real origins, unsurprisingly, are in Old English words like scite (dung) and scitte (diarrhoea). However, shit is also used as a noun to vaguely describe almost anything (e.g. “this shit is BANANAS”). Wikipedia has an amazingly perceptive explanation of my favourite iteration of the word: “he doesn’t have his shit together,” suggesting, “he is failing rather broadly, with the onus laid to multiple personal shortcomings”.

Cunt:

In the running to be the most popular word for drunk guys to yell at each other at a train station, the C-word is really the only four letter word left that you wouldn’t use in a text to your mum. Germaine Greer, Melbourne Uni’s latest acquisition (we bought her right?), once said, “it is one of the few remaining words in the English language with a genuine power to shock.” I think we can all agree that if Germaine Greer says something is controversial, she’s probably right.

The origins of cunt are thought to be Germanic, however, there is some argument that it evolved from the Latin word cunnus. Archaeologists made the discovery of an amazing piece of four-letter word history in the ancient and famously preserved city of Pompeii. “Coras licks cunt” (Coras cunnum lingit) was found scrawled on a wall by an obviously bright young Pompeian mind. Evidently, we haven’t evolved too far as this same declaration also appears on the back of 80 per cent of the public bathrooms stalls I’ve ever been in.

Gropecunt Lane, an appropriately named street in the thirteenth century London red light district, is the first appearance of cunt in the English language. Cunt was historically just the most direct and basic word for what it represented. It wasn’t until about the fifteenth century that cunt became an offensive word in English. By the early twentieth century, cunt began to be used as an insult. Some linguists think the reason that cunt has remained more taboo then other words like pussy or snatch, is because it just sounds more blunt—and therefore offensive. It’s just like how cock and piss sound more offensive than willy and pee.

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