Cuss words. Every language has them. And every speaker of their language knows them, even though not everyone says them (or at least not all of them, because as we all know, not all cuss words are created equal). But what are they, exactly? What makes a word a cuss word?
I think we can broadly divide all cuss words into two categories: the vulgar and the metaphysical. By “vulgar” I don’t mean anything bad, only lowly, non-elevated, or even common. These words deal with the physical and bodily aspects of life — the things that make us more like the animals than the angels. The metaphysical words, however, show that we aren’t so very different from the angels. These are words that imply a metaphysical reality, and even our direct connection with it via our wills and the power of our words. Thus, the two categories of cuss words are reflected in the ways we describe them: words are dirty, filthy, obscene, or foul if they’re in the vulgar category, while curses, swears, profanity (in the old sense), and expletives are in the metaphysical category. (I’m using “cuss” as a neutral term to name both categories, even though it’s actually an altered form of “curse”).
To demonstrate what metaphysical cuss words are about, let’s look at a couple of examples. By the way, I’m going to redact the letters in these words out of charity for more sensitive eyes.
D*mn – This word gets its meaning within the Judeo-Christian metaphysic of heaven and hell, or union with God and division from God. There are actually varying conceptions of what “hell” is within the now broad scope of “Christianities” out there. The Western renaissance/reformation concept of hell as a place of eternal punishment and separation from God is probably the most familiar. The more ancient and Orthodox understanding of hell doesn’t emphasize its punitive character as much as its ontological nature: not being some “place” away from the presence of God –since God’s presence must logically be everywhere that anything exists (“If I ascend into heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in hades, behold, you are there,” Ps. 139:8)– but rather as the experience of God’s presence for those that reject him. So to damn something or someone in either sense is to consign them to hell. This is obviously a very serious prospect, a very heavy, consequential commitment. Unless you don’t take it seriously, which most people don’t. When the word is used flippantly, almost casually, it’s sapped of its meaning and power. Or is it?
H*ll – You’ll notice that I literally just used this word without redacting it. It, along with d*mn, have technical uses (their primary uses) that aren’t tabooed or considered improper speech when used in those contexts. It’s only when used as imprecations and curses or carelessly and frivolously that they become profanities. This word is used so commonly and frivolously now that it barely even registers as anything more than impolite or in bad taste, even for those who actually believe in the reality of hell.
G****mn – Just a note on this more extreme version of d*mn: this compound cuss is considered exceptionally bad by some because they think it means the damning of God himself. That would in fact be an extreme profanity and blasphemy (even if logically meaningless), except that I don’t think that’s what the word means at all. It’s instead a vocative form of the curse, invoking God to damn something. This, however, also makes it more extreme, because now it’s not merely my authority damning something, but, by my invocation and petition, God’s authority. The word exists, I suppose, as a counter-form of “God bless.”
Turning now to the vulgar class of cuss words, let’s look at a few examples.
B**ch – This word, meaning a female dog, can be used as an insult to a girl or woman. Usually implying that the woman is particularly mean or cruel, it’s meant to lower her through language, to lessen some of her humanity, to put her more in the realm of animals. Like many cuss words it can be coopted and subverted, robbed of its negativity, but when used as an actual insult it’s cruel and hurtful.
A** – This word technically has two meanings and two unrelated etymologies. Its first meaning is merely a name for a donkey. “To make an a** of oneself” is actually related to this meaning. The second use is as the Americanized version of what in Old English was ærs, from proto-Germanic arsoz, meaning tail, rump, or buttocks. Either by degrading someone to the level of a stupid animal or by denoting a human body part that combines characteristics of the embarrassing, the sexual, the filthy, and the humorous, a** is an extremely versatile cuss word. It has many derivatives and combinations, such as a**hole, smart-a**, and kick-a**. It can even be used to refer to one’s whole person, such as “get your a** out of bed,” or “He’s going to fire your a**.”
F**k – From a usage note in the New Oxford American Dictionary: “Despite the wideness and proliferation of its use in many sections of society, the word f**k remains (and has been for centuries) one of the most taboo words in English.” This curious mixture of extreme taboo and proliferation probably correlates to the shame / proliferation of the action the word denotes. There are a multitude of variant uses for this word now, but its primary meaning is, of course, “sexual intercourse.” As with other cuss words in the vulgar category, this one emphasizes an aspect of our physicality. But strangely, it isn’t the mere animal “sexual instinct” that makes this word so taboo. It’s the overtones of violence, harshness, and willful impropriety that give this word its jarring feel. Human sex can, after all, be elevated to realms of beauty, propriety, sanctity, and creativity. But f**king rejects the elevation of humanity. Animal sex is just instinct and biology, so animals don’t f**k; only humans are high enough to sink that low.
You would think the gravitas of the metaphysical curses would make them more taboo than the mere crudeness of the vulgar words, but as I’ve indicated, even the vulgar words affect our spirits. Sins against charity are involved with insults like b**ch. The dignity and modesty of the human body can be injured in words like a** and especially the other base slang for body parts. And the intuitive shame we feel in sinking below a dignified human sexuality –and especially the high standard of Christian marriage– continues to imbue the word f**k with a caustic negativity. In a sense, all of these words are metaphysical to a degree, because they all imply a moral order — something animals know nothing of. They all offend against something, not by their vulgarity, but by their cruelty or immodesty or illicitness. It’s a rare thing indeed for any cuss word to remain largely free of any moral entanglements. … Which brings me to my favorite cuss word:
Sh*t – Defecation. It’s one of the most ubiquitous and unpleasant realities of life. From birth, we’re all little poop machines, and we continue pooping our entire lives. For most of our agrarian history, we’ve literally had to shovel sh*t. As tribal people, we risked life and limb to go outside the camp to take a sh*t. As we began developing towns and cities, we had to sh*t in buckets and dodge it being thrown into the streets. We’ve always struggled with dysentery and other poop-borne infections. Even now in our sanitized, polite society, no one can escape the inevitability of crap, feces, dung, ordure, doody. The reason sh*t stands apart from its many synonyms is that it’s an intensifier, the agreed upon term to denote the very worst of fecality. It doesn’t connote the usefulness of manure, the medical indifference of stool, or the polite humor of poo; no, sh*t is just unpleasant in every way. It’s a short and natural leap to use “sh*t” as a metaphor for anything in life that’s seemingly unavoidable and unpleasant. It can be the accumulation of unnecessary clutter, needless drama in a relationship, or anything of poor quality. Lies and dishonesty specifically are “bullsh*t” for some reason.
In our beautiful yet fallen world filled with both love and hate, hospitals and bombs, newborns and alzheimer’s disease, we need a word to express our strange station as rational animals, as neither apes nor angels. What word, what reality keeps us so grounded in our bizarre, shared condition –whether we’re bums or billionaires, the picture of health or at death’s door– than that most ridiculous, disgusting, daily dose of humility? There is no insult involved in the word, because we all use the word as equals; we all share this existence. There’s no moral component in sh*t — only an existential angst. At its core, sh*t, like death, is a great equalizer, because sh*tting and death are related. Both are indicators of our imperfect relationship with the physical order, such that we metabolize what we eat imperfectly (leaving a remainder, i.e. sh*t) and by that metabolic imperfection we also age and die. So when we call out sh*t for what it is, we curse death. The word is rightly improper and impolite to use in certain contexts, but I believe in a great many contexts it’s appropriate, meet, and right. That’s why it’s my favorite cuss word.