Thursday, October 03, 2013

Thursday Thirteen

Our Evolving Language

This Post is Not Yet Rated, but I Suggest It Is At Least PG-13: Read At Your Own Risk.

Recently I heard this in a children's commercial: "You suck!" and I thought to myself, my, how things have changed. There was a time when had I said that aloud I'd have had my ears boxed, but how could one fault a child for saying something he sees other young folks say whilst playing with toys?

So I thought I'd look up the history of some of our more, um, casual sayings. (I have used that convention of placing a period on some words in order to keep the search engines from locking onto them, and abbreviated other words. I swear a lot out loud sometimes but I really don't like to see it in writing.)

1. To say "You suck" in today's world means to say something is bad or not good. But the origin is a bit worse - it refers to "fell.a tio" (1928). It did not come into its more modern use until the 1970s, and apparently is now completely acceptable, even for children.

2. While the "F" word is considered a bad word today (yet used with great frequency by nearly everyone), there was a time when it was even more acceptable. Prior to the mid-1800s, the word was used frequently in legal pleadings, as I have personally seen in the annals of my county courthouse. There are numerous divorce proceedings from those long-ago days that use the word to describe exactly what it was the husband was caught doing with the house maid. However, the word was no longer allowed in print in the US by the Comstock Act of 1873. Later, challenges to the law in the 20th century ended that. Up until 1965, the word did not appear in dictionaries at all. 

3. "Damn" is another one of those words for which I would have eaten lye soap, but I am not sure that is the case anymore. This word has been around since the late 13th century, and you haven't been worth a damn since about 1817, but from the 18th century to about 1930, it was not used in print. However, Gone With the Wind broke that taboo.

4. Calling someone a "dick" or a "dickhead" is another nearly acceptable yet once taboo title one can bestow upon friend or foe. The word of course is short for Richard but at some point it came to mean a male sex organ, as far back as 1891, at least. I have often wondered what Richard did what to whom in order to deserve the comparison. The word penis, by the way, dates back to the 1600s.

5. These days we all consider getting a "poke" on Facebook to be an act of love (or something) from an acquaintance we barely know, but not so long ago (1902) a "pokey" was what a guy did to a girl when they were in the throes of whoopee. The first time I ever heard a variation of this use for the word was on Lonesome Dove when the miniseries aired in 1989.

6. Balls to the wall, boys is a familiar phrase, one I've heard on TV and elsewhere. They aren't talking about plastic bouncing things, either, unless some poor fellow has had some work done. To have balls means to have courage or nerves, from about 1928, and the first phrase probably dates back to WWII. A ball-buster, i.e., one of us difficult females, dates back to 1974.

7. How many times have you said that "S" word that means excrement? It's been used to mean an obnoxious person since at least 1508 - how's that for longevity in swearing, eh? To "not give a S" dates to 1922, while to be "S-faced" dates back only to the 1960s. The grand ol' saying of "Same S different day" apparently only dates back to 1997 though I could swear I've heard that all of my life. The word is not common on TV but still sometimes heard uncensored. My favorite etymology of this word? Shitticism is Robert Frost's word for scatological writing (writing that deals with bodily functions).

8. "P.iss" meaning to go pee or urinate, dates all the way back to the 13th century. To p. away something dates back to 1811, while to be p. poor dates back to WWII. My mom used to tell me I was full of p. and vinegar, a saying that goes back to 1942 or so. The word has been commonly used on TV since the 1980s. I once was interviewed by a newspaper writer whilst I was on painkillers (I'd broken my ankle) and I used the word in a sentence; she printed the quote and then she got into trouble for it. I learned never to give interviews while I was high on something, even if it was prescription.

9. The "A" word became slang for backside in the mid-1800s, and prior to that it meant donkey. However, donkeys were known for being stubborn and clumsy, so to make an A of one's self dates as far back as 1580, and it refers to the animal, not the body part. Since the mid-1930s to be an "A-hole" is to be a contemptible person (I know a few of those) and I am presuming that an "A-wipe," an expression I have heard my brother use, (fortunately not directed at me), is somewhere below contemptible.

10. The b.itch word is not one I am at all fond of, as it expresses contempt for women. It actually means a female dog, but using it to imply females are contemptible dates back to the 1400s. There really is nothing new under the sun.

11. Cock is a word with many meanings. The bad association with a male sex organ dates all the way back to 1610. But to go off half-cocked refers to the use of a gun, not the other thing, as of the 1500s. To cock an ear (1600s) refers to chickens, as does cocking a hat. However, it's an insult to call someone a c.sucker, as that refers to #1 in this list (1890s).

12. Vagina is not a bad word, though apparently some folks in various corners of legislation seem to think it is. I kid you not, in 2012 in Michigan a female legislator was reprimanded for using the word on the legislative floor. Our journalistic friends across the waters dubbed it "vaginagate." The word use originally meant sheath, as in a sword, and its etymology dates back to the 1600s. It's medical or scientific use dates back to 1908. Today you hear women calling it the V-jayjay or something like that. Maybe "lady parts" is the new term, I think I heard that on TV not long ago.

13.  Last, but not least, because gosh I had no idea there are so many swear words, I will offer up the word b.astard, which since the 13th century has meant "illegitimate child." It began being used as a vulgar term for a fellow around 1830. I have never liked the word because of its implication towards women, however distant that might be.

I took the etymologies from this website. Great place to look stuff up.

Thursday Thirteen is played by lots of people; there is a list here. I've been playing for a while and this is my 312th time to do a list of 13 on a Thursday.


  1. A fascinating TT. It's interesting how meanings for words shift over time and vary from country to country too.

  2. Well I definately learned a few things !

  3. Fascinating. I didn't know #2 but had read it once meant plowing the field which is how it came to mean intercourse. I can't believe how many people say "friggin or freakin" now. They used to be taboo too even though they were milder version of suck with an f.

  4. I had no idea some of those p word usages were so recent. p and vinegar, for instance. I thought it was much older.

  5. Saying just about every one of those words when I was growing up would have had me eating lye soap too. It's amazing how times have changed and what is considered "acceptable" now.

  6. An interesting T13, Anita! I get tired of hearing the F word all the time, especially the way some people use it every other word in a sentence. Makes you want to throw a dictionary at them and tell them to get a vocabulary. <a href='">My Autumn T13</a>

  7. I remember getting in trouble for saying "sh". I was going to say Shoot, another banned word in our house...because Mom knew what we really wanted to say. I saw her coming and stopped. And still got in trouble.

    Then I got a job at FedEx as one of the first female couriers in LA. People would say that I swore like a truck driver and I would remind them I WAS a truck driver. A girl has to fit in!!

  8. What a way to start off my Friday. Great TT Sis!!!

  9. I did not know that about #1. I'm not going to say it anymore!
    The whole use of cuss words is quite interesting. I wonder what the very first cuss was. Great conversation starter!


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