The joy of ‘mouth excrement’ – why humans have always needed to swear

Scientists and medics are finding more and more evidence that swearing helps us physiologically by relieving stress, frustration, anxiety, and pain

Swearing ain’t what it used to be, if we’re to believe the news. In 2021, polls suggested that a third of us use stronger language today than we did five years ago. The uptick has been blamed variously on the impact of social media, gaming, movies, late-night comedy shows, and the pandemic. But whatever our reasons, we have it seems descended into a nation of potty mouths.

Thankfully, it’s not just us. This week, a Canadian judge dismissed a harassment claim based on an aggrieved individual being shown the middle finger by his neighbour. “To be abundantly clear,” the judge wrote in his ruling, “it is not a crime to give someone the finger. Flipping the proverbial bird is a God-given, charter-enshrined right that belongs to every red-blooded Canadian.”

Few of us would argue that the right to bare fingers is a lot less risky than bearing arms. But the case reignites the gnarly debate as to how much freedom of expression offers a safe space for “bad” language. Employment tribunals frequently centre around an employee’s use of profanity towards colleagues or bosses. Such discussions raise nothing new, but the question of bodily gestures ups the ante considerably.

Yet this, too, is far from a modern phenomenon. Showing someone the middle finger has been a gesture of obscenity since ancient times. The Romans even called it the digitus impudicus, or “indecent finger”, for it was widely interpreted as a suggestion of an erect penis (another obscene hand gesture, the V sign, might then suggest a double penis).

The historian Tacitus wrote of a battle in which German tribesmen collectively gave advancing Roman soldiers the middle finger, the predecessors perhaps to the Ukrainian defenders of Snake Island, whose expletive-laden verbal response to Putin’s forces – “Russian warship, go fuck yourself” – quickly became an emblem of patriotic courage.

The act of flipping the bird (so named in the 19th century because it was a silent way of delivering an aggressive, goose-like hiss) sits alongside another digital swear, “the fig”, in which the thumb is wedged between two fingers, this time representing female genitalia. This same gesture is even hiding within the word “sycophant”, Greek for “fig shower”, the implication being that a fawning flatterer may be saying and doing very different things behind the flatteree’s back.

The repertoire of hand-gestures goes on, shared across different nations as a powerful and universal language. In Elizabethan England, thumb-biting was a distinctly confrontational gesture, involving the placing of the tip of the thumb behind the front teeth and flicking it forward. In some cultures, the spreading of five fingers with the palm facing forward suggests that the recipient has “five fathers”, in other words they are a “bastard”. The age-old gesture for a “wanker”, meanwhile, is unmistakable to anyone who spends time on a British road.

What is fascinating here is that much of this explicit body language has held sway since antiquity, with no or little reduction in their power to offend. Our verbal insults are different – many of today’s top taboos were once considerably less offensive than today. In the Middle Ages, kestrels were known as “windfuckers”, dandelions were “pissabeds”, and plants called “cuntehoare” and “bollocks grass” graced the countryside. The names Randulfus Bla de Scotebroc (roughly, Randall Shitboast) and Thomas Turd are both recorded in county court rolls in the 12th and 14th century, as is, rather improbably, a man with the surname Fuckbythenavele. At this time, it was religious profanity that attracted the deepest censure.

But language has always been sweepingly circular. Walking around the Roman Empire, you would have seen swathes of penis pictures – in graffiti, painted above doorways, and even drawn upon chariot wheels. An erect phallus was believed to divert the gaze of the evil eye, and talismans known as fascina were regularly hung around necks and above doorways – it was their bewitching power that gave us our word “fascinate”. But the language of penises was different, and the 10 most taboo words in Latin revolved around bodies and sex. It is no coincidence therefore that any body language representing them was equally powerful.

Perhaps the bigger question is why humans have always needed to swear in the first place. It’s an area in which research is highly active. Scientists and medics are finding more and more evidence that swearing helps us physiologically by relieving stress, frustration, anxiety, and pain. It even has a name: “lalochezia” (literally, “mouth excrement” or, in modern terms, dumping your verbal shit).

The truth is, we will never not have “bad language”. It is an innate need whether or not we answer its call in public. Rather than stemming from a poverty of vocabulary, swearwords are, as the linguist Kate Burridge puts it, “socially and emotionally indispensable”. Hand gestures are, by this calculation, no different.

As ever, though, context is everything. Red-blooded Canadians aside, it’s probably far wiser to flip your bird or show your fig in private. Indecent fingers aren’t for everyone.

Susie Dent is a lexicographer and etymologist. She has appeared in Dictionary Corner on Countdown since 1992, and co-hosts with Gyles Brandreth the podcast Something Rhymes with Purple.

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