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As a non-native speaker I always wondered why most (common) swear words have four letters. I know this is shifting and more words are araising and traditional swear words lose their "harshness", but where does this "4-letter" thing come from? Is it historical or did it just evolve?

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Because they couldn't fit enough sweariness into three. –  mmyers Jul 14 '11 at 16:07
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4 Answers

up vote 8 down vote accepted

I am not sure if there is a definitive explanation.
The Wikipedia article simply mentions:

The "four-letter" claim refers to the fact that a large number of English "swear words" are incidentally four-character monosyllables.
This euphemism came into use during the first half of the twentieth century.1

This thread refers to slang as another form of "emotional speech":

It is a known fact that when an english speaker wants to make the most emotional statements, he resorts to Anglo-Saxon words of one syllable

That being said, "four letter words" is also an expression of its own:

Occasionally the phrase "four-letter word" is humorously used to describe any word composed of four letters.
This is the case when used to mean the word work, alleging that the speaker's or writer's audience treats work as unpleasant.

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About your second quote... It is also a known fact that 90% of things presented as "known facts" (as well as 90% of all statistics) are made up on the spot. –  T.E.D. Jul 14 '11 at 17:31
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Related to what VonC said about most of them being monosyllables: the number four may just be due to the syllable structure of English. The typical pattern (more so in words derived from the older stratum of the language, Anglo-Saxon, which is the source of most of the common profanities) is CVCC or CCVC (where C=consonant and V=vowel), yielding four letters.

If our language had a structure more like Japanese or Hawai'ian (both of which are basically CV with some exceptions), then we'd probably speak of "two-letter words."

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Fair enough about some of them - that we use a digraph for sh, for example, is an accident of history (because Latin lacked such a sound), for example. But weren't some of these originally indeed pronounced more-or-less as written? "Damn" certainly was - the n was assimilated and dropped out from the pronunciation - and I was under the impression that "hell" was once pronounced with geminated l. Not sure about whether the same was true of ck. –  Alex Jan 2 '11 at 22:17
    
The things you are talking about are history and not part of Modern English — we don't have gemination within words in English (and have not for some time). So I maintain that our "four-letter words" being so today are just a bunch of coincidences and historical accidents, and aren't spelled this way because of our syllable structure. (Also, minor point: I am pretty sure "damn" was not ever pronounced with [mn] — the spelling is just reflective of French "damner", whom we borrowed the word from, and the noun "damnation".) –  Kosmonaut Jan 2 '11 at 23:12
    
These is very interessting information and (at least for me) educating discussun. Never though about the idea of looking at it based on constant/vowel. –  DrColossos Jan 3 '11 at 8:16
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Our swear words tend to be the oldest words in the language. (Another euphemism for swear words is "good old Anglo-Saxon words"). The explanation I always hear is that after the Norman conquest, the upper classes spoke French while the lower classes spoke Anglo-Saxon. So we ended up with a lot of short Anglo-Saxon words for things common folk might say a lot, and longer words borrowed from French for words only the upper classes would need. Stuff they both need we tended to end up with two words for.

It is the words we borrowed from other languages (most commonly French) and shoehorn into ours, or had to build out of other words when the concept was discovered, that tend to require a lot of letters.

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English basically has two roots, Germanic, and Latin. The Germanic words are often one syllable, and the Latin words are multisyllable.

One-syllable words are more suitable for swear words, (oaths), and often have four letters. That’s generally true of the English version of the German. Examples:

  • fick(en): the f-word.
  • hell.
  • schiess (has no h, ends with t in English).
  • (ver)damn(en).
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protected by RegDwigнt Jul 14 '11 at 20:02

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