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I know shit is generally considered vulgar swearing in any context, while crap (though it's normally used as a swear word) is often used and allowed in decent contexts.

How did this happen, since they both refer to the same thing?

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    This question appears to be off-topic because it is about cultural mores rather than English language
    – Oldcat
    Jul 3 '14 at 21:13
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    I'm not sure it's entirely off-topic; I interpreted it as asking about the history of the usage of certain swear words, which is (I believe) on-topic. It probably could use editing to better reflect that, though. Jul 3 '14 at 21:17
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    @Oldcat It does regard cultural mores, but it's primarily a question about the history of nuances attached to words of similar meaning. I'm not asking why forks go on the left. English wouldn't be much without cultural reference.
    – Daniel
    Jul 3 '14 at 21:17
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    Added a relevant tag, since we have it.
    – Andrew Leach
    Jul 3 '14 at 21:20
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    Crap is a recent word, an old word for 'chaff' that became a euphemism for shit in the 19th century. It became associated with the Crapper brand of flush toilet and has held on since. It's what George Carlin calls a "two-way word", in that it has a non-taboo meaning as well: "You can prick your finger, but you can't finger your prick". Then there is the dice game called "craps", where losing is called "crapping out". Shit has none of these ramifications; shit is just shit. Jul 3 '14 at 22:45
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Prof. Lawler provided an excellent answer in a comment:

Crap is a recent word, an old word for 'chaff' that became a euphemism for shit in the 19th century. It became associated with the Crapper brand of flush toilet and has held on since. It's what George Carlin calls a "two-way word", in that it has a non-taboo meaning as well: "You can prick your finger, but you can't finger your prick". Then there is the dice game called "craps", where losing is called "crapping out". Shit has none of these ramifications; shit is just shit.
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The distinction between proper words, euphemisms, and vulgar words is practically always about the specific word, not the meaning. And the acceptability of specific words changes over time. The whole reason that euphemisms exist is to provide an acceptable replacement for some rude term, because it's sometimes necessary to refer to things. So while we would generally prefer to avoid talking about defecation, if you do have to say it you should choose the less vulgar term.

Why does it matter? Choosing words properly is considered a signal of culture. Watch My Fair Lady for a classic demonstration.

A good book about euphemisms is Euphemania: Our Love Affair with Euphemisms by Ralph Keyes.

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  • I like your answer, but it doesn't address the specific history of crap/shit, why one is more vulgar.
    – Daniel
    Jul 7 '14 at 21:36

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