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Intuitively, what would make a 'bitch' hurt? Perhaps calling a woman 'bitch' after she breaks up with you, hence it 'hurts'? A 'motherfucker' hurts, for good reason (no one likes their mother to be fucked). A 'bastard' seems to make some sense too. No one wants a bastard child. But what makes these phrases so interesting to me, is that they are usually used in the sense of cursing physical pain, and yet the first thing that comes to mind when reading these kind of phrases is the mental pain that is connotative of being around these undesirable social roles.

Google ngrams results:

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All three seem to have originated around the late 60s but obviously, could have been earlier in spoken speech. 'Hurts like a bastard' is the earliest derivative according to Ngrams:

hurts like crazy ~ 1950 Leslie Stephen

hurts like a bastard ~ 1967 John O'Hara

hurts like a bitch ~ 1969 Myles Ludwig

hurts like a motherfucker ~ 1970 Charles Davis

hurts like shit ~ 1970 Walden Leecing

hurt like buggery ~ 1970 Stanley Winchester

hurt like fuck ~ 1986 Clive Barker


fucking hurts ~ 1978 Kyle Reich

The fact that all of these derivatives seem to have common written origins in the late 60s, likely means there is a common link or instigating source. Perhaps the Vietnam War brought about the release of tensions in the form of a bigger leniency toward the use of creative new swears?

Interestingly, all of these derivatives are incorporating undesirable social affiliations (and thus the mental anguish associated with them) and conflating them with actual physical pain. This makes me think that there's no coincidence that these specific words were used. Not many other swear words would fit in this phrase: i.e. 'hurts like a shit', or 'hurts like a fuck', or 'hurts like a cunt', or 'hurts like a damn'. Amazingly, it's the precise fact that the words 'bitch/bastard/motherfucker' have no association with physical pain that actually makes them, counter-intuitively, a better fit for this phrase 'hurts like a -----' than most other swear words.

A possible origin could be 'hurt(s) like hell', or 'hurt(s) like the devil', or 'hurt(s) like the dickens' which were around all the way since the early 1900s:

enter image description here

But I don't think this explains why the common forms 'like a bitch/motherfucker/bastard' all commonly seemed to spring up in the late 60s.

Going back even further, let's examine the root form 'hurt(s) like': and we can find what was used before 'hurt like hell': 'hurt(s) like thunder' and 'hurt(s) like blazes'. Other than these two, 'hurt like' only yields one-time similes.

There is evidence to suggest that the phrase 'like blazes' derives from the phrase 'like hell' (blazes originally meaning fire but then started to be used euphemistically for the 'fires of hell'), but the phrase 'hurt(s) like hell' derives from the phrase 'hurt(s) like blazes', with the 'hell' variant only becoming popular in the early 1900s, and the 'blazes' variant starting from the mid 1800s. Although a factor could be that 'blazes' was being used as a euphemism for 'hell' being too obscene.

"Beginning in the 19th century, however, “blazes” began to be used to mean specifically “the fires of hell” and, by extension, things similarly intense and merciless. Thus were born such phrases as “like blazes” indicating great intensity or force (“The horse … went like blazes,” 1812), as well as the use of “blazes” as a euphemistic synonym for “hell” (“How the blazes you can stand the head-work you do, is a mystery to me,” Dickens, 1837) or “perdition” (“The moral of A party had gone to blazes,” 1924)."

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    Is it surprising? Most of the profane words are related to sex, genitals and anything related - shit, bitch, motherfucker, fuck, etc. When something hurts, you usually swear since it likely lessens the pain. It doesn't have to make sense, and if something hurts, you want to spit out bad words, not write a poem about the pain. – MatthewRock Jul 6 '16 at 15:26
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    It's a bitch world, it's been vulgarly said.. Although prevalence has shot up in our modern "post-rap" age, I've no doubt bitch was being used informally/vulgarly like that long before my 100-year-old citation there. – FumbleFingers Jul 6 '16 at 15:43
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    I recall that Kurt Vonnegut once said he heard the word motherfucker for the first time in Europe during the war, while among soldiers who generally are considered to have the filthiest mouths and most likely to suffer pain. Without a doubt strong swear words were used in moments of pain before the 60s, but the prevalence of these words in print is no doubt due to the loosening of moral restrictions accompanying the rise of the 50s Beats and 60s counterculture. – Cascabel Jul 6 '16 at 17:45
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    Oh, come on! This has nothing to do with sex -- these are just random obscenities. Saying "hurts like hell" gets mundane, so to emphasize more how it hurts you pick a different, more "unique" swear word. – Hot Licks Jul 6 '16 at 17:56
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    Certain obscene words/phrases are used to express pain and anguish, and others are not. "Fuck" is commonly used (by some people) when something goes wrong, while "cunt" doesn't carry anywhere near the same connotation. Partly, it's likely that the sound of the word affects the choice -- "fuck" or "shit" just sounds anguished, while "cunt" and "pussy" don't. In any event, "cunt" and "pussy" aren't common swear words that are used to express general dissatisfaction. OTOH, some words, such as "bitch", have an idiomatic association in the phrase "like a ___", as in "Quit acting like a bitch." – Hot Licks Jul 6 '16 at 20:24
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The first two cursewords are specifically and characteristically common to modern black American vernacular English, as is the dropping of the "s" in the word "hurts," so that is strongly suggestive of some relationship to this phrase (note also that your Charles Davis citation is actually from a book called On Being Black).

I'd hazard a guess that the increased prominence of the phrases' general usage starting in the 60's might be related to the increased racial integration of American society, and the resulting more powerful and less filtered cultural influence of black America (compare the dates of the introduction of "blaxploitation" films). Anecdotally speaking, these words are more common in mainstream depictions of black speech than in actual black speech, which suggests a particular fondness for them as signifiers of blackness in mainstream culture.

In terms of usage, I read them as first anthropomorphizing the pain, and then cursing it. Anthropomorphic language is also characteristic of black American vernacular. It's worth noting that "bastard" is an outlier here, while anthropomorphic, it is not specifically characteristic of black vernacular.

  • That's very interesting; thank you. So would you say that the earlier phrase 'hurt like hell/the devil/the dickens' also is anthropomorphic in nature and also has black American vernacular origins? Or are the later 'like a bitch/motherfucker/bastard' only anthropomorphic modifications of the 'hurt like hell' phrase? I doubt there's a clear-cut answer but it's an interesting conversation nevertheless. – user180089 Jul 7 '16 at 17:37
  • Interestingly, the 'dickens' in 'hurt like the dickens' has an origin in Shakespeare, but it's unclear where the phrase itself actually originated. The phrase 'like hell' has British origins apparently: – user180089 Jul 7 '16 at 17:43
  • I wouldn't lump those all together. Hurt like the devil is anthropomorphic, it has the same form as the others. Hurt like the dickens probably isn't, and hurt like hell definitely isn't. – Chris Sunami Jul 7 '16 at 17:47
  • The reason I did is that Ngrams shows all three becoming popular around the early 1900s, and because they're all related to Christianity (and with 'dickens' being a minced oath for the devil). I think the most likely answer is that since 'like hell' has British origins, the phrases 'hurt like the devil' and 'hurt like the dickens' are both different in origin from 'hurt like a bitch/motherfucker/bastard', and the fact that the two groups seemed to become popular at two different time periods in written form (the early 1900s Britain and then the 1960s America) seems to support this. – user180089 Jul 7 '16 at 17:57
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    That makes sense. I wouldn't see the two sets of phrases as being more than casually related --I wouldn't, for example, expect the same person to mix and match between the two sets of expressions (and not just because of the differing intensities of the curses). BTW, "like a bastard" is the outlier in this set. It has the same form, but "bastard" is not specifically characteristic of black vernacular. – Chris Sunami Jul 7 '16 at 18:11
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Two possibilities I can see:

1) It is actually referring to the pain caused by a "bitch", which one could take to mean "A woman who has hurt me, eg broken my heart, not done what I wanted her to do, etc". In other words, hurts like that special way that can only be done by someone with whom we are in a relationship. Note that I am in no way endorsing the use of the word "bitch" here.

2) It's just a general expletive, without much real meaning, like saying "Hurts like a motherf*cker", "Hurts like a bastard", etc.

If someone is in pain, and trying to describe it, they might say "Hurts like a .... (I have no frame of reference as this is the worst pain I ever experienced, in fact it's so bad I'm just going to swear now)... bitch"

I'm not sure how one would go about working out which one was in the mind of the originators of this phrase.

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I only quote from memory here: But curse words in all languages have a certain similar visceral effect.

They usually are an affront that you in your right mind being polite would not do.

fuck --> low level bitch --> see fuck bastard --> see bitch

They are all related to sexuality which is what everything revolves around anyways.

Why we curse

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Like what DisplayName said, cursing relieves stress and has similar effects. Pretty much anything forbidden by society (verbally) creates appeal in using them.

  • This question has little to do with the psychology of swearing, but more to do with the origin of a particular construction of a swear-phrase. – user180089 Jul 6 '16 at 20:07
  • The psychology explains the origins, doesn't it? I can delete it if I am wrong. – Adamawesome4 Jul 6 '16 at 20:09
  • No you don't have to delete it. The answer I was looking for was more along the lines of Chris Sunami's answer. – user180089 Jul 6 '16 at 20:11

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