I was looking through my old A-Level English set books from 1989 at the weekend. We had to study the Canterbury Tales and I can still remember our delight when we discovered that 'queynte' was the 13th Century form of a certain four-letter obscenity beginning with 'c', used to describe the female regenerative organs.

Unlike its modern counterpart, 'queynte' was not, it seems, an obscenity back in Chaucer's time. I was wondering if anyone knew when it morphed into 'c*nt' and became a taboo word. And, by extension, the earliest usages of it and 'f*ck' as obscene, taboo and/or abusive words. Off the top of my head, I seem to recall reading somewhere that the earliest example of the eff-word is in Lady Chatterley's Lover, but I may be mistaken.

Also, I know a lot of swearing in our times is based on what are referred to as 'Anglo Saxon' words/usages. Why is this? And were the Angles and Saxons a ruder lot than the Vikings?


From the Wikipedia article

The word in its modern meaning is attested in Middle English. Proverbs of Hendyng, a manuscript from some time before 1325, includes the advice:[9]

'Ȝeue þi cunte to cunnig and craue affetir wedding.'
(Trans: Give your cunt wisely and make (your) demands after the wedding." )

So it would appear it was acceptable at least around the 13th/14th century.

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    All my life.... – Sam Oct 27 '11 at 13:49
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    All my life too! for some reason this question seems to be similar to "how long have people had sex?" And the only answer is "duh" – horatio Oct 27 '11 at 14:00
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    Not really no, I'm asking when apparently 'respectable' words fell out of favour and become taboo/obscene. Probably some time before you and @Sam were born. – 5arx Oct 27 '11 at 14:07
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    What makes you think that 'queynte' was not an obscenity back in Chaucer's time? – user12263 Oct 27 '11 at 14:10
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    That's an interesting point. I wish we had quizzed our tutor about it instead of sniggering at the back of the class. – 5arx Oct 27 '11 at 14:46

The use of fuck as an expletive and cunt as a term of abuse date only from the early twentieth century. Fuck itself is first recorded as a verb in 1528 and as a noun in 1663. Cunt is considerably earlier, the OED’s oldest citation being the name of the street in London once known as Gropecuntelane.

Both words have Germanic origins and were not taboo words to begin with. What might have happened is that, following the Norman Conquest, French words for bodily parts and fuctions took the place of the Old English equivalents in respectable contexts, leaving the Old English words to be used in less respectable ones.

As for swearing generally, it seems likely that there have always been taboo words, but that their nature has varied. Some research has suggested that swearing is processed in a different part of the brain from other language. It’s a fascinating topic which can’t be covered adequately in a few lines here.

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    Prejudice against Anglo-Saxons. – Sam Oct 27 '11 at 15:09
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    The poor women of that street.. – user13141 Oct 27 '11 at 15:09
  • "Why god hates German words" techno-anthropology.blogspot.com/2011/07/…? – mgb Oct 27 '11 at 15:27
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    @onomatomaniak - the name of the street was normally advertising the services of the rather prosperous women of the street. A euphemism is "Threadneedle" street - now the home of the Bank of England – mgb Oct 27 '11 at 15:31
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    @Barrie - Seamstress is a common euphemism for ladies who "earn their keep by the prick of a (different) needle" (Henry V?). I thought threadneedle street was what the previous alleys were sometimes renamed to - I don't know if that's true for the specific one in London – mgb Oct 27 '11 at 17:40

People have been swearing in English as long as there has been English.

The swearwords have changed a lot depending on which words have been effective to use in that way. Today they are often related to sex, earlier in history they were often related to religion, like for example damned.

  • And one of the most common ways to avoid swearing is to use a euphemism. Or a foreign equivalent: either the proper version or the swearing version. – horatio Oct 27 '11 at 18:23

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