I'm having trouble finding the origin of the terms "curse words" and "swear words" when used as a synonym what many call "bad words" (although I don't agree).

I've found that "curses" when used as an explicative is from the late 19th century, but not much more than that. I'm assuming they have some origin in religion/mysticism/witchcraft due to the earliest meaning I can find of the word "curse," and how "swear" is believed to come from the invocation of the the "sacred" name (Exodus).

Unfortunately, these explanations don't satisfy me. I ask, does anyone have a more detailed explanation with specifics as to the origin of these terms in order to satisfy my curiosity?

  • 1
    Hi Jagid, welcome to ELU.*Curse* goes back to 13th Century OE - not much is known before that but it may be from O.Fr. curuz (anger). And swear is equally old but it meant "give a promise" rather than "use bad language", which came in around C15. Swear-word came much later, but was colloquial by 1883. What else do you want to know? Commented Dec 31, 2011 at 23:54
  • I going on the assumption that "curse words" and the original use of the word "curse" are somehow related, but I'm not sure how or why. The same would go for "swear" and "swear words" because, like you said, "swear" was originally to give a promise, how/why did it become a label for a set of words that are seen as "bad."
    – Jagid
    Commented Jan 1, 2012 at 0:02
  • Well, it's at the very least "socially indelicate" to go around invoking God or the Devil to heap misery upon someone you're having a drunken argument with. People "swear on their mother's life that they didn't fucking do it, so help me God". To most people, some or all of that is "bad". I don't see anything hard to understand about that. What is it exactly you don't get? Commented Jan 1, 2012 at 2:23

1 Answer 1


The general term is Profanity. Swearing and cursing are both activities in which profanity may occur, so that's where the common terms came from.

Swearing means swearing by someone or something, i.e, taking an oath to do something, or simply to tell the truth. The court oath in the USA is usually something like "In the testimony I am about to give, I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God." Some Americans refuse to swear in court because they would have to mention God; they are usually allowed to affirm their testimony formally instead.

Cursing means to wish for evil to happen to others -- and to state this wish as if to bring it about, by calling on a god or some magical spirit. Modals like may are often used in special constructions in cursing; the profanity is usually limited to hell, damn, devil, demon, and their euphemisms like heck, darn, fallen angel, and evil spirit:

  • (May) God damn you to Hell!
  • May you tan forever in the fires of Heck!
  • Roofless and rootless, cursed be and cast out! (from P.C. Hodgell's Kencyrath series)
  • Well of course there's the scatalogical dimension too - when you call someone a piece of shit, for example. Not to mention sex, private parts, mucus membranes, slimy or otherwise icky life-forms, etc., etc. We can invest the power of "bad words" across a wide range of subjects. But religion certainly does give us many expressions useful for verbally beating people up. Commented Jan 1, 2012 at 2:36
  • Specifically, cursing and swearing were asked about, and they're religious. Good enough; I certainly didn't feel the need to be comprehensive and fine-grained on the subject. Commented Jan 1, 2012 at 2:40
  • True. One can never be comprehensive about anything, no matter how trivial and limited it might appear at first. Anyway, I have a penchant for scatology! Commented Jan 1, 2012 at 2:48
  • I used to give lectures on it; students are always fascinated. Me, I never cease to be fascinated by the oddities of pragmatics. Commented Jan 1, 2012 at 2:51
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    Just for correctness: some Americans refuse to swear in court because they have a religious objection to swearing, especially swearing in the name of God.
    – sq33G
    Commented Jan 1, 2012 at 9:28

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