I think English is unique in having a set of "bad words" each which has its "more refined" equivalent, e.g.:

spit -> expectorate

piss -> urinate

shit -> defecate

f*ck -> fornicate/copulate

and even:

kiss -> osculate

What is the origin and etymology of this?

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    I really doubt English is in any way unique in this. I'll bet that almost any language has these kinds of distinctions.
    – delete
    Commented Aug 13, 2010 at 14:17
  • 3
    You are certainly right, but I mean more in the sense that in English there is a definite pattern to each set: bad words are all four letters, refined words all multi-syllabic words which end in -ate. Commented Aug 13, 2010 at 14:19
  • it's pure coincidence that the bad words have four letters. Commented Aug 13, 2010 at 15:35
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    @JSBangs, not necessarily. If cuss words are loan words (or vica versa) then the cuss words will have different phonotactic rules. If hypothetically all the non-cuss words were from Japanese, they'd all be CVCV. Commented Aug 13, 2010 at 15:51
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    Tons of words in English, not just bad ones, have "posh" counterparts. Many (most?) old Germanic words have corresponding Norman/French/Latin words: chew->masticate, G-d->deity, yearly->annually and on and on and on. Commented Aug 19, 2010 at 21:30

10 Answers 10


The "more posh" words are usually Latin (occasionally Greek) in origin. The more common sounding words are from original Anglo-Saxon (I'm sure a real linguist knows more). The more educated classes tended to be more likely to use Latin and other foreign terms, while the less educated classes used the vernacular (i.e. the vulgar, common language) of the day.

  • I guess it depends from the fact that once Latin was used to create a barrier from two different social classes. In some countries, Mass has been celebrated in Latin, until recent days (by recent days I mean between 1900 and 1980).
    – apaderno
    Commented Aug 13, 2010 at 14:26
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    Not necessarily so, e.g. c*nt is a Latin-derived word. Where do you think "cunnilingus" comes from?
    – delete
    Commented Aug 13, 2010 at 14:58
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    This answer is essentially right. When the Normans invaded England, they brought much vocabulary of Latin origin, and since the Normans established themselves as the top-tier of society over the Anglo-Saxons, such French (ultimately Latin) words became associated with sophistication and higher class, whereas Germanic-origin words were largely all the Anglo-Saxon population initially knew.
    – Noldorin
    Commented Aug 13, 2010 at 15:28
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    ‘cunt’ is most certainly not a Latin-derived word! It is not a borrowed word and comes from English's proto-Germanic roots. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cunt
    – nohat
    Commented Aug 13, 2010 at 22:28
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    Really, while it MAY have been in the past that Latin words were more "posh" it was more a product Latin being a language not used by the general populace. Latin words are usually, for grammatical reasons, longer than Germanic words. It is possible that this "longer is more erudite" carried into modern English. However, in modern English, a word's Latin roots are rarely taken into consideration, and in most cases, the number of syllables a word has is that barometer of that word's pretentiousness.
    – OneProton
    Commented Aug 15, 2010 at 1:22

They're longer and more difficult to spell and pronounce. Thus, they require higher education.

If you utilize (use) polysyllabic vocabulary (words), you will indubitably (without fail) sound more posh.

  • 2
    +1 for the right answer (IMHO). Or should I say "+1 Accolades for an apposite reply"? Commented Aug 13, 2010 at 15:28
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    posh - pretentious, another good example for the OP's list. Commented Aug 13, 2010 at 18:56
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    "posh -> pretentious" is a bit of a counterexample, in my opinion. Pretentious has a negative denotation while posh does not.
    – Patrick M
    Commented Sep 24, 2015 at 21:31
  • @PatrickM yeah... sophisticated is perhaps a better substitute for posh
    – OneProton
    Commented Oct 15, 2015 at 21:05

There is actually an interesting term for this.

inkhorn (adj): ostentatiously learned: pedantic.

Ironically enough, I'd consider the word itself to be a good example of an inkhorn term. It was coined during the Renaissance to criticize learned writers who favored borrowed works from Latin and Greek over "vulgar" English alternatives.


If you want to write words people can feel, use little ones. "The bad news was like a kick in the gut." "The disturbing information caused the individual's intestines to turn queasy."


As Shinto pointed out, vulgar words exist in every language. I wanted to add that the pattern you are noticing (4 letter words vs. long words ending in "ate") is just a coincidence and that you have only listed verbs. For example, the noun "shit" corresponds to "feces"; the noun "whore" (5 letters) corresponds to "prostitute".

I speculate that 4 letter words are common in vulgarity because they are easier to use, possibly due to the phonemes of the English language.


If I remember correctly, (and it was a long time ago), in the book "Grammatical Man", there was a section about randomly generated words. The author described the attempt to program a computer for the monkeys-with-a-typewriter experiment to see how long it would take to generate the first line of a Shakespeare play. Once letters weren't being chosen at random, but according to the actual frequency distributions of letters, then the word generator began generating a lot of cuss words.

I think the implication is that cuss words are cuss words because they are made of such common sounds and such common patterns.

From google books I can tell the reference is somewhere around page 117, but I can't find the exact quote, which is a pity because this is the sort of finding in scatalogical research that is so good to be true it sounds like an urband legend.

There is also a post on the Daily WTF about another computer algorithm that seems to have similar cuss word generating properties.


It's worth remembering that the word posh, is not posh.

This is not unrelated to the fact that many Latinate and polysyllabic words are less "posh" than some Anglo-Saxon (or at least Germanic) shorter words.

The case of lavatory is now a clichéd example. The cliché goes that the posh person says toilet, the uncouth person says bog, jacks, lav or various other slang terms from the euphemistic to the vividly vulgar, but the person who wants to appear posh uses lavatory thinking the longest Latin-derived word must be the "posh" one, and so reveals themselves as non-U (U being a term for posh that was coined by Nancy Mitford, and therefore much posher than posh though there was always a degree of irony in its use that is almost complete in its very rare occurrences today). Use of military slang terms like the head (Navy slang) might indicate more about past service than social background.

Other cases where the shorter and/or Anglo-Saxon was considered the posher by those too posh to say posh, are bike rather than cycle [both are of course contractions of the same word, but the former sounds more Anglo-Saxon as well as being shorter, and the latter reveals the Greek origin and matches another Latinate word], scent rather than perfume, false teeth rather than dentures, die rather than pass on, mad rather than mental, jam father than preserve, rich rather than wealthy, and what? rather than pardon? if you haven't heard clearly sorry rather than pardon if you have been clumsy and silence rather than pardon if your digestion has made its presence known.

These distinctions are no longer as they were, with examples of either (along with cases where it was indeed the longer or Latinate form that was considered U over a Saxon form considered non-U) becoming more common across all classes, for a variety of reasons.

You may have already noted that some of the U terms would also be those more commonly used by the working class; for example jam rather than preserve. This could suggest a middle-class affectation of a Latinate lengthier term to deliberately appear "posh" - the upper-class had less need to appear posh, since they were recognised as such already unlike the rising middle class.

There is a similar tendency toward euphemism among many of the non-U terms, avoiding die and mad where the upper-class had no such qualms.

A lot reflect a deliberate attempt to talk in a formal register on the part of the middle class. The idea that it is posher to talk in a more formal register is not entirely accurate, though not entirely inaccurate either - a deeper education makes a wider vocabulary and greater fluency available, making for differences both in how people talk informally and the ease with which they can use more formal registers. To non-U ears U speech is more formal, and to affect it one speaks formally. From this we have such fictional examples as the aunt in Brian Friel's "Philadelphia, Here I Come" who would say desist in case of stop despite the fact that while the former is undoubtedly more formal, the latter was the appropriate word and desist jarred.

Of the examples given in the question, expectorate and osculate stand out as comparable. They may have advantages of precision in some technical cases perhaps, but otherwise they have no benefit over spit and kiss, and are considerably less vivid. Unless one was stretching into formality for comic effect, they would mark one not as being posh, but rather of trying to appear so.


Winston Churchill's famous "we will fight them on the beaches" speech is entirely Anglo-Saxon but for one word, surrender. When you want spare, simple, direct communication, it's Anglo-Saxon you want.

In my IT field, it is common to use Latin to be technical and perhaps obscure. A good example is the concept of "instantiation", creating a new instance of a predefined class. In many programming languages, the word you use to do the instantiation is "new". Instantiation - Latin. New - Anglo-Saxon.


I heard an interesting discussion on the CBC once - the interviewee was talking about the origin of 'dirty' words vs their euphemistic replacements.

There is an simple anglo-saxon word used to describe a basic action, to wit, the action of banging something repeatedly. Such as you would do to hammer in nail or pound in a fence post. The link from an everyday action to, well, another common if not everyday, action is easy to see and the association with human reproduction was made. Because it was the anglo-saxon word it was automatically considered uncoth, vulgar and for the uneducated and unwashed masses.

Fornication, on the other hand, is based on the latin word fornix, a type of room, most often found in hotels. It came to reference rooms rented by the hour. A tour of the brothel in Pompeii (relax - it had been out of business for 2,000 years when I was there) left no doubt as to what went on in said rooms - the available actions were painted on the walls above the doorways.

So we move from the earthy description of the actual act by a conquered people, to the more refined latin derived word that is a layer removed - mentioning where you do it without exactly what you were doing. In actual fact - the more refined word refers to simply renting a room - not to what might happen there. It should have been included in the Monty Python skit (Nudge nudge - wink wink - know what I MEAN!!)

Hey - I managed that without using f*ck !!


Because English has loan words from so many languages and so many shades of meaning, I suspect there are more opportunities to express yourself in a more or less posh way compared to other languages.

The Norman-Anglo Saxon thing is particularly interesting: cow-beef, sheep-mutton. The indigenous Anglo-Saxon word is the word for the beast. The conqueror's word is the word for the meat. Who do you think reared the animal, and who got to eat it?

And if you really want to have a certain panache, to show savoir-faire, to not appear gauche, you speak French!

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