Friday, July 2, 2010

Apple #467: Cursing vs. Swearing

When I come across the phrase "curse words" or "swear words," or say in some novel or other, I see something like, "He dropped the hammer on his foot and cursed loudly," I often wonder, what's the difference between cursing and swearing?  Is there a difference at all?  Or are "curse words" and "swear words" the same thing?

It turns out, there is a difference.  And different bad words belong to each.  (I'm not afraid to use those bad words here because they're examples.)

Cursing -- making an utterance intended to invoke a supernatural power to inflict punishment or destruction on a person or thing.
  • In other words, it's like putting a curse on somebody.
  • (This is going to seem jarring so please excuse me and know that I don't really mean it) "Goddamn" this or that person or thing, or even just "damn it" would fall under this category because you're calling on a supernatural someone to do the punishing for you.
  • So would something like "the devil take you."
  • By the way, the word "curse" probably came from the same word as "cross."

Even cats can curse, apparently.
(Photo from ROFL Cat)

Swearing -- there are all sorts of meanings of this word (to promise, state solemnly on an oath, to make someone else take an oath, etc.) but the one we're most interested in is: using profane or indecent language especially in anger.
  •  Most of the bad words fall into this group (again, more unpleasant words to follow): "shit," "fuck," "bitch," "asshole," "dick," "pussy," "bullshit," etc.
  • Here's an interesting contrast: swearing also includes saying something like, "By God, I could eat forty-nine pizzas right now."  One of the meanings of swearing is calling upon someone -- often God -- as a witness to what you're about to say and thereby assert the truth of your statement.
  • I think the reason we put all those bad words in the same category as various assertions of the truth is because we say those bad words with such emphasis and at the time, we mean the hell out of 'em.

Two meanings of "swearing" in one cartoon.
(Cartoon by Rob Rogers, originally published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

 Blaspheming -- using names of religious or sacred things in an irreverent way
  • "Bloody" is the first example that springs to mind.  But it turns out, I am wrong to categorize it here.
  • I always thought that the reason "bloody" is a bad word is because it's referring to Christ's blood in an irreverent way.  Not so, the etymologists tell me.
  • Other people thought it referred to menstrual blood -- and maybe when Ben Johnson called it "very vulgar" that's what he had in mind but he wasn't specific about that.
  • In fact, its original meaning, way back in the 1600s, was probably to refer to someone of aristocratic status, someone with "blue blood," as it were.  Saying that "George is bloody drunk" is to say, "George is as drunk as a lord."
  • This word says, in essence, "I am a commoner, and I can't stand those high-and-mighty rich people because I think they're jerks, and you're acting like one of them."

The local London boys might call the uniformed boy from Eton a bloody tool.
(Photo by Jimmy Sime from 1937; sourced from A Photo A Day Keeps the)

  • So we need another example of blasphemy.  Taking the Lord's name in vain counts as blasphemy.  There are tons of examples of that.

OK, this is blasphemy, but it cracks me up.
(Photo from

Expletive -- a swear word or any other expression used as an exclamation, usually as a filler.
  • The Latin root of this word literally means "to fill in with."
  • All of the above types of bad words can be expletives.  For example, in the sentence, "Move your fucking car," the swear word "fucking" acts as an expletive.
  • Words that people use as substitutes for the bad ones also count as expletives.  In "Move your freaking car," for example, "freaking" is an expletive.

Ned Flanders may be the king of expletives.
(Image from The Simpsons, sourced from Babytrudes)

The Concise Oxford Dictionary
Online Etymology Dictionary, bloody
The Straight Dope, What's the origin of the British slang word "bloody?"


  1. Really Interesting! I had never thought about the differences there might be amongst bad words. Love your choice of pictures.

  2. You think of the most interesting topics to explore. Just love your post and look forward to reading what you will examine next!


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