Linguistic Anthropology

Where did swearing come from?
Answered by Discovery Channel
  • Discovery Channel

    Discovery Channel

  1. Swearing is prevalent is almost every culture around the world, with each having its own profanities. The practice of swearing is unique in that even though it's thought of as taboo in most cultures, it's still done by most people. In fact, in America, about 74 percent of 18- to 34-year-olds and about 48 percent of those over the age of 55 admit to swearing in public [source: YgoY]. And linguistics experts agree that young children learn swear words and begin to grasp their power long before they're capable of understanding what they mean [source: Angier].

    Swearing is believed to have been around since the beginnings of language. However, written language came long after spoken language, so it's impossible to know the exact details of how the practice began. And since swearing is technically a social taboo, many written texts leave it out altogether. Researchers first see profanity in some of the very first written texts, dating back about 5,000 years and including off-color descriptions of human forms and functions [source: Angier]. Profanity in written texts doesn't appear with much frequency, however, until the about the 16th century -- the works of William Shakespeare, for example, include profanity, which in some cases is so severe that his works have sometimes been censored over the years [source: Socyberty].

    Most researchers theorize that swearing began in early forms of word magic, which is the belief that spoken words have supernatural power over the physical world. Studies of modern, non-literate cultures have shown that many of these people believe that spoken words can affect the world in a positive or negative way. This led people to consider some words as morally good and other words as taboo.

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