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The Oldest English Swear Words, Visualized

The Oldest English Swear Words, Visualized
[Top photo: LoloStock via Shutterstock]

Sometimes, in the dead of night, I will writhe in the dark and claw at the sheets, tormented by a single, seemingly unanswerable question: “In what Year of our Lord did someone first ask out loud, ‘Who farted?'”

It appears I am not the only one. Lapham’s Quarterly—the literary magazine established in 2007 by former Harper’s editor Lewis Lapham—has published a wonderful, pithy timeline of the filthiest words in the English language, from 1200 to 2014, as cited by the Oxford English Dictionary.

Fart, as it turns out, is one of the oldest rude words we have in the language: Its first record pops up in roughly 1250, meaning that if you were to travel 800 years back in time just to let one rip, everyone would at least be able to agree upon what that should be called. Which is amazing, considering the fact that English had the word “fart” 50 years before it had the word “buttocks.” Shows where our priorities are, doesn’t it?


That said, many commonly used rude words took a long time to get here. “Fuck” dates back to 1568, dick to 1891, and “vagina” to 1682 (replacing the timeless “cunt,” which goes all the way back to 1325 and still manages to remain one of the most potent swear words in the English arsenal nearly 700 years later).

And then there are all of the filthy words history has forgotten: the mattress jig, the egg fry, the clicket gate, the bumfiddle, and the crupper. For more of these, check out Jonathon Green’s excellent resource on talking dirty through history.JB