The Evolution of Swear Words

While I am sure that there are more complete discussion to be had on the subject, io9 has an interesting little piece,  A brief history of four letter words:

"Scumbag," sounds like the kind of hokey insult that would get you laughed at if you used it. When it was used in a New York Times, it got protests from some older readers, because once upon a time it meant "a used condom." Think about every time you’ve seen Batman refer, in children’s cartoon, to criminals as scum, and you’ll begin to understand how obscenity evolves.

One thing is for certain:  there is an ongoing evolution as to exactly how certain words are received and perceived.

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Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. Franklin says:

    Interesting. Heck, I was lightly reprimanded as a kid for saying something was “scuzzy”.

  2. John Burgess says:

    That meaning of “scumbag” (“used condom”) is still the one that comes to mind when I hear the word. It’s strong, but then, it was meant to be strong. Even in its strong form now, I find it mostly apt when used.

    The outer limits of permissible speech when I was a kid included words like ‘crud’. My protestations — backed up by the dictionary! — that it was an alternative form of ‘curd’ cut no ice. We certainly heard other words uttered by older kids, but had to look them up in the dictionary. If they were even in the dictionary, as most were not. I think I was 13 before I found out what ‘f*ck’ actually meant.

    I thank Bill Clinton profoundly for making sure my then-seven-year-old son had the opportunity to expand his vocabulary.

  3. walt moffett says:

    Ever get the chance, dig thru a college library’s journals for Maledicta, The International Journal of Verbal Aggression. Sadly no longer printed but a sure vocabulary builder

  4. John Burgess says:

    @walt moffett: I used to subscribe. Had to make up for the delay in off-color vocabulary development.

  5. ernieyeball says:

    “Tits doesn’t even belong on the list, you know. It’s such a friendly sounding word. It sounds like a nickname. ‘Hey, Tits, come here. Tits, meet Toots, Toots, Tits, Tits, Toots.’ It sounds like a snack doesn’t it? Yes, I know, it is, right. But I don’t mean the sexist snack, I mean, New Nabisco Tits. The new Cheese Tits, and Corn Tits and Pizza Tits, Sesame Tits Onion Tits, Tater Tits, Yeah. Betcha can’t eat just one.”

    Thank You George Carlin. RIP

  6. merl says:

    @John Burgess: Or thank the liberal media who ran stories about it 24/7 or yourself for allowing your kid to hear it. Be a good Repub and take some personal responsibility.