Profanity

The brilliant ‘Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England‘ has been my bedtime reading of late. You can tell a good book by the number of corners that you illicitly turn down to mark passages that  simply cannot be enjoyed just once.

I’ve just got to the section about the basic essentials of day-to-day life, specifically language. Apparently they were a lot coarser in their speech back then:

If you find yourself speaking English with the locals do not be surprised if their language gets a little rough around the edges. Just as fourteenth-century place names are direct descriptions of localities (for instance: ‘Shitbrook Street’, ‘Pissing Alley’), so daily speech is equally straightforward and ribald. In telling his Canterbury Tales, Chaucer describes how one ardent lover pursued the married woman whom he fancied and ‘caught her by the cunt’. At another point in the same work, Chaucer has his host declare to him ‘your shithouse rhyming isn’t worth a turd’. Daily language is direct and to the point. So if someone slaps you on the back in a hearty way, and exclaims ‘your breeches and your very balls be blessed!’ do not take it amiss. It is a compliment.

By coincidence (or because I’m subconsciously searching out rude words?), I also this week came across an article on Time entitled ‘Nine Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Swear Words‘. It’s to coincide with the release of another wonderful-sounding book, Holy Shit: A Brief History of Swearing.

It’s interesting to note the root of our most charged swear words changes with social habits and acceptable behaviour. Most of our worst profanities in modern English are to do with genitals, poo or sexual orientation and their sophistication depends largely on how much of the Profanisaurus you have read. It was different back in the day:

“The sexual and excremental words were not charged, basically because people in the Middle Ages had much less privacy than we do,” Mohr explains, “so they had a much less advanced sense of shame.” Multiple people slept in the same beds or used privies at the same time, so people observed each other in the throes of their, er, natural functions much more frequently – which made mention of them less scandalous.

Society might have become more refined since medieval times and done away with the communal toilets, but modern folk less straight talking? The researcher clearly hasn’t ever been on a girls’ night out.

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