Friday, September 24, 2010

Frozen In Their Attitudes: How Sh*t Got Vulgar

"In the common words we use every day, souls of past races, the thoughts and feelings of individual men stand around us, not dead, but frozen into their attitudes like the courtiers in the garden of the Sleeping Beauty."
--Owen Barfield

Conquerors write the history books--and determine the language in which they will be written. This is as true today as it was in 1066, when William the Bastard (so called because he was an illegitimate son—a “bastard”—and not because he was a mean, underhanded character) crossed the English Channel and defeated England’s King Harold at the Battle of Hastings to become William the Conqueror.

For England’s commoners, the change was profound. Before William, advancing to a job in the castle had always meant learning a skill of some kind--cooking, cleaning, child-minding, or, if one was of a clerkish turn, sums or, in rare instances, reading. After William, advancing required learning not only a skill, but the new language of culture, of status, of the law, and of the new ruling class--Norman French. And so it was that good Old English mothers set about seeing to it that their young ones learned French, eftsoons, or right speedily. When my mother once washed my mouth out with soap for saying “shit,” she was following a thousand-year-old tradition— reinforcing an old prejudice dating from the day that William decided to change his last name from Bastard to Conqueror.

Before William, little children were praised for saying, "Gotta shit, ma," shortly before soiling their breech clothes rather than shortly after. After William, they found themselves receiving slaps, and the stern injunction to use the French or Latin word for the function, rather than the "vulgar" word, the word used by the "common" people. The very words "vulgar" and "common," which had referred collectively to the vast majority of the people, became insults.

Previously widely-accepted Old English words like "shit" became markers for lack of achievement, for stupidity, for dirt under one's fingernails, for, in the words of the auto manufacturers, those who must shower after work, as opposed to those who choose to shower before work.

Our linguistic history has marked our perceptions. We still regard “common” and “vulgar” things as low-class, not middle-class. And, as my own experience bears out, mothers are still punishing their children for using good Old English words not because the words themselves are “bad” (though that is often the justification) but because using the words frozen in “low” attitudes often brands us in public opinion, as well.

Which isn’t to say that we don’t need those words. As a wise scholar once said, “Shit happens.” As writer, nice lady, and reluctant chicken farmer Betty MacDonald says in her book The Egg and I, “Sometimes a ‘son of a bitch' rolls trippingly off the tongue.” If the day ever comes when shit no longer happens and Mrs. MacDonald is proven wrong about what rolls off the tongue, perhaps the words will fade away. But until then, it's best to choose one's audience carefully before airing one's archaic references to bodily functions. Take it from an old soap-eater.

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Sherry Wachter has been designing and illustrating all sorts of things--including books--for nearly fifteen years. She has written, designed, illustrated, and self-published two novels--one of which won the 2009 Best of the Best E-books Award--and several picture books. To learn more about book design or to see her work visit her online at Magic Dog Press.


  1. Thanks for my first chuckle of the day, Sherry! This post was enlightening, entertaining, and amusing!
    Considering the Norman French influence on English, it's surprising we don't use "merde" more frequently, as a polite replacement for "shit"! :-)

  2. You bring up an interesting point. When English again became the language of power in England it did it in large part through assimilation--experts estimate that the average English-speaker who does not speak French knows about 15,000 French words. And we've continued that tradition. It's what accounts for the complexity--and the rich nuances, of the language.

  3. Very enlightening post. Knowing some of the history of language helps us in choosing how to use language in our books. And I'm not just referring to the vulgar words. All words have a rich history and meaning.

  4. You are so right, Maryann--my favorite example is the word we choose to refer to the act using our noses on roses. Old English folk referred to the "stench" of a rose. Norman French, I believe, referred to its fragrance. Today, we can refer to a stench, and smell, and odor, a fragrance, an aroma...and each carries with it a different nuance.

  5. Oh, murderous merdies! We finally actually typed the word out. Well, it's not like we're actually cursing - just informing. LOL.

    I just finished Till the Cows Come Home by Judy Clemens and towards the end of the book, she used the F-bomb once. Just once in the entire book. It was very appropriate and very effective.


  6. That's the thing--cursing all the time becomes nothing but white noise. That's my real objection to overuse of vulgarity, profanity, and obscenity--too often it takes the place of creative, thoughtful discourse.

  7. I wish William had been Italian. The Italians are so much more creative at swearing than any other Europeans. For them, it's almost an art.

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  9. Well. You probably have a point. My Middle English professor said that the sounds of a language shape what becomes its great literature. He claimed that the sounds of English made it particularly suited to literature about warfare and bad weather. It makes somebody like John Donne or William Shakespeare all the more remarkable--and lends their love poetry a gritty reality that French love poetry just doesn't have. Perhaps you could translate some of the Italian curses and begin using them?

  10. You not only got to use curse words, you taught a lesson in history and writing. Very good!


  11. Yes. I love it when that happens. Potty-mouths, unite!

  12. Quite an interesting tidbit of language history!

  13. Swearing is so much a part of the vernacular in Australia we don't notice the words at all anymore. Which is how we managed to offend every other country in the world with our advertising slogan a few years ago featuring Lara Bingle: "So, where the bloody hell are ya?"

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