Futuo! How the Romans Swore

A new book details obscenity's amazingly intricate history -- and how it influences us today.
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A dirty Roman mouth? (Rafel Miro/Flickr)

You do it. I sure as hell do it. News anchors accidentally do it -- sometimes on their first day of work. The Russians did it so much they recently banned it.

Cursing is perhaps the only vice that's as frowned-upon as it is widespread. Sure it's crude and ugly, but swearing helps us express our emotions. What can be better than the catharsis of a four-letter word, rapidly muttered, when you spill your latte at that little milk counter at Starbucks? Or more satisfying than an anguished f-bomb at the realization that the dinner-party duck totally did just burn?

According to the new book, Holy Sh*t! A Brief History of Swearing by Melissa Mohr, swearing is also practical -- it helps us endure pain. (Your hand can tolerate an ice bath longer if you repeat "shit," rather than "shoot," while doing it, she writes.) Profanities are even stored in a different part of the brain, far from the cerebral cortex, where most language and your Master's thesis lives, and down in the limbic system, with the blood pressure and heart rate.

The fact that cursing has long been scorned by polite society makes it all the more delicious when one gets to say (or even hear) it.

"The General is sorry to be informed that the foolish, and wicked practice, of profane cursing and swearing (a Vice heretofore little known in an American Army) is growing into fashion; he hopes the officers will, by example, as well as influence, endeavour to check it," George Washington wrote to his troops in 1776.

Mohr writes that many swear-phrases we use today got their start in Medieval Europe, when the Bible provided the basis for swearing oaths -- something people thought God asked of his followers in the Old Testament. (It's where we got the "holy" in "holy shit," for example).

But expletives predate even the spread of Christianity: The Romans' mouths were incredibly dirty, and many of their taboos were ones Westerners still hold today.

"Speaking with Roman plainness," as the euphemism for cursing at the time went, mostly involved vividly describing genitals, which were considered both shameful and awe-inspiring -- veretrum and verecundum -- Mohr found. The ten worst words in ancient Latin centered on bodies and sex. Slight a Roman, and he might retaliate by threatening to perform irrumatio, or oral rape.

Most Roman obscenities were hurled as insults, but like in Medieval Europe, they sometimes had a religious role, as well. The Gods, it seems, sometimes liked it when mere mortals cursed like sailors. Mohr writes:

Obscenity made some religious rituals succeed, though, too. Obscene words could please gods such as Priapus, with his enormous, perpetually erect phallus, and were thought to promote fertility and to protect against the evil eye. In ancient Rome, in other words, the Shit itself could be Holy.

Interestingly, many of these Roman swears weren't passed down to English. The Latin cunnus isn't even the predecessor of our see-you-next-Tuesday. "Latin usually gives us our proper medical terms for immodest parts of the body-- vagina and penis, for example," Mohr writes. "Not our primary obscenities."

The Romans did, however, employ their own c-word frequently -- in graffiti and even in poems -- but often to refer to the body part itself, not as an insult. In one epigram, the poet Martial rhetorically asks an old woman why she's plucking her pubic hair, inquiring, among other things, "Why stir up the ashes in your tomb?"

"Fuck," or futuo, was also not always pejorative. One Pompeian offered this tender sentiment to a friend: "Fortunatus, you sweet soul, you total fucker!"

Instead, another word was considered far more foul: landica, or clitoris. Mohr explains why:

People swear about what they care about, and the Romans cared about the clitoris. They thought that both male and female partners in intercourse had to achieve orgasm for conception to occur, a wrong, but gallant, idea.

Other Roman expletives centered on passivity and aggressiveness in sex -- passivity being considered far inferior. There were two profanities for a man who allowed himself to be penetrated -- catamitus and cinaedus -- and the sure-fire way to spot a cinaedus was that he "scratched his head with one finger." Some think it was the middle finger, which even back then was offensive for its perceived resemblance to an erect member. The worst of the worst insults related to being on the receiving end of oral sex, since the mouth was the most sacred of body parts.

Other words we find obscene today were far less vulgar to the Romans because of their banality. Cacare meant "to poop," but Romans did that in giant, hundred-seat latrines with no partitions, so there was very little left to be shocked by. Likewise with lotium -- urine -- which Romans washed their clothes in, and with mingo -- to piss -- which people did outside at will.

So how did words like penis and vulva make the leap from unspeakable in Latin to clinical in English? After the fall of the Roman empire, Mohr explains, Latin split into two forms -- a higher-level version for elites, and a lower, more common one that later morphed into Romance languages like Spanish and French. Wealthy, educated men throughout Europe learned the higher form of Latin in schools until the 18th century, and, well, using it was an easy way to keep the (uneducated) women and children around them from knowing they were talking about genitals. It was Pig Latin with actual Latin.

***

These days, some say cable TV and the Internet makes expletives too common -- thus polluting our virgin ears. (Though still others say the proliferation of obscenity also dulls its effect -- we're looking at you, Lena Dunham.) And maybe that's true. After all, cursing is only as scandalous as the society that surrounds it says it is. In the buttoned-up 18th and 19th centuries, Mohr points out, even leg and trousers were deemed too vulgar. In the Middle Ages, "by God's bones" was more serious than "shit."

But if anything, the poems of Martial and his peers show that humans have always had an inclination for colorful language, particularly when it touched on taboos. Throughout time, as words have left FCC-monitor territory and entered everyday conversation, we've kept coming up with new ways to express our greatest, angriest, most enthusiastic exclamations. And that process is pretty fucking cool.

Holy Sh*T: A Brief History of Swearing

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Olga Khazan is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers health.

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