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?"

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

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