A well-timed f-bomb can be cathartic. But where did the word itself come from? Here are the origin stories behind six of the most common expletives, from ass to shit and everything in between. If you’re scandalized by swear words, it’s probably best to turn back now—none of the terms are censored beyond this point—or at least pivot to reading about these old-fashioned oaths (Bejabbers!) instead.
How did a word meaning “donkey” come to mean “butt”? It didn’t: Each ass has its own etymology. Ass the donkey is an Old English term derived from asinus, the Latin word for the animal. Ass the backside is just a variant of arse, a different Old English term with Germanic roots. Some people altered the spelling of arse to reflect how they said it—without the “r” sound—which is also how we got cuss from curse.
Likening someone to a donkey is a pretty ancient insult. Boethius, a 6th-century Roman senator and scholar, once wrote that a man “sunk in ignorance and stupidity lives like a dull ass.” Middle English speakers were known to skip the simile and just call those people “asses,” a tradition that continued through later centuries. These days, though, ass doesn’t necessarily imply foolishness; more often, it means that someone’s loathsome or despicable.
It’s not clear whether that definition evolved from the donkey or the derrière. But it may be worth pointing out that it gained traction during the 20th century, when asshole—which definitely evolved from the derrière—was also on the rise as an insult. One early reference is recorded in Vance Randolph’s 1976 book Pissing in the Snow and Other Ozark Folktales. In the story, which was told in 1933 but supposedly happened in 1915, someone explains how God had “a big pile of ass-holes left over” after he finished creating a batch of humans. “It looks to me like the Almighty just throwed all them ass-holes together, and made the Easton family,” the speaker says. Apparently the Eastons weren’t very popular around town.
Bitch hails from the animal kingdom, too. The earliest sense of the word—Old English’s biccean, a borrowing from Germanic languages—refers to a female dog. The first written instance of that term being levied against a woman dates back to the 1100s, but as WordOrigins.org points out, that was hardly the first time a woman was compared to a canine. A woman is described as canicula, Latin for “dog,” in Plautus’s play Curculio, written sometime in the 2nd or 3rd century BCE. (To be fair, the character had literally just bitten a guy.)
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, bitch originally referred to “a lewd or lascivious woman” before eventually morphing into an all-purpose insult for any kind of woman. Unsurprisingly, women have taken issue with the term for centuries. Francis Grose’s 1785 Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue called it “the most offensive appellation that can be given to an English woman.”
Today, however, cunt (also likely from Germanic) often takes the cake when it comes to offensive appellations given to women. But it didn’t become an insult until the 1600s; for centuries before that, it mainly just referred to female genitals.
Many of the oldest examples are place names. According to the OED, England played host to roughly 20 Gropecuntelanes during the 1200s and beyond—believed to be hubs for sex work. Other 13th-century names suggest that people also used cunt to describe topography reminiscent of female genitals, per the OED, “such as a cleft in a small hill or mound” (Warwickshire’s Cuntelowe), “a wooded gully or valley” (Lancashire’s Kuntecliue), “and a cleft with a stream running through it” (Lincolnshire’s Cuntebecsic). Some of those locations still carry vestiges of their original names: Kuntecliue, for example, is now Lower Cunliffe.
Based on its prevalence on maps and in medical literature during the medieval era, cunt “does not seem to have been considered inherently obscene or objectionable” at the time, the OED says. By the 18th century, it had become a full-fledged dirty word, and no major English dictionary from the late 18th century to the 1960s dared to include it at all. Thanks to drag queens—and a boost from Beyoncé’s “PURE/HONEY”—cunt and its derivatives have undergone a renaissance in popular culture as compliments. But those positive senses have yet to make it into the OED.
Damn, which comes from French and Latin verbs, wasn’t always an expletive. To damn someone circa 1300 often just meant to sentence them for a crime. That same century, people began using it in theological contexts to describe the ultimate sentence: an eternity in hell. By the late 16th century, the term had started showing up as an oath “expressing annoyance, hatred, condemnation, etc.,” per the OED.
Invoking everlasting damnation makes for a potent exclamation, especially if you break one of the Ten Commandments by tossing god in the mix. The OED says damn’s heyday on the do-not-say list happened in the 19th and early 20th centuries, when it was often written with dashes—much like we use asterisks for curse words today.
The general consensus is that fuck is yet another gift from Germanic. “Many verbs in Germanic with the roots fik-, fak-, fuk-, fok-, have a basic meaning ‘move back and forth,’” linguist Anatoly Liberman wrote in An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology. “Their most common figurative meaning is ‘cheat.’” (This trend is preserved in fuck, and we use screw in a similar way.)
From the get-go, fuck meant “to copulate.” When exactly that get-go occurred is unclear. The earliest known reference in literature comes from “Flen, Flyys” (more commonly known as “Fleas, Flies, and Friars”), a poem composed around 1500. Not only was it written in a mixture of Middle English and Latin, but the author(s) went to the trouble of encrypting the inappropriate bits. When decoded and translated, one line reads, “[The friars] are not in heaven because they fuck the wives of Ely.” (Ely is a town in Cambridgeshire, England.)
But there’s some compelling nominal evidence to suggest that fuck was around long before 1500. In 2015, historian Paul Booth came across the name Roger Fuckebythenavele in court records from 1310. Booth thinks it’s a nickname—and he has a couple theories about how Roger may have earned it. “I suggest it could either mean an actual attempt at copulation by an inexperienced youth, later reported by a rejected girlfriend, or an equivalent of the word ‘dimwit’ i.e. a man who might think that was the correct way to go about it,” he told Medievalists.net.
We have the Germanic languages to thank for shit, which Early Old English speakers initially used to describe diarrhea (particularly in cattle), according to the OED. By the 1500s, any feces could be called “shit,” and the term could be spelled basically however you wanted to spell it (including schitt). Also around that time, people started using it to describe any obnoxious or despicable person (but typically a man).
Even some of the era’s greatest poets weren’t above calling each other “shits.” In the early 16th century, Scottish poets Walter Kennedy and William Dunbar faced off for a bout of flyting—basically their version of a rap battle—in which Kennedy called Dunbar “a schit but wit” (i.e. a shit without wit).
It wasn’t until the mid-1800s that people turned shit into an interjection. Considering that people were self-censoring damn during that time period, it’s no surprise that shit occasionally caused issues in print. Shortly before the release of E.E. Cummings’s World War I novel The Enormous Room in 1922, its publishers realized they might get hit with an obscenity lawsuit over the use of the word. “My father is dead! Shit! Oh, well. The war is over,” a character says. So they inked the shit out of every first-edition copy; for the second edition, Cummings just translated the whole comment to French.