The art of profanity has a long—if not exactly glorious—history. Just ask Ernie Fontana. In October, the professor of English joined a local radio station to discuss the origins of cursing. “It probably goes back into prehistory,” he says. “Swearing is often a form of intensifying. When one is surprised, angry, irritated, one wants to express those emotions in language, and one does it by transgressing. It’s also a form of aggression.”
The transgression component—stepping outside the bounds of typically accepted language—is key for the curser to achieve his or her intended effect. Usually that transgression draws on religious or sexual references as a means of creating verbal intensity. This kind of cursing is certainly present in medieval poetry, and, Fontana says, the practice may actually have roots in ancient attempts to put the whammy on someone. Over the centuries, humans retained the speech act even though they dropped the belief in its power.
Beyond that, Fontana says, cursing can also serve a bonding function in certain situations. And while he believes cursing may be less prevalent today than it was several decades ago, he says that ultimately the appropriateness of cursing is a matter of playing by cultural rules. “It’s a way of expressing deep emotions. You can say, ‘These people shouldn’t swear.’ But there are times when it’s better to swear or curse than to engage in physical fighting.”