A sculpture by Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan in front of the Milan Stock Exchange. Photo: Getty
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Swearing: the fascinating history of our favourite four-letter words

The most commonly-used swear words reveal more about our medieval past than just attitudes towards sex and body parts.

Fuck. Shit. Cunt. Our favourite four-letter words have a fascinating history. Rather than being written in manuscripts by monks, we find them used by normal people and preserved in surprising places like place names, personal names, and animal names and they reveal more about our medieval past than just attitudes towards sex and body parts.

Fuck

Fuck isn’t thought to have existed in English before the fifteenth century and possibly arrived later from German or Dutch. In fact, the Oxford English Dictionary says it wasn’t used until 1500. Using place names though, we can trace it back a bit earlier.

Many early instances of fuck were actually used to mean “to strike” rather than being anything to do with actual fucking. The more common Middle English word for sex was swive, which has developed nicely into the Modern English word swivel, as in: go swivel on it. Some of the earliest instances of fuck then, turn out to mean “hitting” or “striking”, such as Simon Fuckebotere (recorded in 1290), who was disappointingly probably in the milk industry, hitting butter rather than doing anything else with it, or Henry Fuckebeggar (1286/7) who may have, unfortunately, hit the poor.

The earliest examples of fuck in English appear in place names. The first is found near Sherwood in 1287: Ric Wyndfuk and Ric Wyndfuck de Wodehous. These both feature a kestrel known as the Windfucker which, we must assume, went at the wind. The next definite example comes from Bristol 1373 in Fockynggroue, which may have been named for a grove where couples went for some quiet alone time.

Shit

Like fuck, shit has a rich history, being used across the Germanic and Scandinavian languages, making it one of our oldest words. It originally had a technical usage, meaning diarrhoea in cattle, and it crops up in lots of place names from a time when people were herding cattle and naming things, such as Schitebroc – now Skidbrook – which literally means “shit-stream”, found in the Domesday Book for Lincolnshire.

Shit did not just happen in the countryside though. Street-names, for example, reflect the grotty state of urban living in graphic detail. Schiteburne Lane – now Sherbourn Lane in London – means “shit-stream lane”, and Schiteburglane in Romford uses borough in the middle, meaning a fortress, to paint a vivid picture of a privy, standing proud as a mockery of a palace in the middle of town.

Cunt

This too is an old word, appearing across the Germanic and Scandinavian languages, although any connection to the Latin cunnus is unlikely, despite the apparent similarity. Originally, rather than being a taboo word, it was the general descriptive term for the vagina. Cunt is, etymologically, more feminist than vagina, which is dependent on the penis for its definition, coming from the Latin for “sword sheath”.

Records of cunt start comparatively early. There’s a runic inscription which reads ‘kunt’, but that was probably a spelling mistake. Nearly all of the early evidence comes from place names and even personal names – pity, or perhaps applaud, Bele Wydecunthe in 1328, for example.

The most famous of the place names is Gropecuntlane which at one point appeared in twenty places, generally describing – with pleasing matter-of-factness – a red light district. These have all since been lost, or have been changed to Grape Lane, but all are still easily traced.

But other place names are no less revealing.

Shavecuntewelle in Kent in 1275, for example, could describe a nearby valley with a narrow wooded area – a literal lady-garden, if you will – or it could be a site where women were punished. Cuntewellewang in Lincolnshire (1317) seems to describe a similar type of landscape.

And the thirteenth-century Hardecunt? Who knows, it’s just a great name.

Perhaps the most glorious example of cunt in a place name is Hungery Cunt, found in a 1750 military map of Kinross-shire, Scotland. Disappointingly, though, this is probably just a mistake: a misreading of Hungeremout.

These early instances of now heavily taboo words open up the world of normal people in medieval England and a different – and more vibrant – picture of the history of our language. They allow us to meet a very literal and pragmatic people with a healthy sense of (toilet) humour about their bodies and their environment.

That is not to say that monks themselves weren’t interested in bodily matters. They were, and they wrote their fare share of smut to prove it. Take the following example, which, more than anything else, shows that dick-jokes are universal:

A curious thing hangs by a man’s thigh
Under his coat. It has a hole in the front
It is stiff and hard, it has a good standing place;
When the man pulls his clothing up
Above his knee, he wants to touch that hole
With the head of his hanging thing.
It is the same length as that which it has filled before.

It’s a key, in case you were wondering. A KEY.

Photo: Getty
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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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