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 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.


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.


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.

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The conflict in Yemen is a Civil War by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood