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.

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Bertie Carvel's diary: What would the French think about infidelity to Doctor Foster?

The joy of debuting a new series, Rupert Murdoch's squeamishness and a sting in the tail.

According to the adage, the first thing an actor does when he gets a job is to go on holiday. And so, having finished our sold-out run of James Graham’s Ink at the Almeida and with the show (in which I play a young Rupert Murdoch) about to transfer into the West End, I’m packing my bags.

But before I can skip town, I’ve one more professional engagement: the press launch of series two of the BBC drama Doctor Foster, which we finished filming at Christmas. I’ve now seen the final cut of all five episodes, and I’m excited to share it with an audience. There’s no substitute for seeing other people’s reactions at first hand, especially with a show that got people talking so much first time around, and it’s electric to sit in a cinema full of expectant journalists and commentators and feel the room respond. Nothing beats this: to put so much into making a thing and then experience an audience’s unmediated, reflexive reaction. When it goes well, you feel that you’ve shared something, that you’ve all recognised something together about how things are. It’s a unifying feeling. A sort of bond.

Cheating spouses

Handling the interviews has been tricky, when there’s so little one can say without giving the plot away. (The first series began with Suranne Jones’s character Gemma, a GP, suspecting her husband Simon of having an affair.) What’s more, lots of the questions invite moral judgements that I’ve tried my best to avoid; I always think it’s really important not to judge the characters I play from outside, but simply to work out how they feel about themselves, to zero in on their point of view. There’s a sort of moral bloodlust around this show: it’s extraordinary. People seem to want to hear that I’ve been pilloried in the street, or expect me to put distance between myself and my character, to hang him out to dry as a pariah.

While I’m not in the business of defending Simon Foster any more than I’m in the business of attacking him, I am intrigued by this queer mixture of sensationalism and prurience that seems to surface again and again.

Shock horror

Oddly enough, it’s something that comes up in Ink: many people have been surprised to find that, in a story about the re-launch of the Sun newspaper in 1969 as a buccaneering tabloid, it’s the proprietor who considers dropping anchor when the spirit of free enterprise threatens to set his moral compass spinning.

I’ve never given it much thought before, but I suppose that sensationalism relies on a fairly rigid worldview for its oxygen – the SHOCKERS! that scream at us in tabloid headlines are deviations from a conventional idea of the norm. But what’s behind the appetite for this sort of story? Do we tell tales of transgression to reinforce our collective boundaries or to challenge them?

For me there’s a close kinship between good journalism and good drama. I’m reminded of the words of John Galsworthy, who wrote Strife, the play I directed last summer, and who felt that the writer should aim “to set before the public no cut-and-dried codes, but the phenomena of life and character, selected and combined, but not distorted, by the dramatist’s outlook, set down without fear, favour, or prejudice, leaving the public to draw such poor moral as nature may afford”.

So when it comes to promoting the thing we’ve made, I’m faced with a real conundrum: on the one hand I want it to reach a wide audience, and I’m flattered that there’s an appetite to hear about my contribution to the process of making it; but on the other hand I think the really interesting thing about the work is contained in the work itself. I’m always struck, in art galleries, by how much more time people spend reading the notes next to the paintings than looking at the paintings themselves. I’m sure that’s the wrong way around.

Insouciant remake

En route to the airport the next morning I read that Doctor Foster is to be adapted into a new French version. It’s a cliché verging on racism, but I can’t help wondering whether the French will have a different attitude to a story about marital infidelity, and whether the tone of the press coverage will differ. I wonder, too, whether, in the home of Roland Barthes, there is as much space given to artists to talk about what they’ve made – in his 1967 essay, “The Death of the Author”, Barthes wrote that “a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination”.

No stone unturned

Touring the villages of Gigondas, Sablet and Séguret later that evening, I’m struck by the provision of espaces culturels in seemingly every commune, however small. The French certainly give space to the work itself. But I also notice a sign warning of a chat lunatique, so decide to beat a hasty retreat. Arriving at the house where I’m staying, I’ve been told that the key will be under a flowerpot. Lifting each tub in turn, and finally a large flat stone by the door, I find a small scorpion, but no key. I’m writing this at a table less than a yard away so let’s hope there won’t be a sting in this tale.

Ink opens at the Duke of York Theatre, London, on 9 September. More details: almeida.co.uk

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear