Linguist Geoffrey Hughes writes that “people swear by what is most potent to them”.
What is considered to be “most potent” changes across time, although taboo has often focused on the religious (hell), the sexual (fuck), and the excretory (shit). More recently racial, sexist and other discriminatory epithets have become our most taboo and controversial terms.
The first recorded instances of swearing in any language date from ancient Egypt, around 1198–1166 BC, with the threat that those who failed to make an offering to the gods would have to copulate with a donkey. Examples of swearing can be found in classical Greek and Latin (a favourite curse of the Romans was “By Hercules!”), and we also have evidence of swearing from medieval Europe.
By the time we get into the medieval period much of what was considered taboo was religious, reflecting the primacy of Christianity in western Europe. Christians feared their souls being damned, and this made curses that involved damning a person’s soul to hell especially powerful.
From the middle ages on we can trace a slow shift from oaths, or religious swearing, to obscenities that deal with the excretory and the sexual. Oaths were still a favourite for a long time, and were considered taboo by many well into the modern era. However, over time they slowly lost their religious baggage to simply become mildly offensive and for much of the 20th century were considered to indicate one’s class and educational status.
Queen Elizabeth I (1533–1603) was a notable swearer, and her favourite curse was said to be “God’s wounds”, considered a strong blasphemy at the time as it referred to the wounds inflicted on Jesus when he was crucified. God’s wounds was therefore sometimes shortened to zounds, an example of what is known as a “minced oath”. All swearing generates “disguised variants”. In short, we look to replace taboo words with polite euphemisms. Zounds and gadzooks (God’s hooks) have long fallen by the wayside, but we still might hear darn (from damn), fudge (fuck), gosh (God), and the more Australian crikey (Christ) and strewth (God’s truth), although many people won’t necessarily know the relationship to the original profanity.
By the 18th century, profanity began to be increasingly censored in printed sources. The word fuck, for instance, appeared in Nathaniel Bailey’s Universal Etymological Dictionary in 1721 but did not appear in Samuel Johnson’s influential A Dictionary of the English Language in 1755. From the 18th century the rise of the bourgeoisie meant that good manners, refinement and demonstrations of civility were seen as indicating a person’s social and moral worth. Consequently, profanity was increasingly considered unacceptable.
Writers such as Charles Dickens, who often wrote about the working and criminal classes, never used a word stronger than drat, generally preferring to stick to euphemisms. From the 18th century, print also employed various evasions and disguises to avoid printing swear words, ranging from asterisks and other typographical substitutions (f**k) to word substitutes such as blankety-blank and four-letter word. Of course the reader nearly always knows what is meant in such instances, so the effectiveness of such censorship in helping to keep minds “pure” remains questionable but it does serve to signal disapproval. We see this today when television and radio broadcasts continue to “bleep” out words, even though it is nearly always obvious what the person is saying.
From the 18th to the 19th century, the English language began to undergo a process of standardisation, underpinned by the rise of print which required common standards, and the rise of the idea that education and literacy were for all. Dictionaries were one of the key reference works to help standardise language, and to prescribe what was appropriate and correct usage. Slang and “vulgar” language were either labelled as such or excised from standard English in this period (as we saw above with Johnson’s dictionary), reinforcing the “deviance” of such language. This view only began to shift in the later 20th century.
Imperialism and colonialism, another defining feature of the 18th and 19th centuries, brought Europeans into contact with other peoples. A drive for land and resources had profound effects and was underpinned by a language and science of race and difference. Racialised language, insults and slurs became more common and prominent features of the English vocabulary, reinforcing and communicating ideologies of white supremacy and colonialism. It was considered acceptable, and so was not “bad” language per se – at least to those who used it.
It is at this critical juncture of the late 18th century that Australia was chosen as the site for a convict colony. The more riotous, contested and multi-vocal British society of the 16th and 17th centuries was giving way to a Britain of empire, respectability and civility. Ideas about language and its purpose would be transferred to the colonial society taking shape in the antipodes.
As the 19th century went on, bad language would help to shape ideas about what it meant to be Australian, adhering to particular constructions of the typical Australian as white and male. The bushman, the bullock-driver, the gold-digger, the digger at war: all these archetypal Australians would be linked to profanity, especially within popular culture imagery, helping to make such language celebrated. At the same time ideas of respectability would make the use of bad language, especially by groups without power in Australian society, such as women, the working classes and Indigenous people, something to shun and condemn. These conflicting attitudes towards bad language have lasted until well into the 21st century.
So is there a quintessentially Australian swear word? In the 19th century a visitor to the colonies, Alexander Marjoribanks, in his book Travels in New South Wales (1847) claimed that the word bloody was ubiquitous in Australia – in fact, it was, he declared, “the great Australian adjective”. While travelling through the colonies he observed with disdain that “[o]ne man will tell you that he married a bloody young wife, another, a bloody old one; and a bushranger will call out, ‘Stop, or I’ll blow your bloody brains out.’ ” He calculated that the average Australian bullock-driver – a notorious figure in the history of Australian bad language – would, in a lifetime, say this “disgusting word” no less than 18,200,000 times.
Sidney Baker in his classic study of Australian English, The Australian Language (1945), identifies bloody as one of what he calls “the four Bs”, sitting alongside bugger, bastard and bullshit. None are exclusively Australian, of course, but each would likely evoke particularly Australian associations for many of us, and have been well used through our history. We might remember when Bob Hawke was caught out calling a member of the public a “silly old bugger”, Don Chipp’s founding of the Australian Democrats with the slogan “Keep the bastards honest”, and Malcolm Turnbull labelling Tony Abbott’s climate change policy “bullshit”, presaging an ongoing feud between the two that would help to bring down both their prime ministerships. Our politicians have rarely shied away from using strong language.
Root entered Australian English in the 1940s and quickly established itself in the lexicon. While our first recorded evidence is for the transferred sense of rooted meaning “to be finished, ruined, exhausted”, it almost certainly comes from the more literal sense of root meaning sexual intercourse (noun and verb both first recorded in 1958). According to the Australian National Dictionary, the origin of the term probably comes from root “penis”. By the 1950s popular culture was using get rooted in the sense of get stuffed or get fucked, as well as rooted in the sense of “exhausted, fucked”.
The rhyming slang Wellington boot is recorded in 1977, but it was undoubtedly around before then as the first evidence for it is in a shortened form – wellington, first recorded in 1970. Later expressions elaborating on root include root ute (a vehicle, usually a panel van, furnished with a mattress on which to have sex) and root rat (a sexually promiscuous man). Unlike some other Australianisms, root has remained a peculiarly Australian term, and not one easily understood by outsiders.
To agree to the idea that Australians have a special relationship with bad language would be to extend a national mythology – which many Australians like to live up to – that we are more relaxed in our speech than other speakers of English. We are certainly renowned for our creativity with words and idioms, and this extends into the realm of the offensive. The online news site Buzzfeed compiled a list of the “100 rudest things Australians say” in 2016. The list reveals some wonderfully creative obscenities and insults: cunning as a shithouse rat, (to have) hair like a bushpig’s arse, dickflop and not here to fuck spiders are just a few. While it is probably hard to argue that we swear more than others, we do our best – and we try to be inventive in the process.
This is an edited extract from Rooted – An Australian History of Bad Language, by Amanda Laugesen (New South Books, $32.99)