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5 Surprising Facts About Swearing

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Taboo language has always commanded attention, but it hasn't always been a subject of academic attention. Fortunately, that has changed. All aspects of language have the potential to reveal important facts about who we are and how our minds work, so there should be no taboo on the study of the taboo. A new book by cognitive psychologist Benjamin K. Bergen delves into the profane side of language to reveal a host of interesting and entertaining things you might not realize about our relationship with naughty words. Here are just five surprising facts about swearing from What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves.

1. SOME LANGUAGES DON’T HAVE SWEAR WORDS.

Bergen notes that although Japanese has ways to express the functions of swearing (whether insulting others or simply intensifying statements) as well as words for the sexual and scatological, it lacks a particular group of words that can be classified as swear words in the sense that other languages have. This is why baseball player Ichiro Suzuki, who learned English and Spanish during his Major League career, said in an interview that he likes how “the Western languages allow me to say things I otherwise can’t.”

2. THERE IS A SPECIFIC PROTOTYPE FORM FOR THE IDEAL ENGLISH SWEAR.

Is a typical “four letter word” really four letters? Bergen performed various studies to see if there were consistent patterns in the form of English profanities, and uncovered some strong tendencies. Swear words are more likely to be four or eight letters compared to the rest of the vocabulary, but their sound characteristics might be more important than their spelling. Swears also tend to be one syllable, and to be a closed syllable, meaning ending in a consonant rather than a vowel. So pee and poo, open syllables, don’t fit the mold as … their counterparts that end in consonants.

3. THE WORD ROOSTER WAS INVENTED TO AVOID COCK.

The names for animals in English are some of the oldest, but rooster is relatively new, appearing at the end of the 18th century as a term for a male fowl, one who “roosts.” For centuries before that, cock was the word for this animal. But as cock became more and more used as a term for the male sexual organ, it became more and more awkward to use it as a term for the animal. So a new word took its place in this capacity.

4. THERE’S A SWEARING DISORDER CALLED COPROLALIA.

One of the symptoms of Tourette’s syndrome is the uncontrollable urge to use profane language. Brain research shows it may have to do with the representation of certain words being more closely connected to emotional centers in the brain. Coprolalia comes from the Greek kopros, for feces.

5. SWEARS OPERATE BY DIFFERENT GRAMMAR RULES.

A profane phrase like “I don’t give a damn” (or similar phrases with other swears swapped in for damn) doesn’t operate according to the usual rules for the verb give, which normally has a recipient, even if it’s unstated. A set phrase like “I gave at the office” can be modified to “I gave (money to the cause) at the office,” but “I don’t give a damn” doesn’t get a recipient, making “I don’t give (you) a damn” ungrammatical. Similar grammatical oddities happen for phrases like “damn you,” “you don’t know squat” and “my ass!”

Learn more about curse words and how they really work (in a way your teacher will approve of) in What the F.

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5 Quick Facts About the Hashtag
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The use of the hashtag as a Twitter tool to denote a specific topic in order for the masses to follow along turns 10 years old today, having first been suggested (in a Tweet, naturally) by Silicon Valley regular and early adopter Chris Messina back in 2007. Here’s a little history on its evolution from the humble numerical sign to the social media giant it is today.

1. IT COMES FROM THE LATIN TERM FOR “POUND WEIGHT.”

There’s no definitive origin story for the hash (or pound) symbol, but one belief is that when 14th-century Latin began to abbreviate the term for pound weight—libra pondo—to “lb,” a horizontal slash was added to denote the letters were connected. (The bar was called a tittle.) As people began to write more quickly, the letters and the tittle became amalgamated, eventually morphing into the symbol we see today.

2. IT SHOULD ACTUALLY BE CALLED AN OCTOTHORPETAG.

The symbol portion of the hashtag eventually made its way to dial-button telephones, the result of AT&T looking forward to phones interacting with computers. In order to complete a square keypad with 10 digits (including 0), they added the numerical sign and an asterisk. AT&T employee Don MacPherson thought they sign needed a more official name, so he chose Octothorpe—“octo” because it has eight points, and “thorpe” because he was a fan of football hero Jim Thorpe.

3. TWITTER WASN’T BIG ON THE IDEA AT FIRST.

When web marketer Messina had the notion to add hashtags to keep track of conversations, he stopped by Twitter’s offices to make an informal pitch. He came at a bad time: co-founder Biz Stone was trying to get the software back online after a crash and dismissed the idea with a “Sure, we’ll get right on that” burn. Undeterred, Messina started using them and the habit caught on.

4. IT’S IN THE OXFORD DICTIONARY.

By 2014, respect for the hashtag had grown to the point where the venerable Oxford English Dictionary gave the word its stamp of approval. Their entry: "hashtag n. (on social media web sites and applications) a word or phrase preceded by a hash and used to identify messages relating to a specific topic; (also) the hash symbol itself, when used in this way."

5. THERE ARE SOME HASHTAG ALL-TIMERS.

Hashtags can highlight interest in everything from political movements to breaking news stories, but the frequency of their use is often tied into popular culture. The most popular TV-related tag has been #TheWalkingDead; #StarWars sees a lot of action; and #NFL dominates sports-related Tweets.  

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35 Words for Hiccups from Around the World
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Hiccup is a perfect specimen of onomatopoeia, a word that sounds like the noise it represents: It echoes that sudden breath (hick-) and spasm (-up) of the diaphragm when, say, we’ve gobbled down food too quickly. But English is far from unique here. If we listen across the globe, we’ll hear all sorts of gasping h’s and gulping k’s, so much so that it almost seems like there’s a universal word for hiccup. Except there are some surprising, er, hiccups along the way. Get that spoonful of sugar, salt, or peanut butter ready, for here are 35 hiccup words in other languages.

1., 2., 3., 4., AND 5. DANISH, NORWEGIAN, SWEDISH, ICELANDIC, AND FINNISH

The English word hiccup (later spelled hiccough) is first recorded in 1580, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. A few decades earlier, English was using the word hicket. This word is a near mirror of the word in Scandinavian languages. Danish and Norwegian have hikke. The Swedish hicka is essentially the same. Up in Iceland, it’s hiksti. And over in Finland—neighbor in geography, though not tongue—it’s hikka.

6. FRENCH

If the French have had too much wine, they might hoquet. The -et, a diminutive ending found in English words like gullet, likely influenced the earlier English hicket.

7. SPANISH

In Spain, you get a bad case of the hipos.

8. AND 9. PORTUGUESE AND LATIN

You’d expect Spanish’s neighbor and Romance-language cousin, Portuguese, to have a nearly identical way of hiccuping, right? Think again. In Portugal, a hiccup is called a soluço, which may sound more like a sneeze to some ears. Soluço appears to derive from a Latin word for the bodily function: singultus, whose g brings back the hiccup’s characteristic gulp.

10. AND 11. ITALIAN AND ROMANIAN

Latin’s singultus also coughs up hiccup in Italian, singhiozzo—proving, yet again, that everything is more fun to say in Italian. Nearby in Romania, it’s sughiț, with that final ț pronounced like the ts in fits.

12. AND 13. WELSH AND IRISH

The Welsh have ig and the Irish snag, which happens to look like that metaphorical hiccup in English, or a “minor difficulty or setback.”

14. AND 15. DUTCH AND GERMAN

Dutch has the straightforward sound of hik, but German has to be different with Schluckauf, literally a “swallow up.” German, though, also has the onomatopoeic Hecker (noun) and hicksen (verb) for these belly bumps.

16., 17., 18., 19., AND 20. RUSSIAN, UKRAINIAN, POLISH, CZECH, AND BULGARIAN

Like the Scandinavian languages, Slavic hiccupingsounds like hiccuping, just more Slavic-y. Russia gets an attack of the ikotas (икота), Ukraine the hykavkas (гикавка), Polish the czkawkas, Czech the škytavkas, and Bulgarian the khulstane’s (хълцане), to let out a few examples from this language family.

21. ALBANIAN

Hiccuping in Albanian, which boasts its own branch in the Indo-European languages, is a bit softer, but it does still feature something of a hiccupy bounce: lemzë (pronounced like lemzuh).

22. GREEK

Before we leave Europe, the diaphragm reflex in Greece can take the form of λόξιγκας, which roughly transliterates to loxigkas.

23. ARABIC

You try to get rid of your حازوقة (hazuqa) or فُواق (fuwaq) in Arabic ...

24. TURKISH

… or hıçkırık (which sounds like hichkerek) in Turkish ...

25. SWAHILI

…or kwikwi around parts of southeastern Africa.

26. YORUBA

Saying you have the hiccups in Yoruba, spoken widely in Western Africa, might actually give you the hiccups: òsúkèsúkèsúkè.

27. ZULU

In South Africa, where the Zulu language is prominent, you might call a hiccup an ingwici—with the letter c representing a click sound.

28. CHINESE

The Mandarin word for hiccup gets right to the back of the throat: , , voiced with a rising tone. The left part of the character, which looks like a squished box, is 口 (kǒu), meaning “mouth.”

29. JAPANESE

Like English, the Japanese for hiccup features a hard k-sound smack dab in the middle of the word: shakkuri (or しゃっくり in kana).

30. KOREAN

The Korean for hiccup is a three-part affair: 딸꾹질, roughly tal-kuk-jil.

31. VIETNAMESE

Slurp down your pho too fast? The basic word for hiccup in Vietnamese is nấc.

32. AND 33. HINDI AND BENGALI

Hundreds of millions of speakers of Hindi in India say हिचकी (hichakee, pronounced a bit like hitch-key). The word is similar in other closely related Indian languages in the region, such as Bengali হিক্কা(hikka).

34. BAHASA INDONESIAN

You might say “Excuse me” throughout Indonesia for your kecegukan, the word for hiccup in Bahasa Indonesian, the Malay-based official language and lingua franca of Indonesia.

35. OLD ENGLISH

A word Old English had for hiccup is ælfsogoða, literally a kind of “elves’ heartburn.” Apparently, Anglo-Saxons believed hiccups were caused by, yep, elves. It turns out that it isn’t just cures for the hiccups that are old wives’ tales.

BONUS: KLINGON

The fictional language of Star Trek’s Klingon is a notoriously guttural language. Most of the words we’ve seen for hiccup across the globe indeed feature such back-of-the-throat g’s and k’s. Yet the Klingon word for hiccup is bur. Let’s chalk that up to biological differences: Klingons are extraterrestrial beings, after all.

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