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Amazon / iStock

5 Surprising Facts About Swearing

Amazon / iStock
Amazon / iStock

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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Pete Toscano, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
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Here's the Right Way to Pronounce 'Pulitzer'
Pete Toscano, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
Pete Toscano, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

The Pulitzer Prize has been awarded to top creative and scientific minds for over 100 years. Named after late 19th-century newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer, the prize is a household name, yet its pronunciation still tends to trip people up. Is it “pull-itzer” or “pew-litzer”?

Poynter set the record straight just in time for today’s announcement of the 2018 Pulitzer Prize winners. Emily Rauh Pulitzer, wife of the late Joseph Pulitzer Jr., told Poynter, “My husband said that his father told people to say ‘Pull it sir.’”

If you’ve been saying it wrong, don’t feel too bad. Edwin Battistella, a linguist and professor at Southern Oregon University, said he pronounced it “pew-lit-zer” until a friend corrected him. Battistella looked to Joseph Pulitzer’s family history to explain why so many people pronounce it incorrectly. He writes on the Oxford University Press's OUPBlog:

“[Joseph Pulitzer] was born in Hungary, where Pulitzer, or Politzer as it is sometimes spelled, was a common family name derived from a place name in southern Moravia, the village of Pullitz. In the United States, the spelling Pulitzer would have quite naturally been Anglicized as PEW-lit-zer by analogy to the other pu spellings like pure, puritanical, pubic, puce, and so on.”

Ultimately, though, it’s up to the family to decide how they’d like their surname to be pronounced. Here it is, pronounced just how the Pulitzers like it, in a YouTube video:

[h/t Poynter]

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Jean Henry Marlet, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0
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The Surprising Origin of the Word Morgue
Jean Henry Marlet, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0
Jean Henry Marlet, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

Today the word morgue conjures up images of an efficient, hygienic room overseen by professionals in lab coats and rubber gloves. Most of us are familiar with its inner workings only from cop shows and crime novels, never having had the desire—or need—to visit one in real life. However, our image of the modern, sterile morgue stands in stark contrast with the room that originally gave rise to the term.

In 18th century Paris, visitors to the Grand Châtelet—a combined court, police headquarters, and prison that served as the seat of common-law jurisdiction in pre-revolutionary France—could descend to the basement basse-geôle and peer in through the grille of the door. There, they would catch a glimpse of a small room where unidentified dead bodies were displayed to the public, strewn across the bare floor. The room became informally known as la morgue, an early definition of which appears in the 1718 Dictionnaire de l’Académie: "A place at the Châtelet, where dead bodies that have been found are open to the public view, in order that they be recognized."

Print of the Grand Châtelet of Paris by Allain Manesson-Mallet,1702
Bibliothèque de l'INHA via Europeana // Public Domain

The name for this gruesome room likely had its roots in the Archaic French verb morguer, which means "to look solemnly." Historians think that such rooms had existed in Parisian prisons since the 14th century, initially as a place where newly incarcerated prisoners would be held until identified, but later to deal with the many dead bodies found on the streets or pulled from the River Seine. (In fact, there were so many bodies in the river—both murder victims and suicides—that a huge net was stretched across the river at St. Cloud to catch the bodies as they washed downstream, from which they were transported to the Grand Châtelet.) But it was not until around the turn of the 18th century that the public were invited in and asked to try and identify the dead at la morgue.

The stench emanating from the corpses at the morgue must have been unbearable, and the public exposure to the "bad humors" was one of the reasons for the creation of a new, more hygienic morgue, at the place du Marché-Neuf on the Ile-de-la-Cité in 1804. This new morgue building (by now officially known as La Morgue) was housed in a building styled like a Greek temple that was close to the river, enabling bodies to be transported there by boat. The corpses were now displayed in a purpose-built exhibit room, with plate-glass windows and plenty of natural light, allowing crowds to gather and gawk at the corpses laid out on marble slabs. Refrigeration did not come until the 1880s, so the bodies were kept cool with a constant drip of cold water, lending the cadavers a bloated appearance. The clothes of the deceased were hung from pegs next to the dead as a further aide to their identification.

Drawing of the Paris morgue circa 1845
Hippolyte Destailleur, Bibliothèque nationale de France // Public Domain

The central location of the morgue ensured a healthy traffic of people of all classes, becoming a place to see and be seen, and to catch up on the latest gossip. Its popularity as a place of spectacle grew as the 19th century progressed, stoked by being included as a must-see location in most guidebooks to Paris. On the days after a big crime had been committed, as many as 40,000 people flocked through its doors.

The morgue was also written about by luminaries such as Charles Dickens, who touched on it a number of times in his journalism, confessing in The Uncommercial Traveller (a series of sketches written between 1860-9) that it held a gruesome draw: "Whenever I am at Paris, I am dragged by invisible force into the Morgue. I never want to go there, but am always pulled there. One Christmas Day, when I would rather have been anywhere else, I was attracted in, to see an old grey man lying all alone on his cold bed, with a tap of water turned on over his grey hair, and running, drip, drip, drip, down his wretched face until it got to the corner of his mouth, where it took a turn, and made him look sly." Dickens also described the crowds of people flocking to the morgue to gawk at the latest arrivals, idly swapping speculation on causes of death and potential identities: "It was strange to see so much heat and uproar seething about one poor spare white-haired old man, so quiet for evermore."

In 1864, the morgue at the Marché-Neuf was demolished to make way for Baron Haussmann's sweeping re-modeling of Paris. The new morgue building was situated just behind Notre Dame, again in a busy public space, re-affirming its purpose as a place to view and identify dead bodies. However, it was also in this new building that the morgue moved away from pure spectacle and began to be linked with the medical identification of bodies, as well as advances in forensics and the professionalization of policing. The new morgue had an autopsy room, a small laboratory for chemical analysis, and rooms where police and administrators could inspect the bodies and record any murders or suicides. The emphasis shifted—the morgue was no longer purely dependent on the public to identify the bodies; it now had medical, administrative, and investigative officers doing that work, moving it closer to our modern idea of what a morgue is.

By the 1880s the fame of the Paris morgue, and admiration of its now-efficient administrative structures, had spread across the world. The word morgue began to be used to describe places where the dead were kept in both Britain and America, replacing the older "dead house" and becoming synonymous with mortuary. Over time, the word morgue was also adopted in American English, perhaps slightly tongue-in-cheek, for rooms where newspaper or magazine archives are kept—for example, The New York Times morgue, a storehouse for historical clippings, photographs, and other reference materials related to the paper.

The Paris morgue closed its doors to the public in 1907. A combination of factors led to the decision: gradually changing public attitudes to the viewing of dead bodies, concerns over hygiene and the spread of disease, and the increasing professionalization of the police and coroners. Today, the city office that has replaced it is known as the Institut médico-légal de Paris. Meanwhile, the word morgue itself has come a long way—from its roots in a grim spectacle, it's now become a place of professionalism and respect.

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