Classical Swearing

Kuba26

non sum dignus
I would be very interested to hear the opinion of classicists on the validity of the claims made in the following excerpts of an article on Roman profanity. For those of you who don't know whether the following claims are historically accurate, the excerpts are still a jolly interesting read.
“Man invented curse-words to give form and substance to his malign wishes, and he invented swear-words to back up his vows and establish his veracity.” - Burges Johnson, The Lost Art of Profanity (1948)
You might expect the Greeks who supposedly had a word for everything (actually they didn’t: no noun for “orgasm”, though one supposes they did have them) and the Romans (likewise lacking a term for “suicide”, despite all that falling on swords in Shakespeare) with their reputation for plain speaking would not line up with the American Indians, Japanese, Malayans, and Polynesians who do not curse [...].
-- [...] The great advantage of polytheism is that it gives you a generous choice of gods to invoke. Thus, Greeks and Romans could swear from the top with “By Zeus” or “By Jupiter”, or by the god of choice - Apollo, Hermes, Venus, etc. - or with laconic inclusivity “By All The Gods.” One character in Plautus’ play Bacchides gets the best of both maledictory worlds, taking four lines to list fifteen individual deities before capping his inventory with “And All The Other Gods As Well,” earning from a bystander the awestruck compliment “Boy, can he swear!” Jupiter, incidentally, slid into English in 1570 via the euphemism “By Jove”, [...]. A few of the Twelve Olympians (themselves only allowed to swear by the infernal river Styx) rarely had their names taken in vain [...]. [...]
The Cretans evidently went overboard in blasphemy. An ancient commentator on Plato records that their king, Rhadamanthus, outlawed divine oaths and substituted “By The Dog”, “By The Goose”, and sundry other zoological zappers. The first of these was famously the favourite expostulation of Socrates, occasionally expanded to “By The Dog Of Egypt.” Why, we don’t know. [...]
-- The comedians Aristophanes and Cratinus confirm the antiquity of “By The Dog” and “By The Goose”. Likewise, “Hound” as a curse entered English around the year 1000 [...]. As early as Homer, both men and women were routinely abused as “Dogs”, and in Petronius’ comic novel Satyricon [...] a drunken wife apostrophises her husband as “Cur”. This provokes him enough to thump her, perhaps an unsurprising reaction: the lexicographer Hesychius says “dog” was slang for “prick.” It was also the lowest throw in Roman dice, so she could additionally be saying “You Zero.” And dogs, especially puppies, were allegedly adept at performing cunnilingus on their mistresses, thereby adding another lexical level - [...]. [...]
-- In Latin both the F- and C- words are primary obscenities of equal weight, unlike English - “c**t” is still avoided on the BBC even by those who have no qualms about “f**k.” Though they look similar, lexicographers don’t think the words futuo and cunnus are the direct ancestors of the English ones - if they were, why did “c**t” not enter English until c. 1230 and “f**k” only in 1503?
[...] Strangely or otherwise, these words are not used as expletives. “F**king Hell” in Latin would be futuens orcus , but no such locution exists. There is no logical reason why a Roman could not have said it, but its absence from Pompeian graffiti seems decisive. Nor, at any written level, do they address each other as fututor (“you f**ker”) - but did Roman yobs never shout Futue Off at each other on Saturday nights? It’s the same with cunnus, except for a single Pompeian graffito which aims it at a male homosexual. Quite why this is so remains a mystery. Romans were not squeamish about calling each other “b**ger”, “c**ks**ker”, “c**t-l**ker”, “p**ck”, and “sodomite”, [...] and the quality and price of a b**w-job are frequently animadverted upon in the graffiti. The most concentrated shower of filth comes in the Priapea, a collection of anonymous short poems in which Priapus, [...]. [...]
-- [...] Masturbari and masturbator have no direct synonyms, and there is a distinct shortage of expressions comparable to “toss off” or “beat your meat”, though Aristophanes does have the god Dionysus “scratching my chickpea.” [...]
-- “P**ck” was a Roman favourite. Catullus calls an enemy “you f**ked-up mentula “ (the basic word) in one poem. In another, he tells how the orator Calvus was heckled by an audience member shouting “you loud-mouthed p**ck” (diserte salaputium). A graffito, complete with drawing of penis, dubs Pompey “not a man but a p**ck” (sopio). [...] At quite a different semantic level, the emperor Augustus called Horace “cleanest of c**ks” in a friendly way, perhaps comparable to amicable British uses of this word. [...] Penis and testicles go together, not just anatomically. It must have been a godsend for Roman lawyers that testis means both “witness” and “testicle” - likewise for wits in general that anus is both “bum” and “old woman” - albeit Cicero (notorious for his cutting wit) doesn’t much go in for it: too infantile, perhaps. But he will talk about “Rome having its balls (coleos) cut off” in a treatise on oratory. A speaker in Petronius laments “if only we had the balls,” while the contemporary poet Persius groans “if only we had a drop of our fathers’ spunk.” Natural functions play their part. [...]

-- [...] Overall, despite the huge gaps in our knowledge, we are probably as safe in applying to ancient swearing as to modern the remark of Jonathan Swift, himself no mean coprologist, “oaths are the children of fashion.”
- Baldwin. B. (2005) Classical Swearing: A Vade-Mecum, retrieved from http://www.shattercolors.com/nonfiction/baldwin_swearing.htm, at December 13, 2013.
 

Arca Defectionis

Civis Illustris
The Japanese don't curse? Well, I suppose not at the same frequency as we do in the West, but yes, they do.
 

Christian Alexander

Active Member
Very interesting article, though I'd be skeptical about quite a few points.
Definitely about cunnus, from what I've read it was just as equal a profanity as in English; off the top of my head Horace uses it in one of his Satires (Bk.1 somewhere). But the rest would be of little surprise that Roman profanity was of course different from English -- two completely different cultures, in which also different words pick up different connotations and whatnot. Even other European languages have very different insults and such compared to England; a well-known German one being dumkopf -- dumb-head.... Which wouldn't pass in English! But I guess I do not profess to be especially pro at classical-profanity haha ;) either way thanks for the share
 

Arca Defectionis

Civis Illustris
*Dummkopf ;)

The best insults I've ever heard are Chinese egg insults. When my grandma thought I was doing something stupid she would call me a 笨蛋 (bèndàn, "stupid egg") (or sometimes a 傻瓜 (shǎguā, "foolish melon")) and when I misbehaved I was a 壞蛋 (huàidàn, "bad egg"). The more brutal insults are 龜蛋 (guīdàn, "turtle egg"), 滾蛋 (gǔndàn, "rolling egg"), and 混蛋 (hǔndàn, "mixed egg"). I don't actually know what is so bad about being a turtle egg. "Rolling egg" is used to tell someone to piss off. "Mixed egg" implies promiscuity on the mother's part (i.e., "you have two fathers"), and is extremely offensive.
 

Christian Alexander

Active Member
Thank you for the correction -- it has been 4 years since I studied German ;)

I didn't know anything about those Japanese profanities though -- very cool!
 

Matthaeus

Vemortuicida strenuus
The Japanese don't curse? Well, I suppose not at the same frequency as we do in the West, but yes, they do.
I find it very hard to believe that some cultures or peoples never developed swear-words in order that they might "establish their veracity".
 

Arca Defectionis

Civis Illustris
Thank you for the correction -- it has been 4 years since I studied German ;)

I didn't know anything about those Japanese profanities though -- very cool!

They're Chinese ;)

Also I feel rather like a Dummkopf at the moment... I said "whenever I was doing something student." If that were a text it would go on "Damn You Autocorrect" hehe.
 

Christian Alexander

Active Member
Haha oops, sorry.. I merely made the assumption by your signature.
Yea no autocorrect here for that reason! ;) I knew what you meant though
 
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