There’s a school of thought in linguistics called the poverty of vocabulary (POV) hypothesis — the assumption is that if a person is lacking in their vocabulary, they might fill in with curse words. This perspective has led people to view cursing as a sign of poor education, bad manners, or even being lower on the socio-economic ladder. However, recent linguistic research has shown that the exact opposite might be true. Greater fluency with curse words might be a sign of general verbal fluency, and those who are exceptionally vulgar might also be exceptionally eloquent in other ways. Additional research shows that swearing can boost pain tolerance, make people more emotionally resilient, and be a signal for positive personality traits such as honesty and directness.
What Makes a Curse Word?
Legendary stand-up comedian George Carlin had a famous act in which he discussed “The Seven Words You Can’t Say on TV,” but his premise was that everyone has a different list of curse words, and the lists can change over time (and by context). Linguists trace the concept of profanity back to ancient Rome, but in general, it’s connected to religion. In Judeo-Christian and Muslim traditions, a word becomes profane when it’s stripped of its intent and used outside of religious contexts.
Other curse words were created as euphemisms for more lewd or provocative terms, yet they became the vulgar terms. The most modern iteration of curse words comes from social media apps: As a way of getting around community standards that ban certain words or topics, users create new words, which then become profanity on their own.
Grow Your Cursing Vocabulary
Opinions are split on whether cursing is a sign of a limited vocabulary, or a signal that someone possesses great verbal eloquence. Either way, let’s take a dive into the world of old-fashioned curse words. These words may have been considered profanity at one point in time, but today they sound almost quaint.
This English word, primarily used in Ireland, appeared in 1821. The interjection is a corruption of the blasphemous “by Jesus.”
Oxford traces this regional expression to the early 1800s, used “in the optative” (expressing a wish) to express annoyance, hatred, or dismissal. It’s a mild version of “damn.”
Great horn spoon
This charming phrase is a less blasphemous alternative to “by God!” or any of its variants. Linguists believe it comes from sailor slang and may refer to the Big Dipper.
The OED tracks the earliest usage of this word to the late 1500s. It’s an example of linguistic clipping, or shortening a word — it’s an abbreviated form of the expression “God’s nails.” This is also how we get the curses “zounds” (“God’s wounds”), “strewth” (“God’s truth”), and “ods bodikins” (“God’s little body”).
Rather than clipping the word, some folks prefer to replace “God” with “gosh,” evidenced by the range of “gosh” options. But of all the expressions in the “gosh all” category — “Goshalmighty,” “gosh-all-hemlock,” “gosh all fish-hooks” — “gosh-all-Potomac” is the earliest one tracked in the Dictionary of American English on Historical Principles, a reference book that defines the usages of words and phrases in American English versus British English (published from 1936 to 1944).
Gadzooks appeared in English in the mid-1600s, used to express surprise, alarm, or to affirm the truth of a statement. Like “‘snails,” it’s an example of clipping: It’s an abbreviated form of the expression “God’s hooks.”