Cursing is an interesting part of our culture. The idea that certain concepts can be inherently offensive, but only when voiced using words derived from a certain language stock is a strange one. Have you ever given this concept, its origins and the nature of it serious consideration? Today we’re going to do that with two broad aims. First, a study of why cursing exists, how the concept is used and applied in the real world, and its actual and downright magical effects, will help to insert an analog into your game that will have interesting roleplaying as well as mechanical applications. Second, this is sort of a soapbox issue for me, so I get to have a nice cathartic rant. Feel free to agree/disagree in the comments, though they may get more NSFW than our usual ones given the content (although I’m guessing not as NSFW as some of our other articles on issues of prejudice).
Part 1 – the interesting origin of foul language:
How did we come to have a subset of vocabulary deemed as offensive in modern English, a language that it has often been joked: “has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.” (James D. Nicoll). This is also a language where coining new Neologisms on a moment’s notice is considered clever. Certainly this is a language where anything and everything is allowed. And yet we have this curious phenomenon where a small set of words, exclusively of one cultural origin are not allowed. How did that come to pass? And how can you leverage it in your games?
Turns out this language phenomenon dates back to the early 1000s with the Norman conquest of England. Back in the 1060s the Normans and the English had a disagreement over the succession to the throne of England. This dispute was resolved in 1066 at the battle of Hastings with the death of Harold Godwinson, one of the claimants to the throne. Within 20 years, the Normans had seized almost all of England.
How does this lead to the invention of today’s proscription against select words of Germanic origin? Well, it turns out that the Normans spoke Old French whereas the common man of England spoke Old English (which ironically, is a Germanic language). With the Normans in charge and with their society strongly divided into castes, the language of the land was split as well, with the nobility speaking Old French (why should they bother to learn a new language just to communicate with peasantry after all) and the peasants speaking Old English (they probably would have liked to learn to speak with their noble masters, but were too busy being oppressed and forced into crushing labor to say, take night classes even if that were a thing back then).
As is usually the case, the nobility felt that they were better than the people they were oppressing in every way, and that included the language spoken by the peasants. In fact our modern word vulgar comes for the old word vulgaris: “used by the common people”. Literally, the proscription against swearing came from the noble Norman caste being offended by hearing the crude language of the common folk. How dreadful it must have been for their delicate sensitive ears!
Now, one can make the argument that not all words of Germanic origin are offensive (in fact the most commonly used words in English are almost all of Germanic origin) but instead it can be claimed that the commonly proscribed words deal with biological functions or are of a sexual nature. One can almost imagine the genteel Norman lords and ladies wincing at the thought of the peasants engaging in these generally private acts. But for that argument to hold any water, words of any origin that relate to the same concepts must be held at the same level of distaste. We can talk about defecation, feces, stool, poop, just not …. moving on, we can talk about copulation, fornication, intercourse, even whoopee, but not … well, you know.
So the key concept here is that in the English language, “private” words are not outlawed, nor are Germanic words, but where the two intersect, there we find the “BAD” words. This must imply one of two things: That either there is some interaction effect between the two subsets that make Germanic private words somehow offensive when neither are alone, which makes no sense, or that both private words in general and Germanic words in general are considered lightly taboo or crass and to combine the two combines the effect. We can in fact point to other evidence that this second case is the one that applies. We can see plenty of people that are uncomfortable discussing private matters without claiming that doing so is offensive. We also can point to the curious phenomenon of most English speakers changing their speaking style to a heavier mix of non-Germanic words when they want to lend weight to their words or sound more educated. (Don’t worry. I have sources below). This leads us to conclude that private words are mildly taboo, but not overwhelmingly so, and that Germanic words are considered “low class”, which makes sense given their history, but not enough to be offensive, but combining the two is too much, and thus we have today’s curse words.
Side note: This isn’t the only source of “BAD” words in the English language. There is also a much smaller set of “He who is not to be named” words similar to Hastur, Lord Moldybutt, or rktho (primal word for bear. Yes really). These words come from the concept that using something’s name either offends it (because we are using its pure name with our filthy human mouths) or calls to it (and thus puts us in danger). Many of the “religious themed” “BAD” words come from this source. This is not the primary source of our offensive words, nor are these commonly cited, but they will be useful in the discussion later.
We’re almost to the gaming part, I promise. But first it makes sense to cover:
Part 2 – the prejudice against the vulgar tongue:
So we’ve covered why the prejudice against language of a Germanic root historically exists, and how that combined with a mild taboo against discussing private functions and matters combine to create swearing. But what is the net effect of the overall prejudice against the language and against swearing specifically? Let’s unpack a few of the common prejudices (none of which are true, by the way, but we’ll cover that later).
- The myth of a poverty of vocabulary: Cursing is often viewed as a crutch for lacking a sufficient vocabulary. The argument goes that if the speaker knew a word that would substitute for the curse word, they would use it.
- The myth of low intelligence: Those who curse are viewed as being less intelligent than those who do not. This is just the poverty of vocabulary myth taken to the next level. If you curse, you must have a limited vocabulary. And if you have a limited vocabulary it’s because you are stupid. That’s the assumption anyway.
- The myth of motivation: Cursing is often associated with being lazy. Again, it’s linked to vocabulary. They might know a better word. They’re just too lazy to think of one.
- The myth of impulsiveness: It is sometimes assumed that those who swear are impulsive or highly emotional. They know better than to swear, the thought goes, but just lack the self control.
- The myth of poor social skills: The assumption here is that those who swear can’t read a room and know when swearing might or might not be acceptable or that they lack consideration for the potential offense their words carry.
- The myth of unfriendliness: Hinging on the myth of impulsiveness and poor social skills above
- The myth of poor job performance: This one hangs on more or less all of the above. If you’re dumb, have a poor vocabulary, are lazy, have no self control, and lack social skills, how could you possibly be good at your job?
Part 3 – Incorporation into your game:
So, the history of curse words and the source of their offensiveness established, and the prejudices those who use those words are subjected to enumerated, how can you make use of this in your game? The first questions you have to ask are: “Should you?” and “Have you discussed this with your players?” Why? Well, just like any source of prejudice, adding aspects of it to your game allows for a richer role playing experience and allows you to build stories around real world issues, BUT these themes can make games uncomfortable for those at the table, some of who don’t want to deal with the same nonsense they deal with day in and day out in their game time too. This is reasonable, so a conversation about inclusion of these sorts of topics in your game would be appropriate first.
Inventing your own curse words:
Sure you could just say your game world cursing mirrors our own world’s and call it a day. Many aspects of game worlds go that way. There’s no problem with doing that. But you’re missing a chance to say something important about your game world. Look at the two main sources of cursing: private functions described in a language of an oppressed people and the names of sacred or dangerous beings and places. This gives you the opportunity to ask a few questions:
- If curse words come from the language of an oppressed culture, What is the culture? Does anyone still speak their original language? How are native speakers treated? Are their vestigial aspects of that oppression today?
- If curse words come from the names of sacred or dangerous beings and places, what are those beings and places? Does using their name actually have effects or is it an old wives tale?
How people react to cursing:
There are plenty of reactions to cursing. In addition to the people who carry and act on the prejudices listed above, there are also:
- Those who just use the proscription as an opportunity to feel superior over others. If you have characters in your game who are status seeking, holier than thou or otherwise consider themselves above others, they will be quick to chastise those who curse, often citing the above prejudices. Note that because these NPCs have demonstrated their superiority, they are able to ignore and dismiss any complaints about their prejudices. Obviously, this potty-mouth is just too ignorant to understand the situation.
- The prejudice against cursing is often closely linked to misogyny as well. Many who consider curse words “offensive” consider them doubly so for the delicate ears of women, which must remain pure. Some NPCs who “have no problem with cursing themselves” will react quite poorly if it is done in front of women. These are also the same ones that shame women for their “unladylike behavior” when they curse. NPCs who are misogynistic will often latch on to this prejudice in this fashion.
- The “think of the children!” crowd. Like the above, many people will get upset at cursing that “doesn’t bother them” but they don’t want children to learn to do it. Feel free to have them completely baffled by the question: “If YOU see nothing wrong with it, why is is bad if children learn those words?”. Which usually leads into:
- It offends other people! Surely THEY are enlightened. THEY understand there’s nothing wrong with it, in fact THEY do it sometimes themselves. But you mustn’t do it. Because it could offend other people. Never mind that they will happily admit that the practice is nothing but prejudice, and makes no logical sense. It’s important not to offend other people, to keep the peace. Note the correlations here to other, bigger name prejudices. Sure, there’s nothing wrong with it, but other people don’t understand, so rather than work to normalize it or educate those people, just hide it. NPCs that like to avoid conflict, keep the peace (literally, guards don’t want to be bothered with nonsense like this. They have better things to do), or are afraid of confrontation often use this excuse.
- Since cursing often carries a connotation of intensity, you will also encounter a lot of tone policing while using it or discussing it. “You would get further if you could just discuss this more civilly.” Even in discussions which don’t actually involve you cursing, simply discussing the concept will often invoke tone policing. If characters start to argue with others, this is one of the most common responses.
- Conflation of issues: While there is all sorts of hurtful and hate filled speech, and while cursing can absolutely be turned to those purposes (and often is), the two are not synonymous. One can be hateful in perfectly “polite” speech, and one can paint a blue litany and not be hurtful of anyone. However, there are plenty of NPCs who will just not understand the subtleties here and insist that the two are one in the same. And point of note: be careful yourself. It’s possible to get buy in and include cursing in your game. It’s also possible to get buy in and include hateful or hurtful speech in your game. But don’t conflate the two yourself, get buy in for cursing and then start using it (or any other language) in a hateful manner without also getting buy in on that.
- People with power: So while all of the above are annoying to deal with, and are excellent candidates for RPGs that make use of introducing complications, there are also NPCs that not only are prejudiced but have the power to enforce those prejudices. This could be people in a position to impact your PC’s wallets: boss’s, fixers, or quest givers. They could also include those in positions of authority: CEOs, Kings, Religious officials, some of which have the power to put the PCs into a serious bind for having the temerity to abuse language in their presence. While in a fantasy game, the local lord could well have the PCs thrown into the dungeons to rot for sullying his ears with profanity, that’s probably best saved for an adventure hook as opposed to a random complication.
It’s also important to note that the prejudice against profanity is so entrenched in modern society that it is often outright codified in rules of workplaces, guidelines for professionalism etc… and that many people won’t bother to question that their reaction and support of others’ prejudice here is based on their own assumption of it being the correct world view. This is not one of those prejudices that most people understand is a prejudice. It is one of the deeply entrenched culturally integrated ones.
Part 4 – But what about the magic? You promised secret powers!
So here’s the flip side of cursing: despite the prejudices that accompany it, there are actually definite benefits to using profanity. Oddly enough though, many of these effects stem specifically FROM the fact that cursing is considered taboo language. That is to say, that if you use “bad” words that no one really cares about, you don’t get any effect from it. So in a way, all the people who hold prejudices about vulgar language are necessary to give that language power. It’s pretty darn close to magic. Here are some of these positive side effects:
- People who curse are actually smarter and more fluent than those who do not (in direct opposition to the prejudice)
- Swearing alleviates both pain and stress
- Cursing forms closer and more intimate bonds between people more quickly than they otherwise would and increases group bonds
- Cursing is a marker for honesty and credibility
- People who use profanity appropriately are perceived as more attractive than those who do not
- The effect of public speaking is enhanced by swearing, even as people claim that it makes the speaker less convincing
So from these scientifically proven effects we can see that swearing actually helps perform tasks of endurance and improves social abilities (The intelligence causation is probably the other way around). Since we’re considering introducing vulgar language in our games as sources of conflict it’s reasonable to balance out the extra complications. In this case, science supports that using profanity during these sorts of challenges should result in a bonus over those who do not, but that it’s fair that those bonuses cause additional complications where relevant.
So there you have it: The origin of cursing in modern English, the prejudices using profanity subjects one to and the actual effects of swearing, all wrapped up in a bundle that you can dump screaming and cursing into your game world to help flesh out your world building and add a unique set of complications and invocable bonuses. Enjoy!
Sources (many of these are compiled fluff news pieces, but if you click through on individual topics they will lead eventually to books by experts or scientific papers):
This one is a fun one that digs into the history of cursing and misogyny as well as a case where chimps were taught sign language and immediately invented their own swear words!