Re: Pre-Norman profanity

Subject: Re: Pre-Norman profanity
From: Erik Mueller-Harder <Erik -at- WI -dot- MIT -dot- EDU>
Date: Fri, 5 Aug 1994 18:57:53 GMT

Since people seem interested in this, I thought I'd add my two cents'
worth. I'm assuming that the easily offended are not reading a thread
entitled "Pre-Norman profanity" -- if they are, they should probably
skip this one. I refer to several other languages in the examples
below; see the end of this posting for their approximate time periods.

1. Shit. Middle English "shiten," to void excrement, Old English
"scitan" (attested only in compound "bescitan," to befoul. This came
from Proto-Germanic "skitan," which meant "to separate, to defecate."
This, in turn, came from Proto-Indo-European "*skeid-," which meant "to
separate, to split." This all originally came from the
Proto-Indo-European root "skei-," from which we get such words as
science, conscience, conscious, nescient, nice, shin, skean, shit,
skate (meaning a chap or fellow), schedule, schism, schizo-, rescind,
esquire, and so on (each through various other languages over time).

2. Fuck. Probably borrowed from Middle Dutch "fokken," which meant "to
strike, copulate with." Apparently most of the details of this word's
pedigree have been lost, since people generally have not written it
down much. It is supposed to be ultimately derived from
Proto-Indo-European "peig-," meaning "evil-minded, hostile." From this
PIE root come such other winners as fickle, foe, fey, and feud.

3. Screw. [Middle English "skrewe," from Old French "escroue,"
originally "female screw," from West Germanic "scruva," from Latin
"scrofa," meaning "sow" (probably because screw threads coil like a
sow's tail, and perhaps influenced in sense by Latin "scrobis," meaning
"ditch," "pudeneda," hence, in Vulgar Latin, "female screw").
Ultimately from Proto-Indo-European "sker-," meaning "to cut." Other
English words derived from sker- include scar, shears, scabbard, shard,
skirmish, short, skirt, carnage, carnal, carnation, crone, cuirass,
curt, curtal, kirtle, decorate, scurf, sharp, scarp, scrap, scrape,
scrabble, scrub, and shrub.

All this comes complimentary The American Heritage Dictionary, 1st
and/or 3rd editions (much of it is in the 2nd edition, but not all the
information on Proto-Indo-European).

Middle English was spoken from the 12th century through the 15th, Old
English (also called "Anglo-Saxon") from the early 8th century into the
12th century. Middle Dutch coincidentally was spoken from the 12th
through the 15th centuries. Old French was spoken from the 9th century
to the early 16th century.

Vulgar Latin was the common speech of ancient Rome; it ultimately grew
into Old French and early forms of Spanish, Italian, and the other
Romance languages. Proto-Germanic was the prehistoric ancestor of the
Germanic languages (spoken around 2000 B.C.). Finally,
Proto-Indo-European was spoken around 5000 B.C. It was the grandmommy
of *almost* all modern European and Northern Indian languages (not
Hungarian, Finnish, Basque,...).

Anyone wanting more info is encouraged to get a copy of the American
Heritage dictionary, printed by Houghton-Mifflin Company (for whom I am
not a representative of any form -- though I did take a couple of
fantastic linguistics courses from the editor of the "Indo-European
Roots" appendix of the 1st and 3rd editions).

-- Erik

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