By Curtis Honeycutt
I’ve been contemplating a new parenting tactic: pre-emptively teaching my son bad words. Miles is seven, and he will someday know all the same expletives as I do. Because of this, I surmise that he ought to learn the words in context from his dad. That’s why I’ve started a spreadsheet in which I rank bad words from the tamest to the most profane. I’ll teach him two words per year with proper context and word origins, and keep instructing him until I exhaust the list.
While this may be a bad parenting tactic, it’s also purely theoretical — my wife has not agreed to this idea. However, it did get me thinking about the words “swear,” “curse” and “cuss.” What is the difference between these words? Are they simply interchangeable? It’s time for the 4-1-1 on four-letter words.
Let’s start by examining the word “swear.” The verb “swear” comes from the Old English word “swerian,” which means “to take an oath.” As Christianity swept the Western world, “swearing” became known as when you used a deity’s name to give your words more emphasis or power. Nowadays, a “swear” word is synonymous with a “bad” word. In fact, American treasure Nicolas Cage hosts a show on Netflix called “History of Swear Words.” I swear I’m not making this up.
As you may have already guessed, the terms “swear” and “curse” have become virtually synonymous. George Washington noted, “The foolish and wicked practice of profane cursing and swearing is a vice so mean and low that every person of sense and character detests and despises it.” Legend has it that he uttered this after an early draft of the Declaration of Independence included a typo that replaced the word “course” with “curse” in the introductory phrase “When in the Course of human events … ”
The word “curse” comes from the Old English word “curs,” which means “a prayer that evil or harm befall one.” To “put a curse” on someone was to invoke the supernatural to cause harm to them. As with the origin of “swear,” the Christian church played a major role in deciding and defining the taboo terms.
“Cuss,” as far as I can tell, is a variant of the word “curse.” The two words mean the same thing. As a native Oklahoman, I grew up being told that it was wrong to “cuss,” while my wife, who was raised in the western suburbs of Chicago was warned against “cursing.”
Recent research actually suggests that using “curse” or “swear” words can be good for you in a variety of circumstances. So, while I may or may not discuss cussing with my son, cursing eventually finds its way into most people’s discourse — for better or worse.
—Curtis Honeycutt is a syndicated humor columnist. He is the author of Good Grammar is the Life of the Party: Tips for a Wildly Successful Life. Find more at curtishoneycutt.com.