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Scholar at Large

Pardon My Anglo-Saxon

Dirty words contain the story of our language

Although our language is sometimes reviled because of its perceived imperial dominance, English as a kind of lingua franca is here to stay. Neither Chinese nor Hindi-Urdu nor any other European language will supplant it. And why not? It’s not just because of momentum.

Not just because 175,000 new blogs, mostly in English, are coming online daily. Not just because English is the language of computer geeks and airline pilots. Not just because more Chinese are studying formal English right now than there are Americans in the United States. (For your casual reading, take along Robert McCrum’s Globish: How the English Language Became the World’s Language.) No, there is another reason English will continue to rule: Our dirty words are so delightfully crude and filthy.

It has to do with how our language evolved. I first learned about the crazy-quilt of cultures and influences that shaped our tongue from my classics teacher in college, a man with the perfect name of Sherman Plato Young. His etymology class opened a world of Indo-European languages, language families, Anglo-Saxon, proto-Germanic, Church Slavonic, and the origins of the word for salmon in forty different languages (how many ways can you say lox?). He taught us about the builders of English, the Celts, the Romans, the Vikings, the Germanic tribes, Harold Godwinson (the last Anglo-Saxon king of England), and William the Conqueror, who came from Normandy in 1066, adding to the mix a powerful new linguistic stock.

The next time I seriously ventured into the development of our language was as a teacher. One of the first faculty members I met when I came to Tufts, in 1964, was Miriam Balmuth, a tough, tiny, feisty lady in the classics department, the first woman who ever got a Harvard Ph.D. in classical archaeology. She wanted to teach a course on words and names in English and was a little weak on the Germanic etymologies, a strong suit of mine. Would I give the lecture when she came to the German language, when the class was starting to learn about the Norman linguistic conquest of the British Isles? In the course of our discussions, Miriam would occasionally insert a salty word to illustrate a point; I noticed that all of them were direct, graphic, and short.

The syllabus heading for Gittleman’s lecture eventually became “Dirty Words in English.” Why dirty words? Because the category of words we consider dirty—almost all of them Anglo-Saxon in origin—is one of the more conspicuous reminders of our language’s schizoid past. As I would explain to Miriam’s students, the impact of language “events” such as the Roman invasion or the Viking raids paled next to that of the Norman invasion. The arrival of Old French, spoken by conquerors who then became the ruling class, forever changed the way our language was spoken. Just as Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe pitted the blunt, coarse Saxons (with names like Cedric, Wamba, and Hundebert) against the sophisticated Norman French (the suave knights De Bois-Guilbert, Front-de-Boeuf, and De Malvoisin), the emerging Middle English language pitted terse Germanic monosyllables against Latin-derived polysyllables. English became a language of competing classes.

The meaning for the modern world? Coffee refills in a diner are “free,” but in a swank hotel they’re “complimentary.” Delicate people don’t “sweat”—they “perspire.” And they never “buy” something when they can “purchase” it. Which is why our “dirty” words are the ones they are. You can stand in Boston Common and scream to an assembled crowd of tourists, “Fornicate! Copulate! Urinate! Defecate! Genitalia!” and nothing will happen to you. But if you yell out the Anglo-Saxon equivalents of these Latinate forms, you will probably be hauled away for disturbing the peace. Such is the status of Anglo-Saxon in civilized discourse.

Before the Norman invasion, there was only one way to say it. These words were not “dirty,” not obscene, and not unacceptable in polite Anglo-Saxon company. They became objectionable only when the genteel Romance forms took their place. That never-ending class struggle within our language is what gives English much of its appeal.

Dirty words: you’ve got to love them.

In his forty-six years at Tufts, SOL GITTLEMAN has been a professor of German, Judaic studies, and Biblical literature, and has taught in a variety of departments. Formerly Tufts’ provost, he is now the Alice and Nathan Gantcher University Professor.
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