Are today’s swear words really all that dirty? In an article on the evolution of profanity, Slate’s Matthew J.X. Malady analyzes what it means that cursing is less of a big deal in modern society. Censorship has become less prevalent, and even the curse words that one held the most power are fairly innocent now. Malady reports that today’s most taboo words are the “sociologically abusive” ones, such as “retarded” and “fat.” In the past, curses were inspired by adherence to religious ideals, so the worst words usually had to do with sex or blasphemy. And it turns out that some of our most seemingly innocuous words once fit into that category: “In the 16th and 17th centuries,” Malady writes, “the word occupy was commonly used to refer to the act of sexual penetration, which, among other things, places the Occupy Wall Street movement in a whole new light.” Here are some other everyday words that have an unsavory past.
In the Victorian era, legs were so private that the word “leg” itself was considered a swear. According to Deseret News, “At the dinner table, it wasn’t acceptable to ask for a leg or a thigh of chicken, which is why people started using the term ‘dark meat.’ (People also put skirts on tables and beds, so the furniture legs wouldn’t show.)” Other polite substitutes for “leg” included “limb.”