| 10°C Dublin

I swear it's true -- cursing is actually good for you!


Ah go on: Father Jack introduced 'feck' to our English neighbours

Ah go on: Father Jack introduced 'feck' to our English neighbours

Ah go on: Father Jack introduced 'feck' to our English neighbours

Amy Huberman's mother shouldn't be so disappointed at the amount of swearing in her daughter's new novel. In fact, we should all shout -- F***! S***! B******! Feel better? Well, you should, according to scientists who swear that unleashing your inner Gordon Ramsay is the best medicine.

The boffins studied the impact of swearing on 64 volunteers who were asked to place their hands into a tub of ice water for as long as they could. Then the psychologists at Keele University had volunteers repeat the exercise, but this time asking them to curse for all they were worth.

When the participants screamed obscenities, they felt the healing effect and were able to keep their hands in the ice-cold water for nearly a minute longer.

While we don't know exactly their words of choice, bad language has a long and colourful history. Swear words were originally blasphemy, something so prevalent in ancient times God had to write a Commandment forbidding it. Even the term 'bloody' we use today is a corruption of 'By your Lady', a religious exclamation from the Middle Ages punishable by having your tongue removed.

So with such a high price to pay for cursing, no surprise human ingenuity quickly furnished us with a plethora of obscenities to ensure the Second Commandment remained unviolated.

However, tracing the genealogy of some curse words, such as the infamous f-word, has proved difficult.

Legend has it the word came from 'Forced Unlawful Carnal Knowledge' -- the original term for rape -- where as part of the punishment the perpetrator had the abbreviation branded on their forehead. Another myth suggests it came into usage during the plague when peasants were ordered to "Fornicate Under the Command of the King" to help boost a population that had been decimated.

However, few experts give credence to such urban myths. Especially given that the word was first recorded in the 16th century and very few acronyms predate the 20th century. Eric Partridge in the Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English believes the f-word is "almost certainly" linked with "prick" as both come from the Latin verb pungere and noun pugil, both of which mean to strike. However, the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang suggests linkage with the Middle Dutch word fokken, meaning "to thrust, copulate with"; the Norwegian dialect fukka, which means "to copulate"; and the Swedish dialect focka -- "to strike, push, copulate".

Regardless of its origin, after two centuries of everyday usage the f-word became taboo, and when DH Lawerence's Lady Chatterley's Lover became the first novel to use it in 1928 there was such uproar that the book was banned for over 30 years.

People who don't know their fecks from their f***s often mistake the Hiberno-English term as a milder form of the f-word due to its similar sound and spelling. However, feck is simply the Irish equivalent to bleeding or darned. In old Dublin slang "to feck" is also slang for "to steal" and can also mean "to throw".

There are many such misunderstandings when it comes to bad language.

For example, the word 'prick' when used as an insult does not actually come from the slang for male genitalia but from farming equipment. The prick was a shaft of sharpened wood used to keep oxen in place. But while some cuss words can be misunderstood here, when they cross the Atlantic they can be totally lost in translation.

Take the term for a gentleman's dangly bits, b*****ks, which is unknown in the US. The word is thought possibly to have its origins in sailing, where a bollock is a pulley-block at the head of a topmast. In fact, it was this use of the word that helped prevent the Sex Pistols album Never Mind the Bollocks from being censored.

Then there's fanny, which in America means someone's rear-end rather than a woman's front end. In the 1970s a pioneering all-female American rock band were actually called Fanny after ex-Beatle George Harrison cheekily suggested the name, obviously in the knowledge that its female members would be blissfully unaware of its meaning on the other side of the Atlantic.

The word mickey is also lost on Americans as anyone who has visited Disney World and been offered Mickey-shaped cucumbers will know.

Trailers for the movie Free Willy also had us sniggering in the aisles much to the confusion of Hollywood studio executives. Indeed, much of our humour goes over the heads of Americans. So, even when commentator Brian Johnson tried to identify two players during a cricket match, declaring "The bowler's Holding, the batsman's Willey," any Americans would have wondered what all the laughter was about.

Most Watched