Strewth, bloody, rooted: is there a quintessentially Australian swear phrase? | Society
Linguist Geoffrey Hughes writes that “people swear what is most powerful to them”.
What is seen as the “most potent” change changes over time, although the taboo has often centered on the religious (hell), the sexual (fuck), and the exuding (shit). More recently, racist, sexist, and other discriminatory epithets have become our most taboo and controversial terms.
The first cases of cursing in any language come from ancient Egypt, around 1198–1166 BC. BC, with the threat that those who made no sacrifice to the gods would have to copulate with a donkey. Examples of cursing can be found in Classical Greek and Latin (a favorite Roman curse was “By Hercules!”), And we also have references to cursing from medieval Europe.
Until the beginning of the Middle Ages, much of what was considered taboo was religious and reflected the primacy of Christianity in Western Europe. Christians feared that their souls might be condemned, and this made curses, which condemn a person’s soul to hell, especially powerful.
Beginning in the Middle Ages, we can see a slow shift from oaths or religious cursing to profanity dealing with excretion and the sexual. Oaths were still a favorite for a long time and were considered taboo by many well into modern times. Over time, however, they slowly lost their religious baggage to simply become slightly offensive, and for much of the 20th century they were considered an indicator of class and educational status.
Charles Dickens, who often wrote about the working class and the criminal class, never used a word stronger than Drat
Queen Elizabeth I (1533–1603) was a notable sworn woman, and her favorite curse was referred to as “God’s wounds,” which at the time were considered severe blasphemy as it referred to the wounds inflicted on Jesus when he was crucified. God’s wounds were therefore sometimes shortened to zounds, an example of what is called a “chopped oath”. Every curse creates “camouflaged variants”. In short, we try to replace taboo words with polite euphemisms. Zounds and Gadzooks (God’s hooks) have long since fallen by the wayside, but we may still hear Damn (from Damn), Fudge (fuck), God (God) and the more Australian Crikey (Christ) and Scatters (God’s Truth). although many people do not necessarily know the relationship to the original profanity.
From the 18th century, profanity in printed sources was increasingly censored. For example, the word fuck appeared in Nathaniel Bailey’s Universal Etymological Dictionary in 1721, but not in Samuel Johnson’s influential A Dictionary of the English Language in 1755. From the 18th century onwards, the rise of the bourgeoisie meant good manners, refinement and demonstrations of courtesy were seen as indicators of a person’s social and moral worth. As a result, profanity was increasingly viewed as unacceptable.
Writers like Charles Dickens, who often wrote about the working and criminal classes, never used a word stronger than drat and generally preferred to stick to euphemisms. From the 18th century onwards, printing also used various evasive maneuvers and disguises to avoid printing swear words, which ranged from asterisks and other typographic substitutions (f ** k) to word substitutes such as blankety-blank and four-letter words . Of course, the reader almost always knows what is meant in such cases, so the effectiveness of such censorship to keep the mind “pure” remains questionable, but it signals disapproval. We see this today when television and radio shows continue to “spew out” words even though it is almost always obvious what the person is saying.
From the 18th to the 19th centuries, the English language began to go through a process of standardization, underpinned by the rise of pressures that required common standards and the rise of the idea that education and literacy were for everyone. Dictionaries have been one of the most important reference works for standardizing the language and prescribing its appropriate and correct use. Slang and “vulgar” language were either marked as such or cut out of standard English during this period (as we saw above with Johnson’s dictionary), adding to the “divergence” of this language. This view only began to change in the late 20th century.
Imperialism and colonialism, another characteristic feature of the 18th and 19th centuries, brought Europeans into contact with other peoples. The pursuit of land and resources had a profound impact and was underpinned by a language and science of race and difference. Racized language, insults and insults became more common and important in the English vocabulary and reinforced and communicated ideologies of white supremacy and colonialism. It was considered acceptable, so it was not in itself “bad” language – at least for those who used it.
Our politicians have rarely shied away from using strong language
At this critical point in the late 18th century, Australia was selected as the site for a convict colony. The more seditious, controversial and polyphonic British society of the 16th and 17th centuries gave way to a Britain of empire, seriousness and courtesy. Ideas about language and its purpose would be transferred to the colonial society that is taking shape in the antipodes.
Throughout the 19th century, poor language helped develop ideas about what it meant to be Australian and to stick to certain constructions of the typical Australian as white and male. The Bushman, the ox driver, the gold digger, the war grave: all of these archetypal Australians would be associated with profanity, especially within popular culture, to celebrate such a language. At the same time, notions of respectability would make the use of bad language, especially by non-power groups in Australian society such as women, working classes and indigenous people, something to be avoided and condemned. These contradicting attitudes towards bad language lasted well into the 21st century.
So is there a typical Australian swear word? In the 19th century, a visitor to the colonies, Alexander Marjoribanks, claimed in his book Travels in New South Wales (1847) that the word bloody was ubiquitous in Australia – in fact, it was “the great Australian adjective”. On his journey through the colonies he discovered with contempt that “[o]a man will tell you that he married a bloody young woman, another, a bloody old one; and a bushranger will shout, “Stop it or I’ll blow your bloody brain out.” He reckoned that the average Australian ox driver – a notorious figure in the history of the bad Australian language – would say this “disgusting word” no fewer than 18,200,000 times in their lifetime.
Sidney Baker, in his classic study of Australian English, The Australian Language (1945), identifies Bloody as one of the four Bs he sits next to Bugger, Bastard, and Bullshit. Of course, none of them are exclusively Australians, but each would likely conjure up particularly Australian associations for many of us and has been used well in our history. We may remember when Bob Hawke was caught calling a member of the public a “stupid old bastard”, Don Chipp’s founding of the Australian Democrats with the slogan “Keep the bastards honest” and Malcolm Turnbull Tony Abbott’s climate policy as “bullshit” referred to “, foretelling an ongoing feud between the two that would help overthrow both prime ministers. Our politicians have rarely shied away from using strong language.
Photo: New South Books
Root entered Australian English in the 1940s and quickly established himself in the lexicon. While our first recorded evidence is that the transferred sense of the rooted meaning is “finished, ruined, exhausted,” it almost certainly comes from the more literal sense of the root, meaning intercourse (noun and verb, both first recorded in 1958). According to the Australian National Dictionary, the term probably originated from the root “penis”. In the 1950s, popular culture used “rooted” to mean “stuffed” or “fucked” as well as “rooted, fucked”.
The rhyming slang Wellington boot was recorded in 1977 but it undoubtedly existed before as the first evidence of it is in an abbreviated form – Wellington, first recorded in 1970. Later terms dealing with root include root ute (a vehicle, usually a van fitted with a mattress for sex) and root rat (a sexually promiscuous male). In contrast to some other Australianisms, root has remained a particularly Australian term that is not easily understood by outsiders.
Agreeing with the idea that Australians have a special relationship with poor language would mean expanding on a national mythology – which many Australians like to live up to – that we are more relaxed in our language than other English speakers. We are certainly known for our creativity with words and idioms, and this extends to the offensive as well. In 2016, the online news site Buzzfeed compiled a list of the “100 Most Rude Things Australians Say”. The list reveals some wonderfully creative profanity and insults: cunning like a fucking rat, having hair like a bush pig’s ass, dick flop and not fucking spiders here are just a few. While it’s probably hard to argue that we swear more than others, we do our best – and we try to be inventive.
This is an edited excerpt from Rooted – An Australian History of Bad Language by Amanda Laugesen (New South Books, $ 32.99).