Beyond 4-Letter Words: Why We Need to Rediscover the Art of Cursing

Insults and curses have been around for as long as language itself. But it wasn’t until the modern era that we started to rely on four-letter words to get our point across. In earlier times, insults had a certain elegance and class to them. They were more clever and witty and often used to deliver a cutting blow to one’s opponent.

Take for example the exchange between George Bernard Shaw and Winston Churchill. When Shaw sent Churchill tickets to the first night of his new play, with a note saying, “I  am enclosing two tickets to the first night of my new play; Bring a  friend, if you have one.”

To which Churchill replied  “Cannot possibly attend the first night, I  will attend the second…If  there is one.”

Another example of a clever insult comes from a member of Parliament to Disraeli. He told Disraeli that he would either die on the gallows or of some unspeakable disease. Disraeli’s response was quick-witted and sharp, as he said, “That depends, Sir, whether I embrace your policies or your mistress.” Disraeli’s response was a subtle way of letting the MP know that he was onto his game and not intimidated by his threats.

These men were swashbucklers by comparison to public figures nowadays. They had the knack and a cunning way, without resorting to crass language or outright name-calling.

Even Clarence Darrow’s famous quip, “I have never killed a man, but I have read many obituaries with great pleasure,” is an eloquent and subtle comment on the human tendency to take pleasure in the misfortunes of others, without being overtly cruel or offensive.

In medieval times and if you’re at all familiar with Shakespearean plays, curses played a big part in communication. These curses were often poetic and elaborate and used to convey a strong sense of emotion or anger. For example, in Shakespeare’s play Henry IV, Part 1, Hotspur curses Prince Hal, saying “O, that I was a mockery king of snow, standing before the sun of Bolingbroke, to melt myself away in water drops.” This curse is not only vivid and poetic but also conveys the speaker’s intense frustration and anger toward Prince Hal.


Insults and curses have been around for as long as language itself, and they have evolved over time. These are excellent examples of insults as opposed to curses:

  1.  “You are a walking advertisement for the benefits of sterilization.” – Gregory House (TV Show: House)
  2. “Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries.” – French Knight (Movie: Monty Python and the Holy Grail)
  3. “You’re as useless as a screen door on a submarine.” – Foghorn Leghorn (Cartoon Character)
  4. “You are so old, your birth certificate expired.” – Unknown
  5. “I’d agree with you, but then we’d both be wrong.” – Unknown

Contemporary Insults

Insults have evolved over time to reflect changes in society and culture. In the past, insults often relied on wordplay, clever metaphors, and references to historical or cultural knowledge. They were seen as a way to demonstrate one’s intelligence and wit, and to impress others with their mastery of language.

However, in contemporary times, insults have become more direct and crass, with a focus on name-calling and personal attacks. The rise of social media and online communication has also contributed to this trend, as people are more likely to say things impulsively and without much thought.

As a result, insults have lost much of their original elegance and sophistication, and are now more likely to be seen as crude and offensive. While there may still be some instances of clever insults or witty banter, they are increasingly rare in today’s culture. Here are some examples of contemporary insults:

  1. “You’re a basic [insert stereotype here].” – Used to insult someone for conforming to common trends or behaviors.
  2. “You’re such a Karen.” – Used to insult someone who is perceived as entitled or demanding, often in reference to the stereotype of a middle-aged white woman who complains or makes a scene in public.
  3. “You’re a snowflake.” – Used to insult someone who is perceived as overly sensitive or easily offended, often in reference to the idea that snowflakes are delicate and easily broken.
  4. “You’re a simp.” – Used to insult someone who is perceived as being overly devoted or subservient to another person, often in reference to a man who is seen as trying too hard to impress or gain the favor of a woman.
  5. “You’re a troll.” – Used to insult someone who is perceived as intentionally trying to provoke or upset others online, often through the use of inflammatory or offensive comments.

Cursing through the centuries

From the sophisticated wordplay of the Renaissance to the explicit language of the 21st century, let’s take a look at cursing through the centuries.

  1. Ancient Greece: In ancient Greece, cursing often involved calling on the gods to punish someone. For example, someone might say “May the gods strike you down” or “May Zeus curse you and your family.”
  2. Medieval Times: During the Middle Ages, cursing often involved invoking the devil or other evil spirits. People might say things like “Go to hell” or “May the devil take you.”
  3. Renaissance Era: In the Renaissance, cursing became more sophisticated and creative, with insults often taking the form of clever wordplay or puns. For example, in Shakespeare’s play “Much Ado About Nothing,” the character Benedick says to his rival, “I do much wonder that one man, seeing how much another man is a fool when he dedicates his behaviors to love, will, after he hath laughed at such shallow follies in others, become the argument of his own scorn by falling in love.”
  4. 19th Century: In the 19th century, cursing often took the form of polite insults that masked the speaker’s true meaning. For example, a woman might say to another woman, “Your new hat is certainly…interesting,” which could be interpreted as a thinly veiled insult.
  5. Modern Times: In the 20th and 21st centuries, cursing has become increasingly vulgar and explicit, with many curse words being related to sex, bodily functions, or blasphemy. Examples include the F-word, the S-word, and using “Jesus” or “God” as an expletive.

The difference between insults and curses

There’s a difference between insults and curses. Insults are typically directed toward a specific person, while curses are more generalized and can be directed toward anyone. Insults are often used to demean or belittle someone, while curses are used to express anger or frustration towards someone or something.

Insults are often more immediate and personal, while curses can have a more long-lasting impact. Curses can be used to express a desire for revenge or to inflict harm on someone, while insults are usually more focused on insulting the person’s character or behavior.

In terms of language, insults tend to be more direct and to the point, while curses can be more poetic and imaginative. Curses are often used in literature and mythology and are a part of many cultural traditions around the world.

In today’s Western culture, cursing typically refers to the use of profanity or obscene language to express anger, frustration, or other strong emotions. It can be considered a form of verbal aggression or a way to assert one’s dominance in a conversation or social situation. Here are some examples of commonly used curse words:

  1. Fuck is one of the most well-known and widely used curse words, and is often used to express anger, frustration, or emphasis. This versatile word can be turned into an adjective, a noun, or a verb!
  2. Shit is also commonly used to express anger, frustration, or disgust.
  3. Bitch is often used as an insult toward women, but can also be used towards men to imply weakness or subservience.
  4. Asshole is often used to insult someone for being selfish, insensitive, or rude.
  5. Godamn is often used as an exclamation of frustration or anger and is considered offensive by some religious groups.

Now compare these with what curses sounded like once upon a time:

  1. “May your beard grow ever longer.” – Unknown
  2. “May you die a thousand deaths.” – Unknown
  3. “May the fleas of a thousand camels infest your armpits.” – Unknown
  4. “May you live in interesting times.” – Chinese Curse
  5. “May the wind always be at your back.” – Irish Blessing (which can also be used ironically as a curse)

In some cultures, cursing is very closely tied to religious beliefs and traditions. For example, in many Islamic countries, cursing or insulting the Prophet Muhammad or other religious figures is considered a serious offense that can result in legal punishment. Similarly, in some Hindu cultures, cursing or using profanity is seen as a violation of religious teachings that emphasize the importance of purity and self-control.

By contrast, in North American culture, many curse words are based on sexuality and bodily functions. This reflects a cultural emphasis on individualism, freedom of expression, and a lack of strict social taboos around sex and bodily functions.

Catholic countries like France and Italy have a long history of religious influence on their cultures, language, and cursing. In these countries, taking the Lord’s name in vain is considered a form of blasphemy. For example, in Italy, the expression “Porco Dio” (literally meaning “God’s pig”) is a common curse word that combines a reference to God with an animal considered impure in Catholicism. Similarly, in France, expressions like “Nom de Dieu” (meaning “Name of God”) and “Sacré Bleu” (meaning “Sacred Blue,” a reference to the Virgin Mary) are sometimes used as expletives or expressions of frustration.

In addition to these religiously based curse words, Catholic countries like France and Italy also have their own unique slang and profanity that reflect the cultural and historical influences on their language. For example, in Italy, the expression “cazzo” (meaning “dick or “fuck”) is a common profanity that can be used in a wide range of contexts, while in France, expressions like “putain” (meaning “whore”) and “merde” (meaning “shit*”) are widely used curse words.

The use of cursing and profanity in Catholic countries like France and Italy can be complex and nuanced, reflecting a mix of religious, cultural, and linguistic influences. While certain religiously based curse words may be seen as taboo or offensive, other expressions may be more widely accepted or even embraced as a part of everyday speech.

It’s worth noting, however, that the use of curse words and other forms of profanity can vary widely between different cultures and subcultures. In some cases, certain words or phrases may be considered highly offensive or taboo in one culture, but completely acceptable in another. Ultimately, the meaning and impact of curse words depend on a complex interplay of linguistic, cultural, and social factors.

Insults and curses are a part of human language and expression and can be used for a variety of purposes. In modern times, it seems that insults and cursing have lost much of the wit, elegance, and intellect that they once carried. While contemporary insults and curse words may be effective at expressing anger or frustration, they often lack the creativity and nuance that characterized insults and curses of the past.

In our fast-paced, digital world, language is often reduced to quick, simple, and often crass phrases that prioritize shock value over artistry. We’ve lost the art of witty insults and creative cursing, and we may have also lost something deeper – a way of expressing our emotions, challenging authority, and engaging with the world in a way that is both creative and thought-provoking.

Perhaps it’s time to re-examine the way we use language and strive to bring back the wit, elegance, and intellect that once characterized the art of cursing. Words have power.

Published by Maddalena Di Gregorio

“I kept always two books in my pocket, one to read, one to write in” Robert L. Stevenson

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