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The Power of Words

As a writer, I know how powerful words can be, singly or en masse. In ancient, and not so ancient times, the power of a curse, a blessing, or a spell was in the words used, though my personal belief is that any power in them is due to the intent behind them.

Even now, we don’t treat words as mere sounds meant to denote something. Instead, we ascribe a value to them that is apart from their meaning.

Words morph over time

One of the most interesting aspects of words is that their meaning changes over time until the original meaning is lost.

Take the word “pretty” as an example. In it’s original use, it meant “sly”, as in “That’s a pretty trick”. That sentence now would mean something entirely different from medieval times, since the word “trick” has also morphed.

Morphing often results from slang or vernacular use. The change is sometimes too fast for dictionaries to keep up. By the time a dictionary is updated with the new usage, it has already gone on to mean something else.

One of those morphed word is “swear”.


Originally, swearing meant to take an oath, often invoking a deity as witness. A witness is “sworn in”, meaning he is under oath to tell the truth.

In the Western world, the Judeo-Christian God is usually the deity sworn by. At one time it was very common to swear oaths somewhat informally.

But what if you say “God” and it’s not in an oath, a prayer, or a theological statement? We morphed the word “swear” to mean this sort of use.

But we don’t stop there. We take all kinds of other words that used to have (and actually still have) a religious connotation and lump them into swearing as well, if they are not used in one of the three acceptable ways. Words like “Hell” and “damn”.

And that still isn’t enough.

Watch your language

Somewhere along the line, it became unacceptable to use some Anglo-Saxon words. The unacceptable ones referred to certain body parts and functions. You could refer to them euphemistically (“privates”) or use Latin terms. It isn’t the meaning that is is objectionable; it is the word we use to express it. What kind of snobbish bigotry is this? It is not only hypocritical, it is irrational and cumbersome.

Take the “c” word. (I won’t use it, as many would find it objectionable, thus proving my point.) One syllable, four letters. The Latin word has three syllables, six letters. By the way, both of those morphed from their original meanings, “triangle” and “scabbard”, respectively, probably based on slang use of the time.

Put ’em together and what have you got?

Now all those handy, simple Anglo-Saxon words have been lumped with misuse of religious words into the category of “swearing” and the very word “swear” has taken on the meaning of “use objectionable or profane language.” The meaning of “profanity” has also morphed.

How long will it be until political correctness adds all our other no-no words to the category of swearing? And those are changing on a daily basis.

Using swear words is “cursing”, despite a lack of intent to harm, normally. Do you see the pattern here? We’re back to where we started.

What’s a poor writer to do?

Words fascinate me. They always have. I love their sound, their evolution (or devolution), their derivation, the way they evoke pictures in your mind. I love that there are umpteen ways to say something, depending on your mood and the opinion you want your reader or listener to have.

But words are just sounds. In most cases, sounds unrelated to the object or action they represent. Pick a word at random, any word. Maybe “little”. Say it over and over. After a while it becomes nonsensical. You are hearing it as pure sound, devoid of meaning. Now try it with one of those Anglo-Saxon words you aren’t supposed to use. Do you still feel the same way about it?

I can understand religious people objecting to frivolous use of the name of their deity. But please, spare me from the little minds that think the language of our forefathers is somehow dirty and that lump it in with religious disrespect. The hell with that bullshit!

4-letter words, cursing, profanity, swearing, word meanings, writing

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