Episode 129: Chaucer’s Vulgar Tongue [EXPLICIT LANGUAGE]

Geoffrey Chaucer was one of the few poets of the Middle Ages to explore the vulgar side of English and the connection between the common people and their language. The Miller’s Tale exemplifies this style. In this episode, we explore the history of swearing and obscenities, and we examine Chaucer’s use of bawdy language in the Miller’s Tale.


36 thoughts on “Episode 129: Chaucer’s Vulgar Tongue [EXPLICIT LANGUAGE]

  1. Strange that “piss” was imported from French while the other main 4-letter words are Anglo-Saxon. I wonder what the English used before that import. Etymonline believes “take a leak” is a modern usage, but also gives a Shakespeare quote with this meaning: “Why, you will allow vs ne’re a Iourden [i.e. a chamberpot], and then we leake in your Chimney.” [“I Hen. IV,” II.i.22]. It names Middle Dutch (lechen), Old Norse (leka) and Old English (leccan) antecedents.

    • I’m not sure what the Old English word was for ‘urinate.’ It’s possible that the word was never used in any of the surviving Old English literature. I do know that the Old English word for urine was “micge,” so it was probably a variation of that word.

      • Your probably on the track with “micge,” which looks an awful lot like “micturate.” (Which I always thought was descended from Latin.)

        • Interestingly, “micturate” is indeed a Latin root, but “micge” comes from a Germanic root that also means to urinate. In other words, they’re cognates that both ultimately descend from the PIE *h₃meyǵʰ-. which means to urinate.

  2. Another word that derives from PIE skey (“to cut, split”) is ski, from Old Norse skíð, via Norwegian. In Norwegian “sk” is pronounced as “sh”. When it was borrowed into English it was pronounced letter for letter, rather than as still pronounced in Norway and, I believe, the rest of Scandinavia. Italians and some Germans also pronounce it with “sh”.

    • The Latin word ‘science’ and the Greek word ‘schism’ are also cognate, but due to time considerations, I only focused on the Old English cognates in the episode.

  3. Some European languages did not transition from profanity to swearing to the extent described. A person from France coming to Quebec might be surprised to hear that osti, tabarnak, and câlice (host, tabernacle, chalice) are all considered very rude, among many others. In Norwegian the worst thing you can say is “faen” (devil).

  4. The content of this episode makes me want to say (borrowing from a recent and popular American sitcom), “This podcast is forking great!”

    Whenever I listen to a new episode, I feel like I am in The Good Place :).

  5. Great Jon on this podcast, Kevin. I always thought cunt was from the Latin cunnas, as in cunnilingus. Couldn’t this be the case? Thanks.

    • As I noted in the episode, most modern linguists don’t think the two are related, despite the obvious similarities. Apparently, the historical sound changes can’t account for the ‘t’ in the Germanic version of the word. Of course, that doesn’t rule out a connection, it just means that the established linguistic rules can’t be used to verify the connection.

  6. Hi Kevin, This must have been a difficult episode to put together but it turned out great again.

    Sometimes I hear people use the word Shite instead of shit; it seems a little less impolite. Do you know when this came into use and whether it is just a variation on the word?

    • The OED cites the first use of ‘shite’ in 1733. Here’s what it says about the etymology:

      “Variant of ‘shit’ (n.), probably resulting from the influence of forms of ‘shit’ (v.) with a long vowel, although there could also have been an (unattested) inherited form in Old English with a long vowel (deriving from the e-grade of the same Germanic base)…”

  7. There are many other taboo words too. Words associated with bodily functions for instance. Take toilet, loo and bog for three instances of other words for the same thing. Did this also apply to the middle ages. Guarderobe means Wardrobe and was one of the functions of some medieval toilets; the acrid ammonia from the dung being good against moths and lice I suppose.

    Also, when did the word Taboo enter the English language?

    • As I noted in the episode, words associated with body parts and bodily functions became more taboo and obscene during the modern era from say the 1600s through the 1800s. They appear to have been the most taboo in the 1700s and 1800s when they were rarely attested and even excluded from dictionaries. They began to reappear in literature and dictionaries in the 1900s.

      The word “taboo” is actually a Tongan word from the South Pacific which was borrowed in the late 1700s. It first appeared in the journal of Captain Cook. Here what the OED says about it:

      “The Tongan form was that first met with by Captain Cook, in 1777, from the narrative of whose voyages the custom with its name became known in England. In French spelt ‘tabou.’ The accentuation ‘taˈboo,’ and the use of the word as noun and verb, are English; in all the Melanesian and related languages the word is stressed on the first syllable, and is used only as adjective, the noun and verb being expressed by derivative words or phrases.”

      • Speaking of Tabou, it’s interesting to see the subtle variations between the various Polynesian islands. I believe it’s “tapu” in Maori.

        Being an avid canoeist, and someone who’s been to a few areas in the South Pacific, I noted this seeing the words for canoe, depending on your location, as ama, aka, waka, vaka, and va’a.

        A colleague and I just discovered we share a love for this podcast, and both agreed that it’s so interesting to learn the cognates, roots, evolutions, etc!

  8. Minor nitpick/correction on your statement that acronyms are a modern language phenomenon:

    The Romans *loved* acronyms! SPQE and INRI are famous and known probably even to people who know no Latin. But just deciphering your average inscription will show acronyms (not merely abbreviations) becomes a frustrating exercise not just because of the Latin.

    • Fair enough. Of course, I was primarily speaking about English, and acronyms are a relatively recent development within English.

  9. What a wonderful episode. To me Kevin has always seemed to have a nearly unapproachable level of politeness and wholesomeness. It’s nice to finally hear him saying Grope Cunt Lane and FuckedByTheNavel like a regular guy. 🙂

  10. I love your podcast! I got a good laugh out of this episode because my name is Allison and my husband’s name is Nickolas. Although hopefully we’re slightly less horrible than the characters in the tale, tee-hee!

  11. Could be that the yiddish word “Shikse” to refer to non-modest/non jewish girl also derived from the same root word like shit?

    • Even though a lot of Yiddish words have Germanic origins, it appears that “shiksa” is derived from a Hebrew word unrelated to the PIE root word of “shit”.

    • It is indeed in Oxford. But I always understood that it is actually Logic Lane, just off Merton Street.

      Incidentally, the well-known Turf Tavern is situated just off Hollywell in St Helen’s Passage. St Helen’s Passage is almost adjacent to Friar’s Entry — which, of course, has provided much entertainment over the years!

  12. On the subject of words referring to people seen as lower class, which have become insulting, in the UK at least, the word peasant is now seen as incredibly insulting.

  13. I don’t know if you’re aware, but the French word for Dandelion is “Pissenlit” — literally, “Piss-in-in-thebed”.

    Interestingly, many years ago my parents’ cleaning lady, a woman from the next door village in Buckinghamshire, mentioned that when she was young many of the older country folk referred to Dandelions as “Piss in the beds”. So it appears to be a straight lift from the old French — but turned into something more comprehensible.

    • “Dandelion” is also a French word: “dent de lion” (lit “tooth of lion) because of the shape of its leaves while “pissenlit” (or “pisse au lit”, same meaning) is because of its diuretic properties, both words sounding better -though it’s subjective- than “taraxacum officinalis”. And would the Rolling Stones have recorded a song with such a title instead of “Dandelion in the 60’s?!

  14. Dandelion was called “Pee-in-the-bed” here in Australia in the 60s too Simon.
    We children were told if we picked the pretty yellow flowers we’d pee the bed. As I had a dreadful problem with peeing the bed as a child I was terrified of them.
    We also had the saying, “Step on a crack, you’ll break your mother’s back” and other such sayings.

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