The Cheat Sheet

One Million Moms and the curious history of cuss words

Jinoy Jose P | Updated on February 06, 2020 Published on February 06, 2020

Obviously and evidently, mothers hate swear words. Now, what’s the new fuss around the cuss?

Well, for starters, One Million Moms is an activist group famous for its conservative views. It hogged headlines recently thanks to a strongly-worded campaign it launched against one of the commercials of food giant Burger King. The ad was for the Impossible Whopper, a non-meat burger, and features the ‘D’ word. According to One Million Moms, the commercial uses “profanity” to advertise its burger.

Ouch! Is it what I’m thinking of now? If so, it’s more than profane. It’s bad, bad...

Hold your thoughts, silly fella. The word is — am sorry to disappoint you — “Damn”. In the ad, a few people are seen tasting the popular veggie patty and a man says, “Damn, that’s good.”

Damn! That’s it?

That’s it. A statement from One Million Moms says the language is “offensive” and it feels that when responding to the taste test, the man didn’t have to “curse”. Hence the ad is “irresponsible and tasteless”. The group feels it is extremely “destructive and damaging to impressionable children” who will be watching the burger commercial and “we all know children repeat what they hear”.


Indeed. Mind you, One Million Moms is not your run-of-the-mill action group. Created by the American Family Association (which critics call a hate group), it has a huge fan following among American parents. Just recently, again, it triggered controversy for urging the National Football League (NFL) and Fox TV to banish an upcoming Super Bowl ad from Sabra Hummus (Sabra is a US-based company that makes West Asian food). The ad features drag stars Kim Chi and Miz Cracker. To put simply, drag queens are people (mostly males) who wear attire generally attributed to the other gender.

Cool. What’s the issue here?

The action group says such (queer) dressing will be used to “push an agenda of sexual confusion instead of promoting its actual product” and “normalising this lifestyle is contrary to... God’s design for sexuality.”

OMG! Really? WTH!

Well, that’s fodder for another debate. Coming back to the cuss word controversy, the campaign has triggered spirited reactions across the globe, with many commentators and social critics calling the group’s move hypocritical and anachronistic. An article in Jstor Daily by Livia Gershon sheds some interesting light on to the history of cuss words.

I’m all ears...

Quoting linguist Allen Walker Read, Gershon says the acceptability of words varies radically by place and time. Read has pointed to some “remarkable cases of confusion” this has caused in conversations.

For instance, in the US, in the first half of the 19th century, the obsession to identify and remove cuss words reached a peak and in 1834, while compiling his now-famous dictionary, Noah Webster rejected words such as “teat,” “dung,” and “stink,” in favour of the more acceptable “breast,” “excrement,” and “ill smell.”

Holy s**t!

Ha! It seems the freedom we enjoy today in using ‘bad’ words is a product of modernity. Linguist Read — who’s popular for his studies into the words “OK” and “f**k” — says one of the most hated words in the early 19th century was “pants.”


You heard me! Apparently, several newspaper articles referred to trousers with words like “unmentionables” or “inexpressables.” Sample this 1848 account: “Mr. B. dressed himself in a new bright blue coat and a pair of large and showy unwhisperables.”

This is hilarious!

Words such as legs (for ladies) or even stomach were included in the taboo list. So, the moral of the story is the idea of a cuss word is purely based on conventions and prejudices and studies show they are so fluid that they keep changing form at every turn of history. So making a big fuss about what we deem ‘cuss’ today is downright silly and, evidently, can become fodder for great humour in the near future. Hope One Million Moms is listening!

A weekly column that helps you ask the right questions

Published on February 06, 2020
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor