Man, do I love swearing. The whole idea that four little sounds all strung together in a row suddenly means something terrible--well it's like a Reuben sandwich in reverse: all that normal stuff combines to make something way worse than the sum of its parts. (Whereas, you know, in a Reuben they take a bunch of gross stuff and make a really awesome sandwich. I guess metaphors are substantially less effective if you have to explain them like this.)
Swearing in English is pretty neat. I'm so not the first person to even go here, but I personally like the versatility (and utility!) of fuck. Only really really dull words like get, or go even approach the usefulness of fuck. For the last 500 years, fuck and its variants have been available to describe intercourse, to yell loudly when dropping something on one's foot, and to serve as an intensifier, the linguistic equivalent of MSG.
Along the same lines as a reverse Reuben sandwich are whole phrases that, when put together, suddenly take on all sorts of new meaning. In parts of China, while it's perfectly acceptable to talk about turtles, calling someone a turtle is the worst possible epithet. Apparently the South African Xoxa tribe's equivalent of fucktard translates to "your mother's ears." In Italy, my favorite mild oath was porca vaca or "pig cow." (When highly incensed, porca puttana, or "pig whore" usually did the trick.) Other times, English words used in Australia, England, and the US can have "swear meanings" that others aren't aware of. In his book on language (pictured left), Bill Bryson relates an incident at which, after finishing a polite dinner with a British family, he stands up, places a hand over his stomach, and says, "boy, I'm stuffed," only to discover by his hosts' shocked silence that in England, the only way people are ever stuffed is with cocks. Bet he never made that mistake again.
So the Big 3 in English are arguably fuck, shit, and cunt, and it is actually a little thrilling and exciting to be stringing them all together in this fashion, but it is interesting to note that, insofar as talking about evacuating one's bowels was concerned, shit really was no big deal until about the 1820s. Just before that time, something along the lines of zooterkins was considered much too risque for mixed company.
But I think even better than all these are regionalisms. Out here in Mormon country, you hear "Oh my heck" a lot. Back home, lots of epithets get all mangled together, like goddamn, goddammit, and my personal favorite, sonsabitches. I have seriously walked around the house for days on end muttering sonsabitches to myself just to hear how funny it sounds. I think cockamamie is pretty good, too, even if it doesn't really qualify as a regionalism, unless you consider England a long time ago a region.
Readers: What are your favorite swear words? What do you most giggle at to see in print or hear said out loud? Have you ever been in a misunderstanding involving someone's not realizing the sweariness of a word?