Thursday, June 2, 2022

Language Of Confusion: Cussed Out

This week, something easy: words that have cuss in them.
Percussion showed up in the early fifteenth century, followed by percuss in the sixteenth century, while percussionist didn’t show up until 1921. Initially, percussion only meant a blow or a contusion, with it not meaning strike an instrument until 1776. It comes from the classical Latin percussionem, which meant percussion but also a beat of time, which probably isn’t why it was used for music but does kind of fit. It’s from the verb percutere, to beat, a mix of per, meaning through (and from the Proto Indo European per-) and quatere, to shake. And quatere somehow happens to be the origin of quash.
Yes, quash. But not the one used in legalese. Um, kind of. See, there used to be two different quashes, one that meant void or nullify, and another meaning to beat or crush, and they were so similar sounding that Middle English combined them into one word. The nullify quash showed up in the mid thirteenth century from the Old French quasser/casser, from the Medieval Latin quassare and Late Latin cassare, from the Latin cassus, empty, and Proto Indo European kes-, to cut. The other quash showed up in the early fourteenth century from the Old French quasser/casser, and yes, they’re spelled the same, but different definitions. It comes from the classical Latin quassare, to shake violently, and that’s from quatere, which is from the Proto Indo European kwet-, to shake. So yeah, different words. The beat/crush quash lives on more in the word squash, which showed up at the same time as quash, from the Old French esquasser/escasser, a mix of the prefix ex-, out, and quash, obviously. To squash is to beat something out!
Back to percussion, we’re also going to look at repercussion, which is pretty much the same word, but with a re- on it that makes a world of difference. It showed up in the early fifteenth century from the Old French repercussion and classical Latin repercussionem, to strike back. Which makes sense since re- means back and percussionem is to strike. It’s just these days the word is a lot less literal.
Finally today, concussion. It showed up in the fifteenth century, coming from the classical Latin concussionem, a shaking. The con- means with or together, and the rest is from quatere, so the word is “to shake together”. Except now it’s only used to describe a head injury. It actually makes sense!
Online Etymology Dictionary
Google Translate
University of Texas at Austin Linguistic Research Center
University of Texas at San Antonio’s page on Proto Indo European language
University of Texas at Arlington
Dictionary of Medieval Latin
Orbis Latinus


  1. So how did squash end of a vegetable family? (Which I don't like, so I'm okay with squashing them.)

  2. I have some experience with concussion. Hopefully never again.

  3. What about the sport, squash? Where did that come from?

  4. I have a feeling you were cussing something out when you came up with this week's topic.

  5. Historical word searches are so much fun! The one that always trips me up is not being able to use silhouette before the 19th century.


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