Mind your language – A (very) short history of swearing!

Nicola wenchmark Nicola here. Those readers who do not like profanity may wish to look away now, as this blog post carries an 18 certificate! Today I am writing a little about the history of swearing. I’m sure you can imagine the difficulty I had in trying to work out how to illustrate this blog with pictures.

Swearing, profanity and vulgar slang is a complicated subject. It’s one of those topics that can divide the British and the Americans, with certain words meaning quite different things depending on which side of the Atlantic you are on. Mention a fanny pack to a Brit or an Australian, for example, and you will get a blank look at best and possibly a far more extreme reaction. As the online dictionary says when defining the word fanny: “Serious misunderstandings may arise…”

 Taking the name of the lord in vain

 If we go back to the Tudor and Stuart periods we find that swearing was mainly a religious issue. Just as taking an oath was to call upon God to guarantee the truth of a statement (so help me God), profane swearing took God’s name in vain. Then as now, some individuals tried to shock by transgressing against the accepted standards of the age. It was also a way to show one’s worldliness and social standing – showing off, in fact. The dissolute libertines of the Restoration court were very free with their profanities, using oaths such as “damn me”, “God’s wounds” or “By Our Lady” in an attempt to get a horrified reaction from the more god-fearing members of society.

Swearing was equally as common amongst the lower social classes and wherever The libertine men in particular were gathered, for example in the army or at labour. At male-dominated social events it was likely that “several volleys of execrable oaths,” to quote one disapproving gentleman, would resound from all sides. Moralists saw the rise of religious swearing as a sign of the decline in society. Protestants were keen to stamp out the Catholic oaths. Between 1603 and 1820 in England, laws were passed criminalising swearing with the punishment being a fine or some time in the stocks. Slowly, however, attitudes changed towards the religious profane oath so that words such as damn and even bloody, deriving of course from “by our lady”, came to be seen as less offensive than some other forms of swearing. Today in England damn is generally considered a very mild swear word indeed.

Meanwhile back in the Tudor and Stuart period, we have Shakespeare, master of the oath. He tended to make up his own insults rather than draw on the religious profane. Some examples from his plays: "Thou beslubbering, swag-bellied maggot pie." "Thou mewling, sheep-biting hugger mugger." "Thou yeasty, reeling, ripe bum-bailey." A bum-bailey was actually a bailiff or sheriff’s deputy in Shakespeare’s time but some scholars suggest he was giving the phrase other, more sexual, connotations as well.

Vile Bodies and their functions

Which brings us to swearing that is sexual or scatological in nature, and to the Anglo Saxons, who frequently get the blame for words which later came to be used in swearing. In fact many of these taboo words came into the English language from other sources. The origin of the f-word, for example, is disputed with some scholars suggesting that it derives from the old German ficken, to strike or penetrate, which in turn was related to the Latin for to prick. The verb futuere in Latin had the slang meaning of to copulate. A record of 1278 refers to a man named John LeFucker – one hopes this was not an instance of someone being named after their occupation – and the f word was in common usage in England by the 16th century. However it was not used in the vulgar sense until the 18th century.

Sard Swear words can fall from popularity as well as attain it. Back in the Middle Ages the word “sard” meant the same as the f-word but these days you never hear anyone muttering “sarding hell” when something goes wrong. Some words change usage or fade altogether. Today sard is a gemstone (pictured)!

The c-word is the last taboo in British English and again is derived from various Magpie Lane words in Old Norse, High German and Latin. The word appears to have entered the English language in the 13th century and both Oxford and London had districts called “Gropecunte Lane” in explicit recognition of the prostitutes who plied their trade there. The Oxford name was later changed to Magpie Lane, (in the picture of the right) and the London one to Threadneedle Street. It is now the home of the Bank of England…

Old berkshire hunt Interestingly the English insult “berk” also derives from the c-word, being Cockney rhyming slang for the “Old Berkshire Hunt.” This word was very popular in the 1970s and 80s but again has almost fallen out of usage now and I suspect many people who used it would have been appalled to have discovered its derivation.

The word sh1t is a true Anglo Saxon word. It appears in literature in the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales by Chaucer, but at this stage of its usage it was simply a word not a swear word. By the 18th century it was used in the vulgar sense, notably in Jonathan Swift’s The Lady’s Dressing Room, which contains the immortal lines:

“Thus finishing his grand survey,
Disgusted Strephon stole away
Repeating in his amorous fits,
Oh! Celia, Celia, Celia…” (I’ll leave you to complete the rhyme!)

Finally I have to say a few words about the word “pish” as they call it in Scotland since it has such an Mannekin Pis interesting history. It’s origins are pissare (Latin) and pisser (French) and it has long been used as a vulgar word. In the 17th century a man who was considered full of himself would be called “p*ss-proud.” The new canting dictionary of 1725 sums it up in a derivation of ostentatious and vainglorious:

“One that boasts without reason or pisses more than he drinks.”

The illustration is the famous Belgian statue the Mannekin Pis in Brussels.

I could go on – there are many more swear words with interesting historical derivations and usage. But I’ll end with the news that the BBC is introducing swear words into its latest adaptation of Wuthering Heights, in order to give the book “a more contemporary feel.” This prompted one national UK newspaper to speculate on what it would be like if swearing was introduced into other classics such as Dickens Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the time when everything was totally, like, cr*p.”

Where do you stand on swearing in books? Do you think that the judicious use of profanity reflects society and can add something to the language or do you think we can do without it altogether? Would you like to invent your own profanities, like Shakespeare? Is there too much swearing around these days or is it all part of a rich cultural heritage?