Oh sh…enanigans: the history of swearing

This blog is dedicated to profanity enthusiast Danielle van Emden.

Before I start this I have no idea how swear friendly WordPress is so I’ll be ‘*’ the more offensive words used today. Now onto swearing; possibly my favourite hobby, I’ve been swearing since I was an infant-true fact ask my mother-and still do in my day to day life…perhaps a little too often. Not a day goes by when I don’t repeatedly drop the f-bomb, various other expletetives and worst of all *gasp* the c-word, many people seem to think swearing shows a distinct lack of class, that if you’re angry and you’re too stupid to express yourself you swear. Now that is total bullsh*t (as I note I resent censoring this) I think swearing a liberating art form, they’re just words that we’re reclaiming, surely letting your anger of in a loud shout of “Oh sh*t!” is far better than say punching someone? Yes swearing can be abusive if in a certain context but surely that depends on the person and the situation they’re in, for example I’d never call a person in front of me a tw*t but I’m happy to scream that at a footballer on television. I feel the need to also add that some of the supposedly classiest people ever were famous sailor mouths, I direct you to the beautiful Grace Kelly as a prime example.

Grace Kelly: sailor mouth
Grace Kelly: sailor mouth

After that little defence of swearing I’m going to move on to the history of swearing and how this can affect a writer’s work. As somebody who spent an inordinate amount of time reading and translating medieval and Renaissance literature I’m overjoyed to tell you that swearing as been in English culture since…well since the concept of English language existed.One of the oldest profanities is what we’d now call sh*t, sh*t is over 1,000 years old and originated from the Norse word of ‘skita’ before becoming the Anglo Saxon variation ‘scitte’ and then the Middle English ‘scittan’ which was primarily used as a term for diarrhoea in cattle. So sh*t has been knocking around for fair while and shows no signs of going away anytime soon!

Now my favourite word f*ck supposedly orginates from Latin terminology and unlike sh*t has always implied the same thing: doing the dirty. There is a vast mythology behind the word f*ck-there is a sentence I never thought I’d type-some of them true some of them made up to make schoolkids giggle. An amazing fact about my favourite word is that it is supposedly an acronym for ‘Fornication Under Consent of King’ which basically means the king has given you permission to do the dirty with a lover, or as an excuse for his own ‘indescretions’. However I’d advise anyone to take this little myth as nothing more than a myth as sadly I’m (and most historians) are 99.9% positive F.U.C.K is a load of baloney. The first incident of the work ‘f*ck’ being used as a word to describe intercourse is supposedly thought to be used with to a randy monk; again nobody is really 100% sure of this. It is likely that forms of f*ck such as fukke, fuk and fucke where parts of place names and surnames WAY before the randy monk of the 1500s so I’ll leave that to you scholars to ponder!

Arse, which I don’t feel the need to censor, is another word that we see used in Middle English, arse and arsehole coming into popularity in the middle of the 11th century mainly to describe the back end of an animal, it wasn’t used to descibe anyother ‘back end’ till the 1500s. Like many of the bodily words we see as so offensive now were just terms for bodily functions or even slightly naughty words for certain things-step forward Chaucer! Chaucer is responsible for one of the earliest recorded uses of anything resembling the modern c-word or ‘queynte’. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is an excercise in profanity and bawdy exploits, Chaucer placing his own disclaimer in the prologue distancing himself from the scandalous text. Some of the ‘low’ language is there because of certain characters choose to express themselves, I’m looking at you Wife of Bath/Miller’s Tale! These characters are not the high minded, romanticised noble figures of Chaucer’s contemporaries, they are debauched, farting, fornicating and probably more relatable folk. There are references to adulterers, cougars, farting, bodily functions, very private parts and general smut; it’s like on big Carry On film! Shakespeare too used a whole bunch of swear words but, unlike Chaucer his appear to have fallen off the radar a little. For example, the villain Iago in the tragedy Othello, uses phrases such as ‘zounds’ repeatedly but, unlike Chaucer who throws rude words about willy-nilly (ooh matron) Shakespeare uses profanity to illustrate the badness of a character, swearing has taken on a different form by the 1600s. Words such as arse and sh*t now are more than bodily functions and are less likely to be causually tossed about in literature, swearing is officially for cads and peasants.

Canterbury Tales, the rudest book in town
Canterbury Tales, the rudest book in town

As why and how we swear has changed so dramatically over the last few centuries writing about characters who swear a fair amount can be difficult.  Henry II is infamous for his temper and by just how often he swore. There are several accounts of the hot-tempered king reducing the most seasoned of diplomats to tears just through his bad language. Of course Henry wouldn’t have been wandering about town dropping the f-bomb as it wasn’t that rude, no, he’d have been more likely to say something along the lines of ‘by God’s nails’ as references to religious imagery were considered far worse than just comparing somebody to cow waste. This is where taking the ‘Lord’s name in vain’ comes into practice, the tradition of biblical rules about when it’s appropriate to mention the name of God/Christ is rather overwhelming and it first came into public knowledge in the Old Testament, through the medium of the ten commandments; ‘thou shalt not take the Lord’s name in vain etc. Incorporating God’s body parts into a profanity was basically the polar opposite of the Catholic practice of giving eucharist in which Christ’s body is conjoured up through the medium of bread and wine. To use religious terminology when swearing was considered to be akin to ripping the skin off Jesus and tearing his Holy Spirit from the bible…yeah I’m not 100% sure what that means either. Religious swearing was considered SO base that many believed it led to the plague, boils, cancer and many other kinds of horrible afflictions.

When writing about Henry II, I’ve made sure to incorporate as much of what is known about him as I can, including his potty mouth. However I can’t and won’t use phrases such as ‘God’s teeth’ because I think, for a modern reader they just don’t work. Most of us won’t have Christian anxieties about ‘taking the Lord’s name in vain’ so the depth of the insult seems…well it seems a little tame. For example Henry saying:

“By God’s teeth Eleanor this betrayal is a step too far!”

sounds a bit gimmicky, instead of focusing on the fact he’s really angry with his wife I’m focusing on the ye olde insult surely;

“For f*ck’s sake Eleanor this betrayal is a step too far!” is better. Note this is an EXAMPLE and not actual dialogue from my own book.

this modern/medieval slang has been used so often by shows Monty Python and Blackadder that they are parodies of themselves. It’s hard to take a peace of prose that frequently uses Christian phrases seriously as we don’t have the same emotional connections. I’m not implying that Henry wanders around my prose spouting oneliners such as ‘f*ck me that mead is strong!’ but. as the rest of the dialogue is relatively modern I don’t see why the swearing shouldn’t be too. A few people I know have been a little odd about swearing in historical fiction, a certain friend saying she looked down on authors who happen to use modern swear words in their novels. I disagree wholeheartedly as some of my favourite, and very accomplished novelists used modern profanities in their books. For example both Ken Follet and Madeline Miller use ‘f*ck/f*cking’ in their amazing novels Pillars of the Earth and Song of Achilles, the swearing takes nothing away from the prose it adds an emotional intensity that the reader can identify with. After all do we really know what swear word Ajax would have used? Also let it be known that the goddess known as Hilary Mantel drops a few modern swears in Wolf Hall so really if it’s good enough for Hilary it’s good enough for us peasants.

So swearing…is it really so bad? I’m not saying historical texts have to be ultra modern using terms such as ‘Oh my god LIKE WHAT?’ or ‘I know right???’ but I think we can all agree swearing is a-ok in small (literary) doses.

Iconic literary curser
Iconic literary curser

Over and out

thank FUCK that’s over- fight censorship kids!

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