Swearing and expletives…

Recently someone asked me about this subject. 

It was to do with the definition of the exclamatory word, Crikey!  Which is actually, for those of you who don’t know, a synonym for Christ.  And came into being as a polite way to express the same sentiment as “Christ!”, but without shocking the ladies. 

I kid you not. 

And English is full of such twisted permutations of holy concepts–words like bally, dashed, deuced, blimey, and Gosh!  Most of which evolved or came into prominent use in the late 18th and early 19th centuries because…because…

Well, let me take you back a few years. 

With the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660, everybody was more or less fed up with being all pious and righteous and dead-boring.  So they re-embraced the sins of swearing and fornication, gambling, dancing about the Maypole, drama, drunkenness and Christmas with a whole-hearted devotion which must have made old Noll Cromwell spin in the wind.

However, as the new 18th century wore on, this essentially bawdy society began to change, most especially after about 1750. 

There are many reasons for this:  The excesses depicted by Hogarth in his series, The Rake’s Progress or his illustrations of Gin Alley, for example, show a less than pleasant side to the drunkenness which had become a national disgrace. 

The rise of syphilis, which was a fatal disease at that time, made all but those from the upper classes who could afford to keep a mistress privately think twice about fornication.  The rise of a wealthy industrial class–these are men who’ve worked for their money and they’re not so keen to squander it.  And the rise of Methodism, challenging the laissez-faire attitude of the Anglican hierarchy.  All of these influences flow together toward a greater sense of morality, as we know it.

Then too, they got the idea that men should be civilised through their encounters with the fairer sex.  That women were here to bring out the male’s finer qualities, hence the social dancing, the taking of tea, the emphasis on refinement…and all of these things together start to make the overt religious blasphemy which was the preferred type of expletive (as opposed to the sexual references we prefer today)…well, not quite the thing. 

So instead of saying bloody (deriving from ‘by our Lady’) in the company of a lady or at an evening do where ladies are present, you substitute the word bally.  For damned, you substitute dashed.  For devilish you substitute deuced.  For God blind me! you say blimey.  And for God or God’s teeth, you say Gosh!

Equally, the ability to modulate one’s language in order to suit one’s present company became something of a gentleman’s accomplishment.  So, one of the points Jane Austen is making about the difference between John Thorpe and Henry Tilney is that Tilney is a gentleman because he doesn’t swear in front of a lady.  It’s not that he can’t; it’s that he doesn’t.  (However, when out with the lads, it’s business as usual.)

And this becomes even more the case as the 19th century wears on and Victoria’s mouth tightens into more and more of a shrivelled prune. 

Of course, I still prefer ‘Struth (God’s truth) to all of them…

13 comments on “Swearing and expletives…

  1. authorsanon says:

    I like the old pagan ones, ‘By Jove/Jupiter’,I think ‘By Apollo’ is occasionally one of Lord Wimsey’s . ..and in Italian you might just occasionally still hear someone say ‘per Bacco!’ (by Bacchus) although not so much recently, sadly.I’m thinking of making up some of my own, in fact . . .by Paris’s Apple ! Juno’s Peacock! Actaeon’s Dogs! Apollo-s kidneys!!!!. . .hmmm, this could be fun. . .(bustles off,lorgnette steaming)

    • M M Bennetts says:

      I quite like per Bacco. And I fancy that might offend people less than what I normally say…hmn.

      • Well, I can assure you I’ve heard and seen “per Bacco” used here in Italy even now – at least where I am. Of course, it’s used to mean “Wow” or “What a shame” or “What a pity” – in the same way “Peccato” is used.

        A couple of years ago, around Christmas time in Lucca, I saw a sign for a shop stating it was “PerBacco, Chiude per Ferie.” I had to ask Alle what it meant, back then. I took a picture of it because it made me smile.

        It’s a great word, at any rate.

  2. The whole swearing thing compromises accuracy.
    I gather that 19th century soldiery used the ‘F’ word A LOT, but I don’t like it. Okay – very occasionally the odd expletive slips out, but I never use it in mixed company. So my characters don’t, either. Just imagine a stress situation – the whole dialogue would be peppered with ‘F’ words, a bit like Beverly Hills Cop. And for me that spoiled the film, because there was no need for it.
    So – taste or accuracy? I vote taste, on this occasion.
    If you saw the way I usually dress, you’d find that hard to believe.

  3. authorsanon says:

    I think ‘dash it’ is very convincing in period writing, if not over used; it does make me think immediately of the Twenties though, probably because of people like P.G.Wodehouse etc, so in that sense, it tends I think to be used more in comic/light fiction.
    Dammit! was the other ‘permitted’ print version I think, although again, a little after 1900 I think.
    Oh,oh, and sir, sir,please sir, please, I’ve got one, I’ve got one : Odd’s boddikins ! (Yes, all right, so already out of use by Regency times, but great fun even so!)
    But what about : ‘S blood! (again, from God’s Blood)There’s a good one. ‘Specially if pronounced ‘twixt gritted teeth . . .

    • M M Bennetts says:

      You’ll laugh. The reason I tend not to use ‘Sblood is the way it looks in print. ‘Struth looks fine to me; ‘slife is fine too. But ‘sblood just looks wrong. And I cannot convince my eye that it looks all right.

      But then too, I’ve become addicted to Captain Grose’s Vulgar Tongue–3/4 of which has surely fallen out of usage. So I happily pepper in the more obscure (to us) expletives, because to the modern reader they are less offensive. But they also show the ingenuity of the English speakers of the period–a thing which I feel we’ve lost in confining our intensifying words to those of a sexually graphic nature.

      Another great source is Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary. We can forget when writing historical fiction that the great age of prudery or hypocrisy, if you prefer,(the Victorian age) had not yet happened in early 19th century Britain, and so they didn’t regard many of the words in quite the same light as we do now. Grose is another source for this–the words he considers truly offensive rarely are the same as those we consider offensive. Odd isn’t it?

  4. authorsanon says:

    Heehee.Room in my bustle for a quiet chuckle. ‘Sblood
    looks fine to me.
    Agree about losing the art of expleting; and certainly Regency is inventive and rich in its vocabulary, there is a huge difference (to my mind) between 1770 and 1880 vernacular. PLenty to choose from at all levels . . .

    I am intrigued by Grose’s entry at NONSENSE. Melting butter in a wig.
    Images immediately come to mind . . .by what series of weird and wonderful events could such a scene be acted out, whereby butter would be melted in a wig … like it.

  5. junebugger says:

    Fascinating! I always wanted to broaden my knowledge of swear words. I always end up reusing BLOODY-this and DAMN-that. Gets a bit redundant you know

  6. tessa harris says:

    Does anyone know what suitable expletive a gentleman Colonist in the 1780s would use on discovering the death of an acquaintance?

    • M M Bennetts says:

      There are lots of possibilities. The most obvious, though, often sound very ‘stagey’ to us today though, and so we have to be more subtle. ‘Struth; ‘Sdeath; ‘Sblood; ‘Swounds. All of these would work. I’d avoid the more likely Gadzooks! or Stap me vitals, though. Just sayin’.

      Or go have a listen to Master and Commander, the film, and see what you can pick up there–O’Brian was a stickler for accuracy, but there, you also have the benefit of hearing how they sound to the modern audience.


  7. I’ve just come across your blog and must say it’s a delightful wealth of information and interesting reviews. I look forward to staying current with your posts. Wonderfully done M.M.!

    • M M Bennetts says:

      MK–Glad to have you…delighted that you’ve found something to amuse and inform. Absolutely to have you here. Best–MM

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