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…