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Evolution of Profanity – How Swear Words Came to be

The evolution of written profanity

The evolution of written profanity began roughly in the sixteenth century, and continues to change with each generation that it sees. Profanity is recognized in many Shakespearean works, and has continually evolved into the profane language used today. Some cuss words have somehow maintained their original meanings throughout hundreds of years, while many others have completely changed meaning or simply fallen out of use.

William Shakespeare, though it is not widely taught, was not a
very clean writer. In fact, he was somewhat of a potty mouth. His
works encompassed a lot of things that some people wish he had not.
“That includes a fair helping of sex, violence, crime, horror,
politics, religion, anti-authoritarianism, anti-semitism, racism,
xenophobia, sexism, jealousy, profanity, satire, and controversy of
all kinds” (Macrone 6). In his time, religious and moral curses were
more offensive than biological curses. Most all original (before
being censored) Shakespearean works contain very offensive profanity,
mostly religious, which is probably one of many reasons that his works
were and are so popular. “Shakespeare pushed a lot of buttons in his
day- which is one reason he was so phenomenally popular. Despite what
they tell you, people like having their buttons pushed” (Macrone 6).
Because his works contained so many of these profane words or phrases,
they were censored to protect the innocent minds of the teenagers who
are required to read them, and also because they were blasphemous and
offensive. Almost all of the profanity was removed, and that that was
not had just reason for being there. Some of the Bard’s censored oaths
are;

“God’s blessing on your beard”
Love’s Labors Lost, II.i.203

This was a very rude curse because a man’s facial hair
was a point of pride for him. and “to play with someone’s
beard” was to insult him.

“God’s body”
1 Henry IV,II.i.26

Swearing by Christ’s body, (or any part thereof,) was off
limits in civil discourse.

“God’s Bod(y)kins, man”
Hamlet, II.ii.529

The word bod(y)kin means “little body” or “dear body,” but
adding the cute little suffix does not make this curse any
more acceptable.

“By God’s [blest] mother!”
2 Henry VI, II.i;
3 Henry VI, III.ii;
Henry VIII, V.i

Swearing by the virgin was almost as rude as swearing by
her son, especially when addressing a catholic cathedral as
Gloucester did in 2 Henry VI, II.i

Perhaps the two worst of these Shakespearean swears were
“‘zounds” and “’sblood.” “‘Zounds” had twenty-three occurrences.
Ten of them were in 1 Henry IV. The rest appear in Titus (once),
Richard III (four times), Romeo and Juliet (twice), and Othello (six
times). Iago and Falstaff were the worst offenders. ‘Zounds has
evolved into somewhat of a silly and meaningless word, but was
originally horribly offensive. This oath, short for “God’s wounds,”
was extremely offensive because references to the wounds or blood of
Christ were thought especially outrageous, as they touched directly on
the crucifixion. “‘Sblood” had twelve occurrences in all. There were
eight times in 1 Henry IV (with Falstaff accounting for six), plus
once in Henry V, twice in Hamlet, and once in Othello. ‘Sblood occurs
less than ‘zounds, but is equally offensive and means basically the
same thing.

Several other words came from Great Britain, but were not
included in Shakespeare’s works. Today the expression “Gadzooks!” is
not particularly offensive to most. Of course, most don’t know what
it originally meant. Gadzooks was originally slang for “God’s hooks,”
and was equally offensive to ‘zounds and ’sblood as it also referred
to the crucifixion. An interesting note is that there is a store
called Gadzooks which everyone thinks of as a pop-culture vendor to
America’s youth. Some (but not many) of Gadzooks’ shoppers would be
very offended if they knew the true meaning of the store’s name.
Another word from this region is a Cockney expression, “Gorblimey,”
which is a word used to swear to the truth, and is a shortened form of
“God blind me.” Also, in England, words such as “bloody,” “blimey,”
“blinkin’,” beginning with the letters “BL” are taken offense to
because they, once again, refer to the blood of Christ and the
crucifixion.

The military has an interesting technique for swearing their
brains out without offending anyone. “They use the phonetic alphabet
(A= Alpha, B= Bravo, C= Charlie, etc.) as a code for their swearing”
(Interview). For instance, instead of saying “bullshit,” they would
say “bravo charlie.” Or instead of the horribly offensive blasphemous
cuss word, they could say “golf delta.”

Most people are familiar with the swear words that are still
used. These “four-letter words” aren’t necessarily four letters long,
but more or less, they get the same point across as their four
lettered friends. Such words usually include crap, ass, shit, bitch,
fuck, and damn. There are many variations on the usage and placement
of these words, but they still pack a punch. The word “crap” dates
back as early as 1846, and is usually used as a euphemism for shit,
yet many people find it equally offensive. As most cuss words do,
crap has several different variations, such as, “eat crap,”
“crap-ass,” and “crapola.” The meaning has not evolved since its
first publication, where it was defined simply as “excrement” (Lighter
508). The word “ass” had its first publication as a swear word (as
opposed to a donkey) in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1556.
“Whyyped…at the cartt es arse…for vacabondes.” This is not the
definition commonly used today, but is still a vulgar way of using the
word. This means that back of an object, whereas the more widely used
definition is “of the rump, the buttocks, rectum, and anus” (Lighter
37). The more common definition was first recorded in “Covent Garden
Drollery.” The word actually started out as Ïrs, then evolved into
arse (which is the German translation also), and finally evolved into
ass. “Shit” is, when used as an interjection, “An expression of
strong disgust or disappointment,” but is, when used as a noun,
“Anything inferior, ugly, cheap, or disgusting” (Flexner 467). Shit
can be placed with just about any word and make a cute little
expression. Some examples are, “shit head,” “shitting bricks,” and the
colorful little phrase, “shit or get off of the pot.” Bitch was first
used in 1400 in F and H, and has, quite amazingly, maintained its
original meaning for over five hundred years. It’s definition in F and
H was “a malicious , spiteful, promiscuous, or otherwise despicable
woman” (Lighter 169). It is also used today to describe “a sexually
promiscuous young woman, a male homosexual who plays the female role
in copulation, an ill tempered homosexual male, an infuriatingly large
object, or something especially disagreeable” (Lighter 169-70), among
various others. There are many other forms of the word, such as
“bitch kitty,” or “bitch session,” which is basically when a group of
people get together and whine about how terrible their lives are,
quite fun! “Fuck” is probably the most offensive swear word used. The
earliest use of it is in “Verbatim” in 1500, which says, “Non sunt in
celi/quia fuccant uuiuys of heli.” The meaning, unlike the language,
has remained the same, however. It still means “to copulate” (Lighter
831). Some popular variations of it are “fuck a duck,” “fucked by the
fickle finger of fate,” (Reinhold 79) “fucked up and far from home,”
and “fucking A.” The word “damn” itself is not extremely offensive,
but is rather used as an intensifier of other words or phrases. When
placed with God, however, it becomes a horrible, blasphemous word,
which is, to many, more offensive than fuck. This type of thinking
goes back to the sixteenth century when religious curses were far
worse than biological. G.D. goes back to 1697, when D. Defoe, in G.
Hughes Swearing 209 said, “G.D. ye, does not sit well upon a female
tongue” (Lighter 914). Swear words can be used in pairs such as
“fucking bitch,” and “fuck me in the goat’s ass” to intensify and make
the swearing humorous. They can also be used as compliments. Words
like “bitchen” have been used since 1957 when Gidget said, “It was a
bitchen day too. The sun was out…in Southern California” (Lighter
171).

Profanity has evolved from the religious curses of Old England
and the biological curses of today not only in meaning, but also in
intensity. Besides G.D. , the only curses that are offensive today are
the biological curses that make sentences, movies, and just about
anything more graphic or offensive than had the word been left out.

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User Comments
  1. potato

    On April 7, 2008 at 12:23 pm


    sup!!

  2. potato

    On April 7, 2008 at 12:25 pm


    how sad can u be to actually write all of this

  3. cream corn

    On May 27, 2008 at 12:49 pm


    Golf Delta it! Whiskey Tango Foxtrot kind of person would write this.

  4. xarmx4

    On June 29, 2008 at 8:16 pm


    this is true bad words r used everywhere i hate bad words

  5. Mr. Confidential

    On July 8, 2008 at 8:12 pm


    good for you to write this man! society needs to know the history of the potty mouth!

  6. Maryanne

    On August 10, 2008 at 6:13 am


    I enjoyed that, love swearing and love history!

  7. V-

    On August 22, 2008 at 3:57 am


    Useful for those like me who want to know a bit more about what not to say! Thanks for writing this.

  8. Lol

    On October 4, 2008 at 7:17 am


    Funny :D

  9. mgs331

    On October 14, 2008 at 5:30 pm


    WULULO

  10. Dialga

    On November 17, 2008 at 3:14 pm


    It is a sad sight when our civilization has to resort to using such offensive words to express our feelings and emotions towards one another.

  11. WeeWee

    On January 16, 2009 at 10:16 pm


    This is my blog:
    i would like to start a proposition by the strait man.
    I would like to take rainbows and middle fingers back.
    They are being unjustfully discriminated and symbolized.

    Whos with me!!!
    p.s. good job
    p.s.s. and lets take p.s. back for all the pam smiths in the world.

  12. shmike

    On June 23, 2009 at 9:11 am


    dis is stupid

  13. Matt

    On February 18, 2010 at 10:03 pm


    words are just noises

  14. Jake

    On February 22, 2010 at 2:08 am


    first off, words are words, so what’s the point of having a word if your not going to use it? does it make sense if i am eating oreos, and i have a glass of milk, NOT to drink the f***ing milk!?! cuss words are needed because they signify(i think that’s the right word but it looks wrong) a level of expression that other words just don’t give. also, this article is really helping me on my high school term paper, so if you don’t like it, why are you reading it?

  15. mb

    On February 23, 2010 at 10:50 am


    My son is in trouble for cussing on the bus. I’m thinking he is going to use this to write me a report on the history of cuss words….he likes using them he should know all about them.

  16. steve

    On April 21, 2010 at 7:55 am


    lol congrats to your son ma’m, i was always too afaid to swear on the bus myself lol.

    to mike (my second-grade bus driver): F***k you, you old worn out crap-face!

  17. CS

    On January 31, 2012 at 3:08 pm


    This article illustrates that swear words have been around a lot longer than one might think. To show that even the Immortal Bard was using them in his greatest works only underscores how integral they are in “civilization”. Rather than bemoaning the fact that someone has taken the time to intelligently research and document the history of them, we should praise the fact that there are still people alive who can effectively communicate without using them.

    The usage of swear words is little more than a crutch which showcases a persons lack of intelligence.

    Fuckin’ A.

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