A (very) short history of swearing Part 1

Geoffrey Chaucer

Geoffrey Chaucer (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Giving a damn about not offending people is important in all walks of life and for some of us an expletive too far can have serious consequences.  My wife and I were having one of our great multi-subject wide ranging chats and this led us to the topic of so-called ‘lady-like’ behaviour which in turn led us on to swearing.  Now I could be (and have been) called many things, but prude is not one of them.  That said, there are times and places and the seemingly widespread nature of swearing seems to transcend both.

Of course words that shock, upset or otherwise discomode have changed massively over the centuries.  Medieval people (1066-1485) weren’t using the curses and perjoratives one might have expected.  For instance, f**k doesn’t seem to have been in much use in England before 1200, despite its Germanic/Anglo Saxon origin as a erm, metaphor for ploughing.  Chaucer‘s Canterbury Tales (the Miller’s, Reeve’s and Wife of Bath‘s Tales in particular) have some extremely lewd parts (coughs), but the f-word doesn’t get a look-in.  Instead, it seems that questioning one’s character and parentage was the sure-fire way of starting trouble.  ‘Churl’ or ‘dog’ was fighting talk, as was addressing anyone of means by an inferior social rank.

By the time we hit the sixteenth/seventeenth century we have Shakespeare’s works offering us numerous examples of late Tudor and Elizabethan profanity – in fact more examples than you could shake several big sticks at.  It’s worth remembering that before he made his pile, Shakespeare was a jobbing playwright.  He had to give the punters what they wanted, ‘cos that but bums on seats, which in turn made him money.  Hence, the language is pretty earthy and often downright coarse:

‘Nought to do with Mistress Shore? I tell thee fellow, he that hath nought to do with her were best to do it secretly, alone’. (Richard III)

Nought or nothing was a well known euphemism for sexual activity, so Shakespeare’s intentions with a play entitled ‘Much Ado About Nothing‘ probably don’t require deep thought.

In Part 2:  From the eighteenth century to the present day.


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