Book review: A Cursory History of Swearing

I stumbled upon this 1884 title in my research for another post and figured I’d be remiss if I didn’t share it here. I don’t know much about the book’s author, Julian Sharman, other than that he’d also edited a collection of poetry by Mary Queen of Scots and a collection of John Heywood’s proverbs. And I’ll admit I’m not so much reviewing this thoroughly British book as I am admiring it as a curious artifact of its time.

Almost half a century into Queen Victoria’s reign, 1884 stands out as the year:

(none of which provide any relevant context for the book, unfortunately, but surely you didn’t expect me to learn about the so-called Home Office Baby and not pass the information along). Those Victorians sure knew how to party.

A Cursory History of Swearing has long been in the public domain, and you can find it, as I did, on Project Gutenberg. At fifty thousand words, the book isn’t long, but I wouldn’t call it “cursory,” either. The prose’s verbosity is so breathtaking it verges on miraculous. That’s not to say the book doesn’t have interesting tidbits—I learned quite a bit, actually—but Sharman reaches them through tortuous longwindedness that would have bored me to impatience had I been reading the book for information rather than for meta-entertainment. To save you from wading through the text yourself, I’ve distilled it to a few representative quotes from some of the most amusing sections.

First, let’s start with Sharman’s disclaimer, which he buries thirteen pages into the book:

The misfortune that is often experienced in handling any subject lying wide of the beaten track does not necessarily arise from the inherent viciousness of the subject itself, but from the fact that a large number of people have previously arrived at painful impressions concerning it. It is therefore an obligation cast upon a writer to treat these preconceived notions with the utmost tenderness and respect. Personally one may hold the art of swearing in perfect indifference, being neither among the number of swearers oneself nor having any very strong feeling of reprobation towards its more active adherents. But despite a certain inclination that we feel to apologise for what we hold to be the silliest of vices, we are forced to recollect that to many the offence will always appear in anything but a trivial light. It is therefore obligatory upon us to abstain as far as possible from referring to expressions that are calculated to alarm.

The second chapter circuitously looks at how “oaths” and “swearing” acquired their double meanings, beginning in Ancient Greece:

Hesiod has dimly chronicled the genealogy of oaths. But it was for other generations to chronicle their posterity, to hear them derided in the amphitheatre, and to see the divinities that inspired them shattered and broken down. But there is a singular survival and continuity of the ancient practice: men still swear by Jove.

A like process of declension seems to have gone on in all countries and in the same fashion. To begin with, the origin of all swearing was the same—the one intense dread of falsehood against which as yet no laws were sufficient to guard. Fancy the mortal distress of barbarian man when he first wakes to the belief that his enemies can, by smooth speech, wrest from his hands what his prowess or his labour has acquired. No art that he is aware of can pervert the action of tongues set falsely going. Seeing how illimitable is the crop of words, he may even imagine a plague of lies that will fall thick about him like locusts or caterpillars; and then arrives the old expedient. Men fasten upon a symbol such, as it is hoped, the hardiest will revere, and syllable it out as evidence of truth.

Sharman concludes this chapter thus:

It is not the intention of this essay to follow the history of judicial oath-taking, or of the attestations that would seem to be demanded by conscience or religion. But it must be remembered that the subject of vituperative swearing is so interwoven with that of these legal and religious ordinances, that the consideration of them must be frequently forced upon us. But whilst doing so it should be no less borne in mind that we are never really losing sight of the object we have in view. We aim simply at disinterring a neglected, possibly a justly neglected, chapter in the world’s social history, and are called upon to judge both of the tree and its fruit, of the seed and the grain.

Next Sharman focuses on what he calls the “British shibboleth” of damn (and goddamn), devoting thirty-one pages to it:

Among a people who, perhaps unjustly, have been prided for the choiceness of their swearing, the favourite growth and very spoilt-child of animosity is the word of an exceedingly forcible kind. In endeavouring to chronicle the amenities of the British “damn,” we believe we are dealing with a monosyllable possessing a remarkable fund of application. The term has fairly puzzled the ingenuity of continental neighbours to comprehend. Not only has it excited their ridicule, but we are not sure that it has not even stimulated their envy. It has been said by one of the sprightliest of Frenchmen, that a foreigner might conveniently travel through England with the assistance only of this one particle of speech.

And he ventures into a bit of interesting etymology:

Although in its usage it is now considered essentially British, there is no reason to impute to it any other than an etymology decidedly French. Its similarity with the numerous derivatives of the verb damno have probably obscured the true derivation of the word. For its real parentage we must have recourse to the Latin dominus or domina which produced the Gallic dame. This again was used equally to denote a potentate of either sex, until at last we find the interjection dame! applied in the same sense as Seigneur! or our own Lord! When, therefore, we go still further, and meet with dame Dieu! occurring frequently in ancient texts we are helped at once to the source of our adopted expletive. By one of those combinations so often to be found where there is a confusion or admixture of tongues, the English soldiery rendered their dame! or dame Dieu! in the way we have seen, and a hybrid term was thus produced which has not even yet been found waning in popularity. The derivation we have here suggested is sufficient of itself to account for the amusement that was displayed by laughter-loving Frenchmen, who twitted the invader in that he was unable to pronounce the irrepressible Dieu, and was forced to anglicise it to fit it to the remainder of the oath. It will be perceived that, taking this view of the case, the British shibboleth is rather more of a shibboleth than has previously been supposed.

Sharman’s mention of odd’s bodkins in this chapter prompted me to look up the term elsewhere. Not having had a religious upbringing, I didn’t know that odd bodkins or odds bodkins was a minced oath, standing in for God’s body—and not just the name of a 1970s cartoon character or a whimsical way to refer to something strange.

Did I mention that this book is decidedly British?

To refer, for instance, to the use of the one word “zounds!” This strikes us now-a-days as anything but a very solemn or a very momentous form of adjuration. But in unreformed England—the England that still adored the Genetrix incorrupta, and had earned among the devout the title of Our Lady’s Dower, it was absolutely impossible to surpass in blasphemy the hideous import that had been imparted to the user of the word. It was in fact nothing else than a rebellious and mutinous rendering of the once sacred oath taken by the wounds of the Redeemer.

Sharman has an interesting take on how language can be inclusive or exclusive:

With outposts so widely distributed, it is the more necessary that there should be some unmistakable uniform, that whether it be in a Paris ordinary, or on the steppes of Tartary, one may easily recognise the scion of the order. Such a uniform, so at least we are constrained to understand it, has, for the most part, been supplied by a subdued and discriminate use of the materials of swearing. A Sandwich Islander appreciates this when he salutes a British crew in terms compounded of oaths and ribaldry. He is really intending to denote his sense of the distinction of the exalted visitors, when he exclaims: “Very glad see you! Damn your eyes! Me like English very much. Devilish hot, sir! Goddam!” It is to claim kindred with the brotherhood that swell surgeons vent their “blasted!” and “damnation!” as they tender to the ailments of rackety young patients. It is to bridge over the gulf between carelessness and propriety that even mild college tutors will sometimes venture upon a modest “botheration!” or “confounded!”

The chapter I found by far the most interesting was one about legislation that allowed the state to impose fines on people who cursed—a kind of swear jar writ large. Lawmakers calculated how much revenue such laws might generate:

The swearing capacity of the army is no less minutely investigated. In the case of the militia, however, the promoter is disposed to recommend either a partial immunity from the tax or else a scale of fines considerably cheapened. To put the law in full force against militiamen, at least so opines the promoter, would only be to fill the stocks with porters and the pawnshops with accoutrements. So essential is this point with him, that he makes direct appeal to his Protestant countrymen, reminding them of the satisfaction it would afford the Papists to see a most useful body of soldiery actually swear themselves out of their Swords and muskets…

In 1601 a measure was introduced into the Commons “against usual and common swearing,” but, having been carried up to the Lords, it dropped after the first reading. This would appear to have been the first attempt at legislation on the subject. On the accession of James I. the topic was again brought to the notice of the House, but the early Parliaments of this reign were too much occupied with the work thrown upon them in consequence of the Gunpowder Treason to formulate any code for the regulation of this abuse. Although no less than five separate bills, having the prevention of swearing for their object, were presented during the course of this reign, it was not until 1623 that an enactment was finally carried defining and controlling the offence. The statute of that year provided that every offender should forfeit the sum of twelve pence. In default of payment the culprit was to be placed in the stocks for three hours, or if under the age of twelve years was to be severely whipped.

The attack made by the Puritans upon performances of a dramatic nature had resulted in a kindred piece of legislation especially affecting the stage. By an Act passed in 1606 it was provided that a penalty of 10l. should be borne by every person who jestingly or profanely used the name “of God, or of Christ Jesus, or the Holy Ghost, or of the Trinity,” in any interlude, pageant or stage-play.

Anyone who violated these laws learned that the government wasn’t fucking around:

In March 1649, a quartermaster named Boutholmey was tried by council of war for uttering impious expressions. The man was found guilty and condemned to have his tongue bored with a red-hot iron, his sword broken over his head, and himself ignominiously dismissed the service. In the following year a dragoon was similarly sentenced by court-martial to be branded on the tongue…

In the ‘Gentleman’s Magazine’ for July 1751 we read that a woman convicted of uttering a profane oath and unable to defray the shilling penalty, was sentenced to ten days’ hard labour in Bridewell.

This quote from Chapter 8 proves that, if Sharman were alive today, he’d fit right in on Strong Language:

So much for swearing when in grim earnest; how are we to account for it in its transition to sport and play? Unless we are greatly mistaken, there has entered into its composition a spirit of broad humour which has, in a manner, rendered it attractive, if not positively amusing. Were we to put the whole body of bad language to a judicial trial, we should in fairness be compelled to admit the extenuating circumstance of a time-expired claim to the mock-heroic and the ludicrous. It certainly does not sparkle now, but it must have come of a witty stock, and have boasted a mirth-provoking pedigree. To have rendered itself so particularly palatable as it has done, like many other kinds of verbal folly, it can only have taken its rise in a perverted spirit of merriment.

Here he is on the dickens! and the deuce!:

A jocose turn seems also to have been given to that common contraction of the Satanic name of which Mistress Page makes use in the ‘Merry Wives’ when she exclaims, “I cannot tell what the dickens his name is!” It does not however seem that the expression can be traced earlier than Heywood’s ‘Edward the Fourth,’ of the date 1600, where we meet with the passage: “What the dickens! Is it love that makes you prate to me so fondly?” The word is, however, less of an oath than an exclamation.

Probably few persons who allow themselves the enjoyment of that rather jocular expletive, the deuce! are in the least aware of the remote antiquity of this delectable figure of speech. It is perhaps the most ancient of all the oaths and apologies for oaths that have come down to us, and which after a long and vicissitudinous transit have arrived at last, neither mutilated or dismembered. So old is it that it dates from the very formation of the language, but of so tainted a pedigree that in spite of some six hundred years of regular descent we can scarcely permit it to hold dictionary rank.

(The Heywood he mentions is Thomas Heywood, not John.) According to Sharman, deuce was how the English pronounced the Norman deus—making deuce another minced oath.

In his final chapter he tackles what was apparently the most offensive swearword of the nineteenth century:

The expletive that it now behoves us to consider is one which has never been adequately treated in a book. We cannot disguise to ourselves that there is much in its unfortunate associations to render its occurrence still exceedingly painful. Originating in a senseless freak of language, it has by dint of circumstances become so noisome and offensive, that were it not for the undue power and influence it has usurped, we should hardly be disposed to treat of it at all. But when we mention that it is the ungainly adjective “bloody” that will occupy our attention for the next few pages, we must be allowed to add that it is with the view of stripping the term of its infamous significance, and if possible of dispelling from it the cloud of ill favour and of ill fame, that we venture with less reluctance to grapple with it.

Interestingly, Sharman doesn’t at all suggest that bloody is a minced oath derived from by Our Lady, as some have proposed:

Everything, we consider, favours the idea we have formed of our stately English word proceeding soberly and reputably upon its honest course only to become the victim of this species of subversive horse-play at the hands of professed word-corrupters. Appreciative of the objurgatory advantages of the German blutig, they were indifferent to any affront they might pass upon the English tongue. From that time forward the word was branded as infamous.


Although I haven’t hesitated to label Sharman’s work as longwinded and quaint, I’m really not trying to take the piss—believe me. Sharman deserves credit for studying and documenting these taboo, titillating morsels of language, offering us a more honest (albeit subjective) look at English as it was 130 years ago.

6 thoughts on “Book review: A Cursory History of Swearing

  1. Stan Carey March 23, 2015 / 8:54 am

    When you mentioned Sharman’s book on Twitter I downloaded it from Project Gutenberg, but I intend only to browse it, so I appreciate these choice excerpts. Odd’s bodkins was one of an almost bewildering array of euphemistic swears historically invoking God’s body, blood, heart, wounds, nails, and hooks. Jonathon Green’s slang history Language! 500 Years of the Vulgar Tongue has a wonderful list of these (adsbleed, wauntlikins, gad-zookers, etc.), which I included in my review of the book.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Iva Cheung March 23, 2015 / 8:51 pm

      “Wauntlikins.” Love it! I’ll have to add Jonathon’s book to my list of books to read.


  2. Jason Preater March 24, 2015 / 8:03 am

    That was a good read. I was in Fort Macon in North Carolina and came across a rather amusing sign from the commanding officer railing against the propensity of soldiers to swear. Literature gives a stilted view of the past because of the social class of the writers: I have an inkling the majority cussed away their days in their ordinary lives.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Stan Carey March 24, 2015 / 8:16 am

      Jason: There’s an interesting chapter on swearing in wartime in Rob Chirico’s recent book Damn! A Cultural History of Swearing in Modern America. My review contains a brief excerpt showing how Patton’s D-Day speech was “riddled with his unique style of profanity” but was (understandably) cleaned up for the eponymous film. I think you’re right about literature, and the point holds for the other arts and much of popular history.

      Liked by 1 person

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