While most common obscenities are a single barked word or set phrase, a number of them allow for user creativity, and ad-hoc formation that suits the moment. These are noteworthy in that they permit a linguistic dialing-up or dialing down of the desired force.
Jesus H. Christ
The insertion of “h” into “Jesus Christ” is a mild intensifier, and has a long history. The etymology is contested, but likely stems from the Christian symbol representing the first three characters of Christ’s name, iota-eta-sigma, which looks like IHS:
Suggestions that the “h” stands for “Harold,” ‘Henry,” or “holy” can be summarily discarded. So far, this results in a standard epithet, but the fun starts when one adds “on a” to the pattern, e.g.: “Jesus H. Christ on the cross,” “Jesus H. Christ on a popsicle stick” or “Jesus H. Christ in a chicken basket.” or from the Blues Brothers movie, “Jesus H. tap-dancing Christ.” Also: “Jesus H. Christ on a cracker,” “Jesus H. Christ on a rubber crutch,” and “Jesus H. Christ on a pogo stick.” Continue reading
Imagine yourself as one of your ancestors. Not a hundred or a thousand years ago, but one of your progenitors from some 100,000 years back in the mist of time.
You’ve fallen from a tree, tripped on a rock, stepped in a pile of dung, or barked your knuckles while sharpening a tool. Your natural response is to utter a sound of fury — an Ur-expletive — “arrgh!”
And for some reason, this lessens the pain. Swearing is natural because it has a hypoalgesic effect; it reduces the sense of agony. Indeed, swearing has always been attached to any experience of strong emotion, punctuating the profound.
Given this, you’d expect that we would have a record of such words in our culture stretching back to antiquity. But we don’t, because strong language has traditionally been a taboo and only in recent history has it been allowed in print.
Go back some 50 years, you’ll find Bowdlerization and grawlix to be ubiquitous. “G—–n!” and the like are normal in period literature. The editing set were forceful in suppressing expletives from print. When the Nixon tapes were released, [expletive deleted] was rampant throughout the transcription.
Our understanding of swearing as a linguistic speech act has to be inferred from hints and clues peppered throughout recorded history. We see it in ancient graffiti, in Latin words like “irrumo” (face-fucking), and in phrases like, “He swore like a sailor.”
While there are terms in English to refer to a promiscuous man, such as Casanova, Don Juan, himbo, lady’s man, Lothario, and rake, there aren’t many. And, curiously, few of them have a pejorative air.
From a feminist perspective, it is arguable that men have largely been interested in controlling female sexuality, and our language reflects this in its paucity of terms for a “loose man.” Although fanciful at times, the verbal duel between two prostitutes in John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor makes this matter clear. Let’s take a look, in media res:
“The truth is,” said the dealer, “Grace here’s a hooker.”
“A what?” asked the poet.
“A hooker,” the woman repeated with a wink. “A quail, don’t ye know.”
“A quail!” the woman named Grace shrieked. “You call me a quail, you, you gaullefretierer
“Whore!” shouted the first.
“Bas-cul!” retorted the other.