Evolution of 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
"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.
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"
The word bod(y)kin means "little body" or "dear body," but
adding the cute little suffix does not make this curse any
"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
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
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 Īrs, 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
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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