This post is a short essay about language by Suzannah Lipscomb, which was recently published in History Today. Here’s a link to the original.
In it she traces the history of curse words in English. In medieval English, the most offensive expletives were profanities. More recently they became obscenities.
Don’t miss the first documented use of the F-word, scribbled in the margin of a manuscript by a medieval monk.
Her tour through this history is a fun ride. Enjoy.
Rude words are a constant, but their ability to cause offence is in flux. Historians should know their flim–flam from their fiddle–faddle.
What follows will be explicit because it is about expletives; it may also seem offensive, because it is about how words have become so.
I stumbled upon this question as a historical consultant for a new drama set in the 16th century, when I needed to assess whether certain curse words in the script would have been familiar to the Tudors. The revelation – given away in the title of Melissa Mohr’s wonderful book Holy Sh*t – is that all swear words concern what is sacred or what is scatological. In the Middle Ages, the worst words had been about what was holy; by the 18th century they were about bodily functions. The 16th century was a period when what was considered obscene was in flux.
The most offensive words still used God’s name: God’s blood, God’s wounds, God’s bones, death, flesh, foot, heart, arms, nails, body, sides, guts, tongue, eyes. A statute of 1606 forbade the use of words that ‘iestingly or prophanely’ spoke the name of God in plays. Damn and hell were early modern variations of such blasphemous oaths (bloody came later), as were the euphemistic asseverations, gad, gog and egad.
Many words we consider, at best, crude were medieval common-or-garden words of description – arse, shit, fart, bollocks, prick, piss, turd – and were not considered obscene. To say ‘I’m going to piss’ was the equivalent of saying ‘I’m going to wee’ today and was politer than the new 16th-century vulgarity, ‘I’m going to take a leak’. Putting body parts or products where they shouldn’t normally be created delightfully defiant phrases such as ‘turd in your teeth’, which appears in the 1509 compendium of the Oxford don John Stanbridge. Non-literal uses of these words – which is what tends to be required for swearing – like ‘take the piss’, ‘on the piss’, ‘piss off’ – all seem to be 20th-century flourishes. For the latter, the Tudors would have substituted something diabolical – ‘the devil rot thee’ – or epidemiological – ‘a pox on you’.
But the scatological was starting to become obscene. Sard, swive and fuck were all slightly rude words for sexual intercourse. An early recorded use of the f-word was a piece of marginalia by an anonymous monk writing in 1528 in a manuscript copy of Cicero’s De officiis (a treatise on moral philosophy). The inscription reads: ‘O d fuckin Abbot’. Given that the use of the f-word as an intensifier didn’t catch on for another three centuries, this is likely a punchy comment on the abbot’s immoral behaviour.
Frig and jape were also on the cusp of offensiveness. Randle Cotgrave’s 1611 French-English dictionary translates the French fringue as ‘to lecher or lasciviously frig with the tail’ (tail was a euphemism for penis). Cunt was also starting to move from being the most direct word to describe a part of the anatomy into obscenity. Shakespeare makes jokes in Hamlet about ‘country matters’ in which he clearly means (as the next line says) what ‘lie[s] between maids’ legs’. Bugger remained a non-explicit word for anal sex.
Today many of these words have an admirable grammatical flexibility for which the Tudors had no clear substitute. For a phrase to express unfortunate circumstances that seem impossible to overcome (‘we’re fucked’), the Historical Thesaurus of English tells us that they would have proclaimed themselves to be ‘in hot water’ (first use 1537), ‘in a pickle’ (1562), ‘in straits’ (1565) or, in the most extreme predicament, at one’s ‘utter shift’ (c.1604). To ‘fuck up’ or spoil something, they’d have used ‘to bodge’ or ‘to botch’. To say something was codswallop, baloney, bollocks, they’d have gone with trumpery, baggage, rubbish or the wonderful reduplicating terms that appear in the 1570s and 80s: flim-flam, fiddle-faddle, or fible-fable.
But, holy words aside, if you really wanted to offend someone in the 16th century, you’d call them a whore, knave, thief, harlot, cuckold, or false. They still cared more about a reputation for behaving badly than how to describe the behaviour itself.
Suzannah Lipscomb is author of The Voices of Nîmes: Women, Sex and Marriage in Early Modern Languedoc (Oxford University Press, 2019), host of the Not Just the Tudors podcast and Professor Emerita at the University of Roehampton.