On Swearing

Swearing is complicated, even when it’s simple. Start with the fact that people use the word swearing to mean two completely different things. There’s the swearing one does when one takes an oath – swearing in a Member of Parliament, or a jury, or a President – and the swearing one does for rather less official reasons. Same word. Confusing.

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Quaker: thou art doing it wrong

For extra confusion, the tradition of swearing on a Bible – frequently required for legal purposes in various countries with a Christianized past – is actually forbidden in the Bible itself, in two places (Matthew 5: 33-37 and James 5:12).

The idea behind swearing on scriptures is that the swearer will not lie in case their god gets them for tarnishing his, her or its reputation. It’s hard to see how this is supposed to work with Christians, since the swearing itself would be disobedient regardless of whether one subsequently told the truth or not. Say yes when you mean yes and no when you mean no – it’s much simpler.

Swear Bear

The other kind of swearing seems less complicated. Until you realize there are all these unspoken rules about swearing – who, when, where, what… The Romans had a very codified structure of who could say what, in the presence of whom. There were some swear-words women could use; some they couldn’t use – but men could use in their presence; and some that women weren’t even supposed to know about, because only men used them, only in male company. Allegedly.

English swear-words are mostly the Early English words for various bodily functions (which makes it rather unfair to follow them up with “excuse my French”). Those that aren’t earthy are mostly blasphemous, and for some reason swearing has not caught up with religious pluralism. Or atheism.

Civilian Conservation Corps - NARA - 195836As Terry Pratchett wrote, “It takes a very special and strong-minded kind of atheist to jump up and down with their hand clasped under their other armpit and shout, ‘Oh, random-fluctuations-in-the-space-time-continuum!’ or ‘Aaargh, primitive-and-outmoded-concept on a crutch!’.”

While English has a small enough pool of Really Rude Words that they can be identified simply by their initial letters, it has a wealth of minced oaths; what Bill Bryson calls “euphemistic expletives – darn, durn, goldurn, goshdad, goshdang, goshawful, blast, consarn, confound, by Jove, by jingo, great guns, by the great horn spoon… jo-fired, jumping Jehoshaphat, and others almost without number.”

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Jehoshaphat jumping

I have an aunt who says “Flaming Norah” when the occasion seems to require it (though Norah has yet to catch fire); and I myself say “blast,” “dangnabit,” and other such phrases. One of my favourites comes from A Pattern of Islands by Arthur Grimble, in which an old woman lambasts her grandson as a nikiranibobo for seeking offshore employment. “‘I dare not translate this word, sir,’ stammered the interpreter when he recovered himself; ‘it is a very old and clever word, but it is not official.'”

At the risk of sounding prim, let me say that I don’t use blasphemy: it’s either disrespectful and offensive to Someone I love dearly, or (if one embraces pluralism) offensive to people who hold other beliefs. I don’t use language of the fouler sort either. After all, if I wouldn’t want to step in it, I definitely don’t want it in my mouth.

4 Replies to “On Swearing”

  1. What a great post – I had no idea that swearing on the Bible is actually forbidden. That is so interesting. From being brought up in a very strict household where swearing was not tolerated (and ‘shut up’ or ‘crap’ were considered swearing), I’ve come to swear casually to such a degree that I don’t even notice it. Not in anger, or frustration, or in spite or in ridicule – just in emphasis of any point I’m making, however mild. I think it’s a cultural thing – I speak like everyone I spend time with speaks, and now I’m an adult, no one challenges me about it. But I stayed recently with some friends who have a three-year-old, and from walking through the door it was on my mind that I would have to watch my mouth. The number of times I had to check myself alarmed me a little… I think you make a very good closing point, and I think it’s good when we’re reminded to be a little self-conscious. Because words matter.

    1. Words matter – how true! I can’t say I’ve ever thought of “shut up” as swearing, although it could certainly be construed as rude… And it is disturbing how much of what we say is what comes out of the mouths of those around us. Are we all secretly parrots or what?

  2. The bit about Roman codified swearing behaviour reminds me of something I heard once about so-called “mother-in-law languages“. Apparently some languages have a completely different vocabulary (but usually the same grammar) for use in the presence of (or, sometimes, in reference to) certain in-laws. Avoiding saying the names of your in-laws seems simple by comparison.

What do you think?