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.
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.
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.
As 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.”
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.
“I have known some people of very modern views driven by their distress to the use of theological terms to which they attached no doctrinal significance, merely because a drawer was jammed tight and they could not pull it out.” G.K. Chesterton, All Things Considered