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 are; “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. “God’s body” 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” Hamlet, II.ii.529 The word bod(y)kin means “little body” or “dear body,” but adding the cute little suffix does not make this curse any more acceptable.
“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 same thing. 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 crucifixion. 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 rs, 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 171). 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.