Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing

A character in the mock Christmas pantomime Harlequin Prince Cherrytop and the Good Fairy Fairfuck (1879) declares, “For all your threats I don’t care a fuck. / I’ll never leave my princely darling duck.” (The panto relates the story of Prince Cherrytop, who has become enslaved by the Demon of Masturbation. The Good Fairy Fairfuck helps him conquer his addiction to self-abuse, so he can embrace the joys of holy matrimony with his betrothed, the Princess Shovituppa.

Alicia Garlek scolded William Wipetail, or that Rogerus Prikeproud is a “common barrator.” (These are all actual medieval names: Alicia Garlic, William Wipe-Dick—though tail could refer to both the penis and the vagina—and Roger Proud-of-His-Prick.)

And Queen Elizabeth I even used profuse profane swearing as a way to strengthen her hold on the English crown. She liked to sprinkle her speech with “God’s death!”—still one of the most shocking phrases a sixteenth-century Englishman could utter. Man is the operative word here—women’s language was supposed to be both chaster and more devout than men’s. As one poet who worked at Elizabeth’s court put it, women should avoid indecent or irreligious words, because “the chief virtue of women is shamefastness … when they hear or see anything tending that way they commonly blush.” Elizabeth, though, swore “God’s death!” so often that even foreign ambassadors remarked on it. When

appears this way in graffiti from the city of Pompeii, which was preserved to an extraordinary degree when Mt. Vesuvius erupted in AD 79. “Corus licks cunt” (Corus cunnum lingit) and “Jucundus licks the cunt of Rustica” (Iucundus cunum lingit Rusticae), for example, appear on Pompeian apartment buildings.

As Steven Pinker puts it: “To hear nigger is to try on, however briefly, the thought that there is something contemptible about African Americans, and thus to be complicit in a community that standardized that judgment by putting it into a word.

Boxing the Jesuit” was eighteenth-century slang for masturbation. As Francis Grose explains in his 1785 dictionary of slang: “to box the Jesuit, and get cock roaches” is a “sea term [used by sailors] for masturbation. A crime it is said much practiced by the reverend fathers of that society.

cunnus = a womans wyket* —Thomas Elyot, Dictionary, 1538

Fartleberries are “excrement hanging to the hairs about the anus, &c, of a man or woman.

(Fascinating, by the way, comes from the Latin fascinum, a representation of the erect penis. Tiny fascini were worn by young boys as charms to protect them against the evil eye. In ancient Rome, these penises were thought to be infused with magical power; today if something fascinates you, it captures your attention almost against your will.)

He helpfully gives examples of how to use these words in conversation, such as “I will not swive her and she would pray me”—“I wouldn’t fuck her if she begged me.” Even worse, by the principle of didactic responsibility, might be his definition of ie fringue: “I frig with the arse as a queene doth when she is in japing,” that is, “I rub with the ass as a prostitute does while she is fucking.

In a 2005 study, intrepid researchers showed that swearwords actually do “increase the believability of statements.” Testimony that contained words such as God damn it, shitty, fucking, and asshole was perceived by test subjects to be more credible than the same testimony minus the swearwords.)

In his influential treatise on manners, Galateo (1558), Giovanni Della Casa dictates that one should not sit with one’s back or posterior turned towards another, nor raise a thigh so high that the members of the human body, which should properly be covered with clothing at all times, might be exposed to view. For this and similar things are not done, except among people before whom one is not ashamed. It is true that a great lord might do so before one of his servants or in the presence of a friend of lower rank; for in this he would not show him arrogance but rather a particular affection and friendship. Della

It is impolite to greet someone who is urinating or defecating

May stinking vapours Choke your womb
Such as the Men you dout upon

(Members of this group, conscience-barred from using either oaths or obscene language, expressed insult and frustration with the word pants.)

Modern translations of the Bible uniformly reject the richness of “him that pisseth,” replacing it with “every last male” (New International), “every male person” (New American Standard), or “every male” (English Standard).

(not even the Jesus Loves Porn Stars Bible).

Plays in this period, as any reader of Shakespeare knows, are full of double entendres (words or phrases that can be understood in two senses),

Sad wriggling wasp, you have beshit more worms Than there is grass on ground or leaf on linden tree.] The

Scholar Ziony Zevit takes this euphemism and runs with it, arguing that in the Genesis narrative Eve is actually made from Adam’s penis, in particular from his penis bone.

Some other proper names from these years have also come down to us. We have Gunoka Cuntles [1219] and Bele Wydecunthe [1328], suitable partners for Godwin Clawcuncte [1066] and Robert Clevecunt [1302]. If the Millers’ ancestors ground grain, and the Taylors’ sewed cloth, what did Godwin’s and Robert’s do—and

Stanbridge’s text continues with a variety of phrases a schoolboy needs to know, presented in seemingly random order: “I am weary of study. I am weary of my life… . I am almost beshitten. You stink… . Turd in your teeth… . I will kill you with my own knife. He is the biggest coward that ever pissed.” Clearly Stanbridge chose topics that would interest young boys, but he is not trying to pique their interest by using bad words.

(The Romans appear to have been of two minds about depilation. On the one hand, “it is better to fuck a hairy cunt,” but on the other, women often plucked their pubic hair or singed it with an oil lamp. The very rich and very decadent might even employ a picatrix, a young female slave whose job was to arrange her mistress’s pubic hair.)

They discussed what was involved in making a full confession, described the joys of heaven and the terrors of hell, and mostly listed sins mortal and venial, from Adultery, Theft, and Murder to Delight in Soft Beds and Excessive Fondness for Cushiony Places to Kneel.

To learn what people said to abuse and offend each other seven hundred years ago, one can look at court records for charges of defamation or slander, assault with contumelious words (words that are “reproachful and tending to convey disgrace and humiliation,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary), scolding, and barratry (bringing false lawsuits; more generally, obstreperous public behavior).

Two of the “Seven Sages” who decorated a tavern in Ostia and entertained drinkers with their advice about excretion: “Solon rubbed his belly to shit well” (on left) and “Thales recommends that if you have a hard time shitting you should strain” (on right).

until his honor was stained with an allegation of “softness of body”—effeminacy. Then he scornfully replied, “Suillius, cross-examine your sons: they will testify that I am a man” (interroga, Suilli, filios tuos: virum esse me fatebuntur).

When Captain Basil Hall visited the Comoro Islands off the coast of Africa in the 1820s, he was welcomed by an islander with the memorable words: “How do you do, sir? Very glad to see you. Damn your eyes! Johanna man [a man from Anjouan, one of the islands] like English very much. God damn!

When ‘our sire’s’ pants are torn, his penis peeps out of the hole like a maggot.