Minced Oaths (Advanced)

Steve Irwin December 2005The late Steve Irwin: Crikey!Swearing is not big and it's not clever, so many languages have developed ways of mitigating offensive terminology. One way of softening profanity and avoiding offence is by use of the minced oath. This is not the rather desultory swearing of my friend Julian Hill, but rather using substitute terms for rude words so that exclamations are less crude, and guardians of public morals can sleep well at night without tearing their hair out or writing to the newspapers. When we look at the English language, we can see that there is a rich and expressive vocabulary when it comes to profanity, but most English speakers are also averse to sounding impolite in many different social contexts, so the minced oath has come in very handy.


The three most common ways of creating more acceptable minced oaths are through using alliterative substitutes, shortening the offensive words or blasphemous phrases, or by using a rhyming equivalent. Alliteration is used in darn for damn, frick for fuck, cripes for Christ, heck for hell, and shoot or sugar for shit. English is by no means alone in this: the Spanish exclamation of surprise or pain ay caramba! is actually a minced oath for carajo “cock, shit, fuck”, while a common Portuguese minced oath sees fogo "fire" replace foda-se "fuck it". French does this too with its use of bleu “blue” for Dieu “God” in such well-known phrases as parbleu “by God” or as our own similar minced oath has it “begad”, (or else we go back to the Romans and settle on by Jove).


French combines alliteration and shortening with morbleu for mort de Dieu “God’s death”, and sacré bleu “Holy God”, similar to our “Holy Cow” for “Holy Christ”. English also uses shortened phrases that were considered blasphemous: zounds “by God’s wounds”, gadzooks “by God’s hooks” – referring to the nails on Christ’s cross - crikey “Christ kill me”, cor blimey “God blind me” and struth (now strewth) “by God’s truth”. Over time, such reduced phrases may lose their shock value altogether as in the phrase I couldn’t give a monkey’s for “I don’t care”. In the full phrase, the word after monkey’s was usually one of toss, shit or fuck. Modern shortening may be as radical as abbreviating the offending word to one letter, f or c, for example (although this inevitably will be built on again to produce effing cee).

Rhyming substitutes can also tone down the offensive nature of an expletive. The word berk is now used as a mild term of abuse for “dolt, insensitive fool”, but it is an abbreviation of Berkeley Hunt – rhyming slang for cunt. In 2016, British junior doctors overtly popularised rhyming slang for the decidedly unpopular Secretary State for Health, Jeremy Hunt, a move which was welcomed by singer James Blunt, who tweeted that he was officially handing his rhyming slang title over to the embattled politician. Rhyming slang also disguises prick with Hampton Wick, later abbreviated to Hampton, balls to cobblers’ awls, later just cobblers, and even more obscurely arse, via bottle and glass, to Aristotle and then Aris to refer to the buttocks.


What is considered to be rude differs widely over the ages. In medieval times, people seemed a bit more willing to call a spade a spade. Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400) has some particularly bawdy passages in The Canterbury Tales, especially in the Miller's, Reeve's, and Wife of Bath's tales and prologues. The Miller's Tale is particularly raunchy and reaches its climax with the heroine Alisoun poking her backside out of the window in the dark of the night, and her unwitting admirer Absolon kisses it thinking it is her face. He is somewhat taken aback, coming ointo contact with her "ers":

256px Canterbury Tales The Miller f. 34v detail Robin with the Bagpype early 1400s ChaucerRobin the Miller, from the Ellesmere manuscript of The Canterbury TalesDerk was the nyght as pich, or as the cole,
And at the wyndow out she putte hir hole,
And Absolon, hym fil no bet ne wers,
But with his mouth he kiste hir naked ers
Ful savourly, er he were war of this.
Abak he stirte, and thoughte it was amys,
For wel he wiste a womman hath no berd.
He felte a thyng al rough and long yherd,
And seyde, "Fy! allas! what have I do?"


In Elizabethan and Jacobean times, people were also remarkably frank. Shakespeare's comedies are littered with thinly veiled sexual innuendo that would have been easily recognisable by the theatre audience and greeted with uproarious mirth. Herein Twelfth NIght, Malvolio receives a letter he believes to be from his heart's desire, Olivia. In identifying features of his lady's handwriting, Malvolio's spelling leqves little to the imagination:

By my life, this is my lady's hand these be her
very C's, her U's and her T's and thus makes she her
great P's.

Street names in the Middle Ages were often named after the trades that went on within them: The Shambles, (a shambles was a butcher's slaughterhouse), Baker Street, Ironmonger Lane; or the wares that were sold there: Pudding Lane, Birdcage Walk, Bread Street, Wardrobe Place etc. This included the seedier side of life. London has a Love Lane, a Cock Lane and a Stew Lane (stew meant brothel). Gropecunt Lane was a staple of large medieval towns throughout England. The attitude of the authorities of the time was to regulate and limit prostitution to specific locations (clearly marked out by their street names) rather than to ban this activity outright. However, by the 16th century, the Protestant elite were increasingly hostile to prostitution and sought to eliminate it. This resulted in stricter controls and in the bowdlerising (i.e. removing explicit references to sex) of the plethora of Gropecunt Lanes in the country. Hence, we have Grope Lane, Grape Lane and Grove Lane and streets that bear no relation to the original.


Yet offensive words can become less scandalous over time too. There is more swearing that gets past the censors in films and books and on TV and radio than ever before. The word bloody used to be considered to be a very profane and taboo swear-word, possibly due to its association with menstruation. This led to a number of minced oaths being coined; that is, using similar substitute terms to lessen the crudeness of the interjection. In the case of bloody, minced oaths include blinking, bleeding, ruddy, blooming, blessed and bally. George Bernard Shaw shocked polite society in his 1914 play Pygmalion, when he had the protagonist Eliza Doolittle say “Walk? Not bloody likely!”, and for a time the word was known euphemistically as “the Pygmalion word” or “the Shavian adjective”.


Phalacrocorax atriceps 4 1An imperial shagProfanity on the internet has been a major area of concern in recent times. Unfortunately, over-zealous obscenity filters and search engines have often led to a phenomenon known as the Scunthorpe problem. This occurs when words containing certain substrings of letters are blocked or modified as they are deemed offensive. Residents of the English towns of Scunthorpe, Clitheroe, Lightwater and Penistone have been massively inconvenienced by filtering software for this reason. (In addition, Arsenal Football Club has got its comeuppance). Sometimes, these filters have backfired spectacularly on their owners: in 2007, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds blocked cock, booby, tit and shag from its discussion forums, for example. Some filters prefer to alter content by changing words used. The US sprinter Tyson Gay has fallen foul of the American Family Association's filter to become Tyson Homosexual, while several other US websites automatically change ass to butt, creating such beauties as clbuttic for classic, Lbuttie for the TV series Lassie, and best of all buttbuttinate for assassinate!


So let's raise our glbuttes to them!



Steve Irwin: Richard Giles [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The Miller:  By Original 2D miniature illustration: unknown 15th century artist. Photographic facsimile by the Henry E. Huntington Library and Art Gallery. Derivative work: Earthsound [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Shag: By Phalacrocorax_atriceps.jpg: Calypontederivative work: Berichard (talk) - Phalacrocorax_atriceps.jpg, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9736442 

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