In the medieval period, it was an offence to take the Lord’s name in vain or to otherwise blaspheme. A first offence could mean a fine, but if you did it again there were a variety of nasty punishments up to and including burning at the stake. Since the nineteenth century swearing has more usually involved references to sexual activity or to bodily functions and usually attracts no more than disapproval unless one is unwise enough to direct your ire against an official of some kind or to insult someone in the hearing of another. Even then, using ‘bad language’ is still a minor infringement of civility.
The history of swearing cursing, invective and associated maledictions is possibly older than the development of widely communicable languages. Before speech communication was developed it is not hard to imagine our ancestors grunting and roaring unintelligible but definite expressions of pain, anger and frustration. The only thing that has changed since the first expletives were uttered or muttered is that they have become organised into a mutually comprehensible system. Not only do we know how to insult, we also know when we are being insulted. While this may not be a giant step in the progress of humankind, it has left the language with a rich and colourful body of profanity. Hurled from tongues and clenched teeth since time immemorial the oath, the curse and the sacrilegious insult smoulder their way through our linguistic history.
The Elizabethans had an outstanding armoury of abuse, some of which Shakespeare made good, or bad, use of in many of his plays. At that time, one might be called a barber-monger, one-trunk-inheriting, a worsted-stocking, a varlet, a caitiff, a churl or a coistril. If those insults were not bad enough, there were plenty more that might be thrown. You might be a lurdane, a recreant, a runagate, a pander or even a cocklorel!
As well as straightforward insults, to be expelled in whatever configuration the speaker felt to be appropriate to the situation and the target, the Elizabethans had many standardised curses and oaths. These were fairly carefully graded as to the situations in which they might or might not be spoken. Fie upon thee was at the mild end of the scale and oaths such as by my troth and so God mend me were generally acceptable in mixed company. Further up the ladder of offensiveness came curses such as a pox upon thee, Devil take thee and morraine (disease) sieze thee. Stronger oaths included coads-nigs, By’r Lady (the origin of the modern bloody) and pretty well anything that included ‘God’, as in God’s wounds, God’s precious blood, God’s blessed will, and the like. The humorous sounding codso, possibly a reference to a codpiece and so not unlike being called a ‘jockstrap’, was also at the duel-inviting end of the swearing scale.
Thomas Dekker, collector of colloquial speech and author of Canting texts was also a playwright. He put his knowledge of the underworld and everyday language to especially good effect in his play The Shoemaker’s Holiday (1599), in which the character who becomes Lord Mayor of London, Simon Eyre, vents this reasonably representative spleen across the stage:
Where be these boys, these girls, these drabs, these scoundrels? They wallow in the fat brewis of my bounty, and lick up the crumbs of my table, yet will not rise to see my walks cleansed. Come out you powder-puff queans! What, Nan! What, Madge Mumble-Crust! Come out, you fat midriff swag-belly whores, and sweep me these kennels that the noisesome stench offend not the nose of my neighbours …
Good servants were apparently as hard to get in Dekker’s time as in any other.
So broad, colourful and various was the range of Elizabethan abuse that there are even available on the internet a number of Elizabethan curse and oath generators. These allow you to combine a number of these terms to automatically generate new and exciting insults. Some even generate such bile on a random basis. Try hurling these some time: you loggerhead base-court dewberry, you wenching fool-born rabbit-sucker, you fobbing hasty-witted hedge-pig or you currish lily-livered gudgeon. A personal favourite is thou puking spur-galled malignancy, and the scope for creative cursing in Elizabethan English is clearly considerable.
The tradition of foul language continued lustily into the industrial revolution, and beyond. In Peter Gaskell’s survey of The Manufacturing Population of England published in 1833, the coarse speech of the workers was directly linked to their brutalising way of life. According to Gaskell, young and old, spoke foul and low:
Coarse and obscene expressions are their household words; indecent allusions are often heard proceeding from the lips of brother to sister, and from sister to brother. The infant lisps words which, by common consent, are banished from general society. Epithets are bandied from mother to child, and from child to mother, and between child and child, containing the grossest terms of indecency. Husband and wife address each other in a form of speech which would be disgraceful to a brothel …
Gaskell thought what he considered from his height of middle-class respectability to be indecent language was due to ‘the promiscuous way in which families herd together’. The impoverished conditions of working class life at this time were the main cause of these conditions, as Gaskell and other reform-minded commentators observed. He calculated there were upwards of twenty thousand Irish living in the cellars of Manchester, tenement houses were dangerously under-sanitised, with ‘fifty, or more even than that number, having only a single convenience common to them all’ and this was, ‘in a very short time completely choked up with excrementious matter.’ The staple diet was potatoes wheat bread, tea and coffee, with milk hardly used. Smoking tobacco and drinking alcohol were endemic and Gaskell also described the horrors of lodging house accommodation as ‘deplorable in the extreme’, and ‘occupied indiscriminately by persons of both sexes, strangers perhaps to each other, except a few of the regular occupants. Young men and young women; men, wives, and their children – all lying in a noisesome atmosphere, swarming with vermin, and often intoxicated …’
Little wonder that they swore and that the almost affectionately inoffensive eighteenth-century term for a silly person – a Nigmenog – had long fallen into obsolescence
A study of cases of sexual slander and defamation in the Ecclesiastical Courts of England during the nineteenth century reveals some rare examples of foul language in sexual insults hurled at that time. In the court records are verbatim transcripts of what was said to whom, including such things as ‘I’ve bulled thy wife’, one man boasted to the cuckolded husband bringing the case. ‘Yes, damnthee, I’ve fucked her scores of times and she’s fetched me to fuck her when thy pillockwouldn’t stand.’ Other accusations included ‘You have been rode by all Cheltenham’ and ‘All the crofters at Dunstead have shag’d thee’. Men came in for their share of insults, being called thieves, rogues, robbers, buggers and rascals. Women, though, seemed to be getting the worst of it. As well as being simply called whores, one was described as burnt arsed, or diseased, while another of alleged easy virtue was said to have been married by parson prick.
The wives of London’s Billingsgate fishmongers were notorious for the ability to hurl sharp-edged invective when provoked, something that was apparently easy to accomplish. Some recorded examples of fishwives’ insults include ‘a health to mine A—s and a fart for those that owe no money’ and ‘You white-livered son of a Fleet Street bum sitter, begot upon a chair at noonday’, which appears to mean that the accused is lazy.
An insult that has a chequered history, as they say, is the once-taboo son-of-a-bitch. This one has its possible origins in medieval French and was given a boost by none other than Shakespeare in King Lear where ‘son and heir of a mongrel bitch’ is hurled. As son-of-a-bitch it was well established by the middle of the eighteenth century, from which time it was widely employed in America, especially in the west. A certain Wells Fargo stagecoach robber known as Black Bart used the term effectively in a ditty he left at the scene of one of his robberies, one verse of which went:
I’ve laboured long and hard for bread,For honor and for riches,But on my corns too long you’ve tred,You long-haired sons of bitches.
The poetic villain signed himself ‘Black Bart, the PO8’.
Son-of-a-bitch was banned from Hollywood films for many years and remained in the limbo of euphemism (S.O.B, son of a gun, so-and-so, etc.) until around the 1980s. By that time even a President could use the term without being censured, as did the folksy Ronald Reagan in describing journalists.
The tradition of insult and invective continues strongly today. Often referred to as slams, slam sayings, put-downs or full-deckisms, these insults are designed to humiliate their targets in much the same way as their predecessors. A few random examples give the general tenor of these slurs:
Don’t feel bad, many people have no talent!
She’s like train tracks – she’s been laid across the country.
I hear you were born on April 2 – a day too late!
You wouldn’t be elected dogcatcher in a ward full of cats.
And if you really want to make a point, try:
I’ve come across decomposed bodies that are less offensive than you.
 Waddams, S., Defamation in Nineteenth Century England: Sexual Scandal in the Ecclesiastical Courts, 1815-1855, University of Toronto Press, 2000.