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Zounds! Swearing isn't the offence it once was


Zounds! Swearing isn’t the offence it once was, says University of Wolverhampton academic

From the four-letter rantings of Celebrity Big Brother contestants to the emotional outbursts of sporting stars, there are numerous examples of people in the public eye whose tongue got the better of them.

Andy Murray recently apologised for swearing during the Australian Open and Simon Cowell said sorry after uttering an expletive on X Factor last year.

But had they been around in Victorian times, they might have met a harsher punishment - a significant dent in their bank accounts.

University of Wolverhampton criminal justice historian Dr David Cox has uncovered findings about the use of profanities as part of research included in a new book Public Indecency in England 1857-1960.

Part of the book looks at ‘obscene’ or ‘profane’ language, which now falls under section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986 if there is intention to cause harassment, alarm, or distress and other circumstances are present.

In the 18th Century, the Profane Oaths Act 1746 introduced a hierarchical level of fines. If found guilty of issuing a profanity, labourers, rank-and-file soldiers and sailors could be fined a maximum of one shilling (5p); those below the rank of ‘gentleman’ could receive a fine of up to two shillings (10p), whilst gentlemen and the aristocracy could be fined up to five shillings (25p).

Dr Cox, whose research uncovered numerous prosecutions, said: “These amounts may seem trifling now, but one shilling (5p) was the equivalent of more than a day’s wages for a labourer in the 1740s.”

He added: “The use of swear words appears to be an increasingly accepted fact of modern-day life.  Words that would have profoundly shocked many of our ancestors are now to be heard frequently on the street.

Swearing research in a new book launched by Professor David Cox

“Many former swear words have either been ‘downgraded’ to little more than very mild alternatives to better-known four-letter expletives, or have disappeared completely from everyday speech.”

‘Blimey!’ was originally a corruption of the profane phrase ‘God blind me’, whilst the 16th century oath ‘Zounds!’ (short for the profanity ‘God’s wounds’ – referring to Christ’s wounds upon the cross) is no longer used.

Another archaic profanity was ‘Gadzooks!' - a late-17th century corruption of ‘by God's hooks’. 

Dr Cox, who is part of the School of Social, Historical and Political Studies in the University’s Faculty of Social Sciences, found that no mention was made in the 1746 Act of women who offended in this way – although he said females would also have been prosecuted for such offences.

Public Indecency in England 1857-1960 co-authored by David J. Cox, Reader in Criminal Justice History, University of Wolverhampton, is published by Routledge (for further details please see It is co-authored with Kim Stevenson, Candida Harris and Judith Rowbotham (all from the University of Plymouth) and investigates indecency and the numerous attempts of both State and individuals to control problematic public behaviour.


Read more at Dr David Cox’s blog and profile.

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