“What the *@^*?” - a short history of swearing

03/02/2016  -  3.09

David J. Cox, Reader in Criminal Justice History

A new book entitled Public Indecency in England 1857-1960, co-authored by David J. Cox, Reader in Criminal Justice History, University of Wolverhampton, has been published by Routledge (for further details please see http://www.amazon.co.uk/Public-Indecency-England-1857-1960-Explorations/dp/0415524717. Co-authored with Kim Stevenson, Candida Harris and Judith Rowbotham (all from the University of Plymouth) the book investigates the somewhat nebulous concept of indecency and the numerous attempts of both State and individuals to control problematic public behaviour.

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


However, 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. 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. For example, ‘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) has now passed out of common parlance. Another archaic profanity was ‘Gadzooks!' - a late-17th century corruption of ‘by God's hooks’ - i.e. the nails that were used to crucify Christ. 


The uttering of profane oaths had been a criminal offence since the 1600s, and in the eighteenth century the Profane Oaths Act 1746 introduced a stratified and 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). 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.


Interestingly, no mention was made in the 1746 Act of women who offended in this way – although females were certainly also prosecuted for such offences.