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Evolution of Profanity


The evolution of written profanity began roughly in the 
sixteenth century, and continues to change with each generation that 
it sees. Profanity is recognized in many Shakespearean works, and has 
continually evolved into the profane language used today. Some cuss 
words have somehow maintained their original meanings throughout 
hundreds of years, while many others have completely changed meaning 
or simply fallen out of use.
 William Shakespeare, though it is not widely taught, was not a 
very clean writer. In fact, he was somewhat of a potty mouth. His 
works encompassed a lot of things that some people wish he had not. 
"That includes a fair helping of sex, violence, crime, horror, 
politics, religion, anti-authoritarianism, anti-semitism, racism, 
xenophobia, sexism, jealousy, profanity, satire, and controversy of 
all kinds" (Macrone 6). In his time, religious and moral curses were 
more offensive than biological curses. Most all original (before 
being censored) Shakespearean works contain very offensive profanity, 
mostly religious, which is probably one of many reasons that his works 
were and are so popular. "Shakespeare pushed a lot of buttons in his 
day- which is one reason he was so phenomenally popular. Despite what 
they tell you, people like having their buttons pushed" (Macrone 6). 
Because his works contained so many of these profane words or phrases, 
they were censored to protect the innocent minds of the teenagers who 
are required to read them, and also because they were blasphemous and 
offensive. Almost all of the profanity was removed, and that that was 
not had just reason for being there. Some of the Bard's censored oaths 

 "God's blessing on your beard"
 Love's Labors Lost, II.i.203
 This was a very rude curse because a man's facial hair
 was a point of pride for him. and "to play with someone's
 beard" was to insult him. 
 "God's body"
 1 Henry IV,II.i.26
 Swearing by Christ's body, (or any part thereof,) was off 
 limits in civil discourse.

 "God's Bod(y)kins, man"
 Hamlet, II.ii.529
 The word bod(y)kin means "little body" or "dear body," but 
 adding the cute little suffix does not make this curse any 
 more acceptable.

 "By God's [blest] mother!" 
 2 Henry VI, II.i;
 3 Henry VI, III.ii;
 Henry VIII, V.i
 Swearing by the virgin was almost as rude as swearing by 
 her son, especially when addressing a catholic cathedral as
 Gloucester did in 2 Henry VI, II.i

 Perhaps the two worst of these Shakespearean swears were 
"'zounds" and "'sblood." "'Zounds" had twenty-three occurrences. 
Ten of them were in 1 Henry IV. The rest appear in Titus (once), 
Richard III (four times), Romeo and Juliet (twice), and Othello ( six 
times). Iago and Falstaff were the worst offenders. 'Zounds has 
evolved into somewhat of a silly and meaningless word, but was 
originally horribly offensive. This oath, short for "God's wounds," 
was extremely offensive because references to the wounds or blood of 
Christ were thought especially outrageous, as they touched directly on 
the crucifixion. "'Sblood" had twelve occurrences in all. There were 
eight times in 1 Henry IV (with Falstaff accounting for six), plus 
once in Henry V, twice in Hamlet, and once in Othello. 'Sblood occurs 
less than 'zounds, but is equally offensive and means basically the 
same thing. 
 Several other words came from Great Britain, but were not 
included in Shakespeare's works. Today the expression "Gadzooks!" is 
not particularly offensive to most. Of course, most don't know what 
it originally meant. Gadzooks was originally slang for "God's hooks," 
and was equally offensive to 'zounds and 'sblood as it also referred 
to the crucifixion. An interesting note is that there is a store 
called Gadzooks which everyone thinks of as a pop-culture vendor to 
America's youth. Some (but not many) of Gadzooks' shoppers would be 
very offended if they knew the true meaning of the store's name. 
Another word from this region is a Cockney expression, "Gorblimey," 
which is a word used to swear to the truth, and is a shortened form of 
"God blind me." Also, in England, words such as "bloody," "blimey," 
"blinkin'," beginning with the letters "BL" are taken offense to 
because they, once again, refer to the blood of Christ and the 
 The military has an interesting technique for swearing their 
brains out without offending anyone. "They use the phonetic alphabet 
(A= Alpha, B= Bravo, C= Charlie, etc.) as a code for their swearing" 
(Interview). For instance, instead of saying "bullshit," they would 
say "bravo charlie." Or instead of the horribly offensive blasphemous 
cuss word, they could say "golf delta."
 Most people are familiar with the swear words that are still 
used. These "four-letter words" aren't necessarily four letters long, 
but more or less, they get the same point across as their four 
lettered friends. Such words usually include crap, ass, shit, bitch, 
fuck, and damn. There are many variations on the usage and placement 
of these words, but they still pack a punch. The word "crap" dates 
back as early as 1846, and is usually used as a euphemism for shit, 
yet many people find it equally offensive. As most cuss words do, 
crap has several different variations, such as, "eat crap," 
"crap-ass," and "crapola." The meaning has not evolved since its 
first publication, where it was defined simply as "excrement" (Lighter 
508). The word "ass" had its first publication as a swear word (as 
opposed to a donkey) in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1556. 
"Whyyped...at the cartt es arse...for vacabondes." This is not the 
definition commonly used today, but is still a vulgar way of using the 
word. This means that back of an object, whereas the more widely used 
definition is "of the rump, the buttocks, rectum, and anus" (Lighter 
37). The more common definition was first recorded in "Covent Garden 
Drollery." The word actually started out as Ïrs, then evolved into 
arse (which is the German translation also), and finally evolved into 
ass. "Shit" is, when used as an interjection, "An expression of 
strong disgust or disappointment," but is, when used as a noun, 
"Anything inferior, ugly, cheap, or disgusting" (Flexner 467). Shit 
can be placed with just about any word and make a cute little 
expression. Some examples are, "shit head," "shitting bricks," and the 
colorful little phrase, "shit or get off of the pot." Bitch was first 
used in 1400 in F and H, and has, quite amazingly, maintained its 
original meaning for over five hundred years. It's definition in F and 
H was "a malicious , spiteful, promiscuous, or otherwise despicable 
woman" (Lighter 169). It is also used today to describe "a sexually 
promiscuous young woman, a male homosexual who plays the female role 
in copulation, an ill tempered homosexual male, an infuriatingly large 
object, or something especially disagreeable" (Lighter 169-70), among 
various others. There are many other forms of the word, such as 
"bitch kitty," or "bitch session," which is basically when a group of 
people get together and whine about how terrible their lives are, 
quite fun! "Fuck" is probably the most offensive swear word used. The 
earliest use of it is in "Verbatim" in 1500, which says, "Non sunt in 
celi/quia fuccant uuiuys of heli." The meaning, unlike the language, 
has remained the same, however. It still means "to copulate" (Lighter 
831). Some popular variations of it are "fuck a duck," "fucked by the 
fickle finger of fate," (Reinhold 79) "fucked up and far from home," 
and "fucking A." The word "damn" itself is not extremely offensive, 
but is rather used as an intensifier of other words or phrases. When 
placed with God, however, it becomes a horrible, blasphemous word, 
which is, to many, more offensive than fuck. This type of thinking 
goes back to the sixteenth century when religious curses were far 
worse than biological. G.D. goes back to 1697, when D. Defoe, in G. 
Hughes Swearing 209 said, "G.D. ye, does not sit well upon a female 
tongue" (Lighter 914). Swear words can be used in pairs such as 
"fucking bitch," and "fuck me in the goat's ass" to intensify and make 
the swearing humorous. They can also be used as compliments. Words 
like "bitchen" have been used since 1957 when Gidget said, "It was a 
bitchen day too. The sun was out...in Southern California" (Lighter 
 Profanity has evolved from the religious curses of Old England 
and the biological curses of today not only in meaning, but also in 
intensity. Besides G.D. , the only curses that are offensive today are 
the biological curses that make sentences, movies, and just about 
anything more graphic or offensive than had the word been left out.


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