The Gentleman's Magazine/Volume 291/August 1891/Some English Expletives

Some English Expletives
by Thomas H. B. Graham


An expletive consists of one or more words, inserted to fill up or fill out a sentence. Its character is purely ornamental, and its addition does not materially alter the sense of the passage, though it may add greatly to its force, It frequently takes the form of an expression not blasphemous—for there is seldom an intention to blaspheme—but profane, that is, involving that thoughtless and irreverent use of sacred words, and especially the name of God, on the most trivial occasions, which constitutes a breach of the Third Commandment.

Bewhare of othis for dowte of peyn,
Amonges ffelachepp when thou dost sytt.
A lytyl othe, this is serteyn,
May dampne thy sowle to helle pytt.
The Coventry Mysteries.

I propose to notice some expletives which were formerly much in vogue in this country, but most of which good taste has since led us to abandon.

The English have long been in the habit of garnishing their conversation with a forcible expression, which has earned for them, on the Continent, a nickname that clings to them still. We can hardly help admitting that they right well deserve the designation at the present day, but we should scarcely expect to find it applied to them as early as the reign of Henry VI. That such, however, was the case, is clearly proved by the evidence given at the trial of "the Maid of Orleans," in 1429.

While Joan of Arc is preparing her successful attack upon the English at Les Tournelles, near Orleans, the following episode takes place:—

"Et ainsi qu'elle delibéroit de passer, on presenta à son hoste une alose, et lors il luy dist, 'Jeanne, mangeons ceste alose avant que partiez.' 'En Nom Dieu,' dist-elle, 'on n'en mangera jusques au souper, qne nous repasserons pardessus le pont, et ramenerons ung godon, qui en mangera sa part.'"

And again, when visited in prison at Rouen by the Earls of Warwick and Stafford, the Maid excitedly exclaims: "En Non Dé, je sçay bien que ces Angloys me feront mourir, credentes post mortem meam lucrari regnum Franciæ, sed si essent centum mille godons, non habebunt regnum."

Those who care to refer to the Latin depositions containing the expression in question, will find them given in "Procès de Jeanne d'Are," by M. Quicherat (one of the publications of the Société de l'Histoire de France), Vol. 3, pages 122 and 124. M. Quicherat explains the term Godon as "expression populaire du 15me siècle, pour designer les Anglais, de même qn'on disait naguère, les goddem."

In the public accounts of the town of Orleans for the year 1439 appears an entry of payment for the making of deux godons, to be used in the annual celebration of the fête to commemorate the capture of Les Tournelles. The sound of the word godon leads one to the conclusion that the second syllable of the curse was pronounced by our ancestors dom, as it still is in the North of England.

This form of imprecation occurs very rarely in Shakespeare's plays, so far as I am aware; and, in later literature, the name of the Deity is more usually omitted.

Many very amusing caricatures were published in France during the early part of the present century, representing Milord Goddam as an extremely boorish individual, who begins or ends every sentence with his favourite oath. Indeed, his stock of conversation is sometimes completdy exhausted after giving vent to it.

"The Vision of William concerning Pers the Plouhmon," written by Langland in the reign of Edward III., and commonly called "Piers Plowman," shows us that the English of that period thought it necessary to interlard their statements with copious expletives:

I have no peny, quod Pers, poletes to bugg (pullets to buy},
And I sigg (say), bi my soule, I have no salt bacon,
Ne no cokeneyes (fowles), bi Crist colopes to maken.
Passus VI.

And Glutton confesses [Passus V.]:

That I have trespassed with my tonge, I can noughte tell how oft,
Sworen Goddes soule, and so God me help, and Halidom,
There no need ne was, nyne hundreth tymes.

We learn, too, [Passus VII.] that merchants in general fared badly in purgatory, "for they sworen by heore soule." Examples of the oaths used in Chaucer's day (1340-1400) will be found in "The Reeve's Tale," where we meet with the phrases, For Goddes banes (bones), For Cristes peyne, For Cristes sowle, By Goddes hart, By Goddes sale (soul), By Goddes dignité, God wot, and Pardé (par Dieu).

The latter oath is used by St, Joseph in the "Coventry Mysteries," written in the year 1468, which also contain the exclamations, The devil! In the devilis name, and A develys name.

"The Pardoner's Tale" and "The Shipman's Tale" of Chaucer furnish many similar examples; while the oaths in use among the peasantry at a later date are well represented in "Gammer Gurton's Needle," written in 1566, and printed in "Dodsley's Old Plays."

There is a curious old book on the French language, written by John Palsgrave in 1530, and dedicated to Hemry VIII, The titlc of the work is, "L'Éclaircissement de la langue Française." It has been republished by M. Génin, in the series "Documents sur l'histoire de France." Palsgrave tells us, at page 866, that the equivalent of our oaths, by my sowle, by God, was in French par Dieu, but that just as we were in the habit of using the euphemism, by cocke's body, by cocke's flesshe, so our neighhours across the ChanneI exclaimed, par le corps bieu, par la mort bieu. To day they say, corbleu, morbleu, &c. Palsgrave refers also to the singular custom of exclaiming, Christ helpe! "as we say to one whan he neseth" (sneezes). The modern expression is God bless you! He mentions, too, the formula, So God helpe me (Si m'ayt Dieu), which corresponds to the As help me God of Chaucer's time, and the So help me God, or Swelp me, of the present.

Lovers of Shakespeare will scarcely need to be reminded how "full of strange oaths" are the pages of that author's plays. Here are some of them:— 'Slight, "Twelfth Night" ii. 5, God's light; 'Slid, "Merry Wives," iii. 4, God's lid; 'Odsheartlings, "Merry Wives," iii. 4, God's heart; 'Odslifehlings, "Twelfth Night," v. 1, God's life; 'Odspitikins, "Cymbeline," iv. 2, God's pity; 'Odsnownes, "Merry Wives," iv. 1, God's wounds; 'Odsbody, "1 Henry IV.' ii. 1, and 'Odsbodikin, or 'Odsbodkin, "Hamlet," ii. 2, God's body; 'Odsme, "Merry Wives," i. 4, God smite me; like the expressions, "Strike me blind," and "Strike me dumb;" Zounds, "1 Henry IV. I.," God's wounds; By cock, "Hamlet," iv. 5, by God; By cock and pye, "Merry Wives," i. 1, By God and the Pie. The Pie was the Ordinal, or Book of Church Offices, referred to in the Preface to the Book of Common Prayer. It is said to have derived its name from the pied appearance which the large black lettering gave to its pages. This oath probably suggested the association of bird's names in the sign of the old tavern, which gave their name to the "Cock and Pie Fields," Drury Lane. By my halidom, "Two Gentlemen," iv. 2, By my holidom or holiness. It means, too, anything holy on which people are in the habit of taking an oath:—

Ich will that that thou suere
On auter and on messe gere,
On the belles that men ringes,
On messe book the prest singes.
Lay of Havelok the Dane.

It does not mean "by my holy dame," as many people very naturally suppose. God wot, "Hamlet," ii. 2, God knows. In "Havelok the Dane" it is spelt Goddot and Goddoth. Cock's Passion, "Taming of the Shrew," iv. 1, God's sufferings; God s Sonties, "The Merchant of Venice," ii. 2, God's health; Good dild you, "Hamlet," iv. 5, God yield or grant you; By'r lakin, "Tempest," iii. 3, By our ladikin; By the Rood, "Hamlet," iii. 4, By the Cross. Not to mention Fore God, God a mercy, Mercy on me, Faith, Upon my soul, By Gys, and a host of similar interjections.

In "King Henry V." iii. 2, the Irish Captain is made to say, "Be Chrish," "So Chrish save me." It was evidently one of Pat's most characteristic oaths, for it occurs in the famous popular song of "Lilliburlero," sung by the English in 1688 to ridicule the Irish. It is printed in the "Percy Reliques," vol. 2, page 373:—

Dough, by my shoul, de English do praate,
Lilli burlero, bullen a la!
De law's on dare side and Chreish knows that
Lilli burlero, bullen a la!
Now, now, de hereticks all go down,
Lilli burlero, bullen a la!
By Chrish and Shaint Patrick, de nation's our own,
Lilli burlero, bullen a la!

James Howell, in one of his "Epistolæ Ho-Elianæ," dated August l, 1628, writes:—"This infamous custom of swearing, I observe, reigns in England lately more than anywhere else: though a German, in highest puff of passion, swears a hundred thousand sacraments, the Frenchman by the Death of God, the Spaniard by His Flesh, the Irishman by His Five Wounds, though the Scot commonly bids the Devil hale his Soul, yet for variety of oaths the English roarers put down all. Consider well, what a dangerous thing it is to tear in pieces that Dreadful Name, which makes the vast fabric of the world to tremble."

William Congreve's play, "The Old Bachelor," is certainly a landmark in the history of expletives. It literally bristles with oaths, which does not surprise us so much when we find that its first representation, on the boards of Drury Lane Theatre, took place in 1693, just after the conclusion of the siege of Namur, when our old friend "Uncle Toby" was wounded, and when, as he informs us, "Our armies swore terribly in Flanders." Congreve's plays exhibit some curiously attenuated forms of English oaths. The grand old interjection, Zounds! (what a sonorous ring it has), becomes 'oons; God's blood shortens into 'Adsbud; 'Adsheart also occurs, and 'Adslidikins, a variety of the Shakespearian 'Slid. Then we have A Gad's name, Egad, I vow to Gad, O Gad, Gadsobs, 'Sdeath, and its shorter form, Death, Lard, O Lord, By the Lord Harry, and the pueriIe expression, Gad's daggers, belts, blades, and scabbards! "What a dickens" is an old saying which we also find in "The Merry Wives of Windsor." "I cannot tell what the dickins his name is." Dickens is possibly a contraction of devilkins. In Egad we notice the pronunciation of the letter "o" as "a," which was affected at this period by the dandies and loungers who frequented the fashionable resorts of the Spring Garden, the piazzas of Covent Garden, and the Royal Exchange. It probably did not extend to the lower orders of society; for in Congreve's "Love for Love," the old nurse says God! and Lord! and the young man from sea, a God's name. The oath by God is ubiquitous in old English literature. In the "Lay of Havelok the Dane," written about the year 1280, in the reign of Edward the First, we meet with the exclamation Deus several times. It is, of course, the Latin word for God, and probably the original form of our interjection, Deuce! In "Piers Plowman" the English form, By God, is seen, while in Chaucer's poems it stands side by side with the French Pardé or Purdy. It appears in an infinite number of forms—corruptions either intentional to avoid taking God's name in vain, or unintentional, from ignorance of what the phrase meant. Besides the old forms, by cock, 'ecod, and 'egad, we have the modern, by gar, by gaw, by gord, by gum, by gosh, and the negro slave's by golly.

Congreve also has O Gemini, which sounds strangely out of date, like our by Jove. Tertullian tells us that the early Christians used the old Roman oath, Mehercle (by Hercules), without knowing what it meant. So too the mother, who, when scolding her child, says, "plague you," or "drat you," does not know, or care to know, that those expressions are elliptical for God plague you, and God rot you.

The sound of the first syllable of the names Gemini and. Jove explains why the modern Christians continue to swear by them. One of Sheridan's characters, a lady, exclaims, By Gemini! Its more recent form is By Jimminy.

But to return to "Leve for Love." Mess! and By the Mess! is a survival of the once common oath, By the Mass. We meet with it in Chaucer's "Boke of the Duchesse"; and in "Hamlet,' iii. 2:—"By the Mass 'tis very like a camel"; and in "Damon and Pithias" (1571), which will be found in the collection of old plays edited by Isaac Reed, we have the lines:—

Jacke.—By the Masse, I will boxe you!
Wyll.—By cocke, I will foxe you!

Marry and Amen is a form of the old oath, By Mary. In the "Chester Mysteries" (circ. 1450), the Patriarch Noah is made to swear by Marye. Why not by Joan of Arc? Zooks means God's looks: We find two other forms of the interjection in the play, viz., Gadszooks and 'Odszooks.

The exclamation, Flesh! is a contraction of 'Odsflesh, which appears elsewhere as 'Odsfish. 'Odso is probably a corruption of Godsbones. Marry come up, like the Marry guep of "Hudibras," I. iii. 202, has been interpreted Mary go up, an allusion to the Assumption of Our Lady.

Next we come to Sheridan's Plays. In "A Trip to Scarborough," (first acted in 1777) we come across some good round oaths. The exquisite Lord Foppington, when trying on his new clothes, exclaims:—

Death and eternal tortures, sir! I say the coat is too wide here by a foot.
Tailor.—My Lord, if if had been tighter, 'twould neither have hook'd nor button'd.
Lord F., Rat the hooks and buttons, sir! As Gad shall jedge me, it hangs on my shoulders like a chairman's surtout.

A little later, the Fop exhibits his powers of conversation:—"I am overjoyed that you think of continuing here, stap my vitals (his favourite expression). For Gad's sake, Madam, how has your ladyship been able to subsist thus long under the fatigues of a country-life," and, when wounded in an encounter provoked by his own folly, cries out:—"Ah, quite through the body, stap my vitals!" They were very nearly stopped that time. We must not quit Sheridan's works without noticing the bold Bob Acres' "genteel" style of oath, which adapts itself to the subject for the time being under discussion:—"Ods whips and wheels, I've travelled like a comet," Ods blushes and blooms; Ods crickets; Ods frogs and tambours; Ods jigs and tabors; Ods hilts and blades; Ods flints, pans, and triggers; Ods balls and barrels; Ods bullets and blades; Ods crowns and laurels. His servant, on the contrary, usually swears by the Mass.

During the time of the Commonwealth, profane swearing was vigorously suppressed, together with play-acting and other popular amusements, which appeared worldly to the Puritan eye. We read in "Hansard's Parliamentary History,' that on June 28, 1650, a law was made that every person styling himself a duke, marquis, earl, viscount, or baron, who profanely cursed or swore, should forfeit thirty shillings, a baronet or knight twenty shillings, an esquire ten shillings, a gentleman six shillings and eight pence, and all inferior persons three shillings and four pence. Wives and widows were to pay penalties equivalent to what their husbands would have paid, and single women according to their father's rank. The distinction between dukes (especially self styled ones) and inferior persons seems at first sight to be out of keeping with the democratic principles of a Commonwealth, but though the house of Lords was abolished, the nobility were still recognised as a class, and the crude doctrine of the Equality of Man, which was so insisted upon by the French republicans in after times, was here conspicuous by its absence.

At the restoration of the monarchy there followed, as a natural consequence of this system of repression, a time of unbridled licence and of reaction in the opposite direction, when the people indulged in strong language to their hearts' content.

At last, in the nineteenth year of King George II., a statute was passed, which recites that "forasmuch as the horrid, impious, and execrable vices of profane cursing and swearing (so highly displeasing to Almighty God, and loathsome and offensive to every Christian), are become so frequent and notorious, that, unless speedily and effectually punished, (sic) they may justly provoke the Divine vengeance to increase the many calamities these nations now labour under," (the calamities referred to being probably the War of the Austrian Succession, which included the battles of Dettingen and Fontenoy, and the Scotch Rebellion of 1745), and that, "whereas the laws now in being for punishing those crimes have not answered the intents for which they were designed, by means of difficulties attending the putting such laws in execution," and goes on to provide a remedy for this shocking state of things by enacting, that after June 1, 1746, any person convicted before a magistrate, on the testimony of one witness, of profanely cursing and swearing, should forfeit a sum of money proportionate to his status in the social scale. For this purpose the British public were divided into three classes :—

(1) Day labourers, common soldiers, common sailors, and common seamen, who were to be fined one shilling for every oath.
(2) Other persons under the degree of a gentleman, who were to pay two shillings.
(3) Persons of or above the degree of a gentleman, who were to forfeit the sum of five shillings for each oath they uttered.

For a second offence the culprit was to pay double, and for a subsequent offence treble the penalty, which was in every case to be applied for the benefit of the poor of the parish. The common soldier, sailor, or seaman who could not or would not pay the penalty and costs, was directed to be "publickly set in the stocks," where he probably exhausted his entire vocabulary of oaths in cursing the whole tribe of "constables, petty constables, tything-men and other peace officers," who had brought him to that low estate.

This statute, which repealed an Act of William III. to the same effect, and an older and still less efficient one of King James I.'s reign, was ordered to be publicly read in church, immediately after morning or evening prayer, on four specified Sundays of the year. Proceedings are now more usually taken under "The Towns' Police Clauses Act" of the present reign, by which persons who use profane or obscene language in any street to the annoyance of residents or passengers, are liable to a penalty. The "bad language" of the present day must be characterised as obscene rather than profane, and here it may not be out of place to mention a word, which is often classed as profane or obscene, but which does not properly fall within either of such categories. It has been tabooed in the "upper circles" of society as not fit for ears polite, and that not because it is wicked, but because (much worse than wicked) it is vulgar. Among the lower classes, on the other hand, it is so incessantly used that it is impossible to walk from Westminster to Whitechapel, or from Highbury to Highgate, without hearing it repeatedly on the lips of passers by. I refer, of course, to that most characteristic of English epithets, bloody or b——, as the printer usually prefers to spell it. Many are the derivations which have been assigned to this word. A favourite one, that it represents a shortened form of the asseveration By Our Lady, is a very tempting one. It is, perhaps, as likely that the exclamation Blood! is a contraction of By our Lud as that it is the equivalent of the French Sang-dieu; and, by analogy, the oath By our leddy would naturally contract into blood! But the use of the word by itself as an interjection is so exceedingly rare that the above ingenious derivation of the term must, I am afraid, be abandoned.

Again, it has been often urged that it must be connected with the once common oath, blood and wounds! or bloody wounds! which is still used in Ireland, and contains (it is needless to say) a profane reference to the "Five wounds" of the Crucifixion.

Those who support this theory adduce an alleged analogous adjective woundy, which is said to he still in use in some parts of the country. The expression, woundy angry, occurs in Congreve's "Love for Love." The remarks which will presently be made with regard to changes of meaning in the word bloody will apply equally to woundy, though the latter adjective is possibly only a corrupted form of wondrous.

Another origin that has been suggested is, that it has reference to the habits and customs of the "young bloods," or fashionable rowdies of the restoration period, and that the expression, bloody drunk, is equivalent to the proverbial saying, "as drunk as a lord." This seems far-fetched, and not sufficient to account for the widespread use of this qualifying particle.

But the most probable—and, at the same time most simple—solution of the problem is that the word is nothing more than an example of "degradation in sense" of the common English adjective, which primarily means covered or stained with blood. It is said that in Holland, the adjective bloedig, and in Germany blutig, are some-times used in a sense similar to our slang term bloody or bleeding, but it may be nothing more than a literal translation of the language of our "jolly jack tars."

The figurative use of the word, as meaning bloodthirsty, cruel, hard hearted, is to be met with very frequently in literature. Thus, in the English Bible, we have the expressions, a bloody husband; Saul and his bloody house. In Shakespeare the word is often used in a similar sense, and when so used becomes a natural term of reproach to a person, under circumstances not necessarily involving bloodshed. The transference of the epithet from persons to inanimate objects follows as a matter of course.

I will endeavour to make my meaning clear by giving some examples of the use of the word from English authors:—

In that unutterably prosy work, "Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded," written by Richardson about the year 1742, occurs the following sentence: "He is bloody passionate, and has fought several duels." (Vol. iii. p. 397.) Here there is an obvious connection between the words bloody and duels.

Again, a comedy, "The Man of Mode," written by Sir George Etheredge towards the end of the 17th century, and acted in 1715 at the Duke's Theatre, contains this dialogue:—

Dorimant.—Give him half-a-crown.
Medley.—Not without he will promise to be bloody drunk.
Act I., Scene 1.

The sense is here "outrageous," "devilish," but not necessarily causing bloodshed.

Lastly, Swift, in his "Journal to Stella," October 5, 1711, writes: "But it grows bloody cold, and I have no waistcoat." Here we see the word applied to the weather. Thus, in Queen Anne's reign, the word had dwindled down to what it continues in Queen Victoria's—a mere intensive adjective used adverbially, having passed through an evolution similar to that undergone by the adjectives "awful" and "fearful". The three examples given above are selected merely to illustrate what were probably the successive stages of degradation in meaning through which the word has passed, and must not be taken to represent historically the precise sense in which the word was generally used at the respective dates named.

Its meaning to day is vague and colourless in the extreme. Hamlet's "Very, very pajocke," and his "Too, too solid flesh," might be freely translated into modern English by the help of the word which we have been considering, and I can only hope that my somewhat laboured explanation has rendered this terrible bugbear as harmless as was the lion, who confessed that, in spite of his sanguinary appearance, he was only Snug the joiner after all!