The word “swear” has two meanings, or at least it seems that way. Swearing, as in swearing an oath, means making a solemn promise, whereas swearing also means using foul language. The two meanings are closely related since the swearing of an oath traditionally involved swearing on the Bible or in God’s name. So when, in the 16th century, people developed a habit of invoking “sacred names” when no oath was being made, they were guilty of “taking sacred names in vain.” Such an act was profane (the opposite of sacred) and the word used to describe such a horrendous sin was profanity.
The same applies to cursing, since cursing traditionally involved invoking sacred names (or even demonic names) and wishing ill upon someone. So inappropriate cursing is also profanity. Here is a list of 10 words that you’ve probably not met with before, which relate to swear words and curse words in one way or another.
1. Etymon. As a general rule, swearing of any kind is frowned on in polite society and has been through the ages. So there is a tendency to invent euphemisms for swear words, so that they might be used in a milder form. In the Middle Ages, the fashion was for religious swear words like egad and zounds. Egad was a simple substitute for “God”. Zounds was a shortening of “God’s wounds” as was – excuse my French – woundikins. Odds bodkins was “God’s body” and gadzooks was “God’s hooks” referring to the nails that pinned Christ on the cross.
You might think that the creation of such religious swear words has stopped, but it hasn’t. The newer ones simply don’t sound so archaic. Gee whiz and jeez (for Jesus) are quite recent, as are; jeepers creepers (for Jesus Christ), doggone (for God damn), gosh (for God) and great Scott (for good God). Also recent is the use of the names Christopher Columbus, Judas Priest and Jiminy Cricket as mild swear words, for which the etymon is Jesus Christ – but you probably wouldn’t know that unless you were told. An etymon, by the way, is a root word from which other words derive and etymology is, of course, the study of etymons.
2. Execration: To most people, the use of such religious swear words is now regarded as tame and has no real place in execration. When you really want to express yourself in a curse, obscure Christian euphemisms no longer cut the mustard. However direct curses are rarely offensive in the words they employ, since they whole point is to wish ill on someone rather than deliver a spirited insult.
Take for example the Chinese curse; “may you come to the attention of the authorities!” It may sound a little lame at first blush, but that’s probably because a certain amount of bile has been lost in translation. I’m told by US tax offenders that “May you come to the attention of the IRS!” is about as mean as a curse can get. Even so, it doesn’t have the poetic grit of my favorite Arab curse “May wild asses defile the grave of your grandmother!” and neither does it have the surreal spitefulness of my favorite Liverpool curse “May the hairs on your arse turn to hammers and beat your balls to death!”
3. Cambronne: “It’s a load of old cambronne” is a phrase that used to be heard in the tea rooms and coffee houses of 19th century England when someone doubted the veracity of some idea or opinion. Sadly it has fallen out of use and lives on only in foot notes to treatises on latrinalia (the definition of which is discussed below). The word cambronne is eponymous as every Frenchman surely knows. Here’s one version of its origin:
The scene is the final hours of the battle of Waterloo and General Pierre Cambronne finds himself heavily outnumbered and surrounded by English soldiers and cannon. Commanding the British troops, the generous General Colville with his young interpreter Charles Bartleby-Snobsworth by his side, calls to General Cambronne with the words;
“I say, old boy, no need for any further nastiness, why not lay down your weapons and we can all watch the rest of the pyrotechnics from here.”
Colville unfortunately cannot speak a word of French, and Bartleby-Snobsworth, his interpreter, actually skipped French classes at Eton to play Cricket, so he only knows “un mot ou deux.” General Cambronne, who speaks flawless English, chooses foolishly to respond in French, shouting out bravely; “La garde meurt et ne se rend pas!”
Bartleby-Snobsworth doesn’t understand a word of this and mishears it anyway, thinking Cambronne said merde not muert. So when Colville asks him what Cambronne said, he replies;
“Shit!, sir. The Frenchy said ‘shit’.”
“That’s hardly polite,” mutters General Colville as he signals the orders to fire the cannons.