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Ancient History (Old Threads) > Historical use of profanity

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message 1: by Christopher (new)

Christopher Datta | 82 comments In another thread we began a discussion of the series Deadwood. Yes, it's a tv series and not a book, but it raised a question in my mind about profanity in historic fiction writing. This is what I said about Deadwood.

I liked Deadwood quite a bit, but be prepared for a great deal of the f word! I've always wondered if that was historically accurate. In the 1800s did people use the f word when swearing? Deadwood is the only instance I can think of where you see it used often or at all in my reading of that time period (and tv watching.). I'd like to hear what others know about this. I write about the Civil War and my characters never use the f word, but some of them are soldiers and probably would have said it if it was in common use at that time. Does anyone out there know?


message 2: by Belle (new)

Belle Blackburn | 63 comments I went through this too, since I write in the same era. I had "oh shit" and one of my beta readers told me it was anachronistic (she writes historical fiction too) and suggested I use "oh damnation" instead, which I did. I will be interested in the responses to this since I want my characters to cuss appropriately. :oD


message 3: by Jonathan (last edited Jun 02, 2013 12:46PM) (new)

Jonathan Hopkins | 25 comments The 'F' word has been in use in the British army since at least the 15th century, and apparently was the most commonly used oath in both Marlborough's and Wellington's day. As far as I'm aware the 'S' word is medieval and even the 'C' word goes back to Old Norse. Beta readers ain't always right!

I too avoid 'F' (and C). In my view it puts a lot of readers off. It might be period (and present day) correct that soldiers use a profanity at least every other word, but it soon gets tiresome in a typescript. And while that might sound old-fashioned I reserve my right to be so ;)


message 4: by Heather (new)

Heather (jjgrl55) | 205 comments Maybe this book will help: Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing. :D

Personally, I like a certain amount of swearing in my historical fiction, just to add realism and a bit of punch to certain scenes. But it can definitely be overused. It also bothers me when authors choose to not use words that are considered swear words today, but were perfectly legitimate terms in the time period they are writing. For instance, using "cunny" might bother some people because of it's close affiliation to another VERY bad word, but it was the most common term for female genitalia for a great deal of history.

I agree about soldiers though. If authors actually used swear words as much as soldiers then and now cursed, I think my eyes would start bleeding.


message 5: by Christopher (new)

Christopher Datta | 82 comments Heather J wrote: "Maybe this book will help: Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing. :D

Personally, I like a certain amount of swearing in my historical fiction, just to add realism and a bit of punch to certain sc..."


Well, if you watch Deadwood, your ears will bleed!


message 6: by Belle (new)

Belle Blackburn | 63 comments I'm not much of a cusser so mine are used sparingly. I am just too prudey to use the F word ever, in real life or writing. So I am probably not a good resource for great cussing.


message 7: by Darcy (new)

Darcy (drokka) | 111 comments Well, if Mythbusters has anything to do with it, they did manage to prove that swearing increases tolerance for pain. This would go a long way to explain the ubiquitous use of swearing in the armed forces and other arduous pursuits. ;)

http://dsc.discovery.com/tv-shows/myt...

Just to add an historical note, most 4 letter swear words in the English languages come from Germanic tribes, especially the Saxons. They were more commonly used in Medieval times than blasphemous terms. It would be an interesting study to work out if that shift occurred more or less when more "civilians" started to take on leadership roles in wars over the nobility.


message 8: by Sharon (new)

Sharon Robards (sharonrobards) | 236 comments There's a great reference for the 1800s

1811 Dictionary Of The Vulgar Tongue by Francis Grose

Available from gutenberg

http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/5402


message 9: by Jennifer (new)

Jennifer (jennepstein) Swearing certainly presents a dilemma for a writer. I didn't have to confront it much with my first novel, which was set in China and Paris (though as I've noted on another thread I quite enjoyed how creatively Chinese can curse!). My second novel is has a lost of scenes set in both the Japanese and American military during WWII. I ended up trying to stay as true to the lingo as I could for both, since for me that's part of the real pull of historical fiction--that it can sometimes bring you places with which you aren't fully comfortable.

That said, I had an interesting discussion with someone recently about why curse words are so interesting linguistically. As someone fascinated by language, I am also fascinated by (and, to be honest, perhaps more drawn to than I should be) the power and "punch" they add to a thought....though in my opinion that power has been significantly diminished by how many of them have now made their way into common parlance.


message 10: by Marlana (new)

Marlana Williams (marlanawilliams) | 5 comments Christopher wrote: "In another thread we began a discussion of the series Deadwood. Yes, it's a tv series and not a book, but it raised a question in my mind about profanity in historic fiction writing. This is what..."

Lovely! A topic I find so interesting, coupled with one of my favourite TV shows of all time. I wrote a gold-rush era Canadian historical fiction book and actually was very curious about this myself when researching profanity. It turns out the swearing in Deadwood was accurate, so when I was writing my book I wanted to steer clear from Gwen Bristow-type writing.

Swearing also has evolved and what may have been said in the Victorian era may not sound quite so harsh now, but was back then. The context of certain words would say it all. But we also have invented words along the way. Keep in mind there would be a high class of people and etiquette was strictly enforced for many members of society, whereas it would fall away to others. But some words that we use today, that you'll hear in Deadwood -- oh yes, those words were around and used, but the folk that would have used them -- different story.

I think in a case like Deadwood, the people there were such outcasts and since there were no rules (and they were famous for 'no law') then there was this fall away of freedom that people began to exhibit and their rants went on auto-pilot because there was no one there to enforce how to behave. You'll notice some people back then took high-society with them to places like this, but were grossly outnumbered.

When I think of other novels that don't have anything to do with the gold rush eras, and just focus on certain people who lived in cities of their time, then the language would also be stunted due to their societal expectations.

In short, did it exist? You betch'er balls it did! :)


message 11: by J. (new)

J. Gleason (joegleason) | 45 comments Great subject! But difficult to get right. I try to avoid too much swearing as it pulls people away from the story and makes them wonder about whether it is appropriate or not.


message 12: by Christopher (new)

Christopher Datta | 82 comments Holly wrote: "Christopher wrote: "In another thread we began a discussion of the series Deadwood. Yes, it's a tv series and not a book, but it raised a question in my mind about profanity in historic fiction wr..."

Thanks for this very thoughtful and informative response.


message 13: by Christopher (new)

Christopher Datta | 82 comments J. wrote: "Great subject! But difficult to get right. I try to avoid too much swearing as it pulls people away from the story and makes them wonder about whether it is appropriate or not."

It is difficult to get right. I want to be true to the Civil War period my story is set in, but don't want to turn off my audience, either. A delicate balance sometimes.


message 14: by J. (new)

J. Gleason (joegleason) | 45 comments I don't have a source for this, but from what I understand, English swearing is derivative and comes from the Anglo-Saxon side of their heritage. After 1066, the rulers were French (William of Orange) and imported many of their nobility and their language. Over 100 years later, Henry II (father of Richard the Lionhearted of Robin Hood fame) was originally Henri d'Anjou. He married Eleanor d'Aquitaine. The French, by the way, swear very differently from the English.


message 15: by J. (new)

J. Gleason (joegleason) | 45 comments And so the nobles swore very differently from the commoners.


message 16: by Christopher (new)

Christopher Datta | 82 comments J. wrote: "I don't have a source for this, but from what I understand, English swearing is derivative and comes from the Anglo-Saxon side of their heritage. After 1066, the rulers were French (William of Ora..."

Well, if you watch Monty Python and the Holy Graile they certainly swear differently! ;-)


message 17: by J. (new)

J. Gleason (joegleason) | 45 comments They're much more inventive and elegant. Instead of saying "your mother's a whore" the French would say, "your mother learned to swim on the sidewalks of Venice."


message 18: by Christopher (new)

Christopher Datta | 82 comments J. wrote: "They're much more inventive and elegant. Instead of saying "your mother's a whore" the French would say, "your mother learned to swim on the sidewalks of Venice.""

Or as Monty Python would say, "you son of a pig dog, I fart in your general direction!" Ok, now I'm being silly.


message 19: by J. (new)

J. Gleason (joegleason) | 45 comments And funny. But oddly still accurate. True vulgarity for the French comes from associations with animals. Calling someone a "Vache" ("or pig dog") is far worse than most Anglo-saxons cuss words.


message 20: by Cheryl A (new)

Cheryl A | 920 comments As a reader, I will often skip/skim profanity when used excessively - it loses meaning, just as in everyday conversation. I just finished The Obituary Writer, which had two cuss words - "F" and "F'ing". The use of these words - and only these two words - was extremely powerful.


message 21: by Zoe (new)

Zoe Saadia (zoesaadia) Christopher wrote: "Or as Monty Python would say, "you son of a pig dog, I fart in your general direction!" Ok, now I'm being silly."

you forgot the fact that his mother was a hamster and his father smelled of elderberries :D


message 22: by Heather (new)

Heather (jjgrl55) | 205 comments J. wrote: "And funny. But oddly still accurate. True vulgarity for the French comes from associations with animals. Calling someone a "Vache" ("or pig dog") is far worse than most Anglo-saxons cuss words."

I would not have put it past those clever Monty Python guys to have actually researched this before putting it in the film, hence the accuracy.


message 23: by Ian (new)

Ian Stewart (goodreadercomIanStewart) | 118 comments Haven't for a long time seen or heard any of those quaint old words people used to use as substitutes for profanities.

Sugar! Heck! Hang it! Fiddle! Horse feathers! Bulldust!

And not forgetting frigging this and frigging that.

Of course, everyone knew what they stood for. :-)


message 24: by D.L. (new)

D.L. Johnstone | 2 comments It goes quite a few centuries before Deadwood or the 15th century, actually. I wrote about it in my blog "Rome and Other Four Letter Words – Profanity in the Ancient World"
http://dljohnstone.com/2013/02/18/rom...


message 25: by Jonathan (new)

Jonathan Hopkins | 25 comments Nice article, DL :)


message 26: by Ian (new)

Ian Stewart (goodreadercomIanStewart) | 118 comments Delightful! Like you, D.L., I was not introduced to any material of this kind in my Latin classes (in school or university). Could have written much more sparkling essays with my vocabulary expanded to include some of these bons mots (to mix languages). :-)


message 27: by April (last edited Jun 05, 2013 08:03AM) (new)

April | 197 comments My parents always tried to get me to cuss like the French, though they didn't know it. They always said my education would allow me to be more creative in my insults that "base" cussing.

Guess I'll work on my kids and try the same. "Learning to swim on the sidewalks of Venice" is really good. I've got to find more of these


message 28: by Christine (new)

Christine Malec | 173 comments J. wrote: "And funny. But oddly still accurate. True vulgarity for the French comes from associations with animals. Calling someone a "Vache" ("or pig dog") is far worse than most Anglo-saxons cuss words."

I always wondered whether it was a meaningful insult when the Frenchman said "Your father was a hampster and your mother smelled of elderberries," or whether it was simply a meaningless flight of fancy.


message 29: by Christopher (new)

Christopher Datta | 82 comments Zoe wrote: "Christopher wrote: "Or as Monty Python would say, "you son of a pig dog, I fart in your general direction!" Ok, now I'm being silly."

you forgot the fact that his mother was a hamster and his fath..."


That made me laugh! I had forgotten that. No one could swear like the Pythons.


message 30: by [deleted user] (new)

I let the occasional word slip and try to watch it around others. I am sure it is as old as time. I personally wouldn't care to read a book full of it.


message 31: by C.P. (last edited Jun 06, 2013 04:58PM) (new)

C.P. Lesley (cplesley) | 717 comments It can be kind of funny at times. I have my 16th-century Russian hero say, in one or two places, "Devil take him/her." One of my beta readers objected that he sounded too 18th-century English. And in a sense, she was right. To English speakers, this particular oath sounds very 18th century. But in Russian, it goes way back, is still used today, and is about the equivalent of "Dammit."


message 32: by Sharon (new)

Sharon Robards (sharonrobards) | 236 comments I'm not sure where it dates, except to say at least the early 1800s to say to a woman 'you're a bitch' was more insulting than 'you're a whore'


message 33: by Caddy (new)

Caddy Rowland (caddyrowland) | 36 comments The f word was quite common centuries ago and was not considered particularly offesnive. Do you want to f? was quite acceptable. As history progressed, it became associated with peasants and "nice" people didn't say it.

Personally, I do use raw language in my writing when the character calls for it. My peasants swear, for example...but my priest doesn't. :)


message 34: by Christine (new)

Christine Malec | 173 comments C.P. wrote: "It can be kind of funny at times. I have my 16th-century Russian hero say, in one or two places, "Devil take him/her." One of my beta readers objected that he sounded too 18th-century English. And ..."

It's been a long time, but I remember being amused by an Arabic street kid's eloquent cursing in James Mitchener's The Drifters.


message 35: by [deleted user] (new)

while I said I wouldn't care for a book full of profanity, I do enjoy seeing the different ways its used in different books.


message 36: by Yael (new)

Yael Politis I'm new here and not sure this is the place for this question, but here goes.
For a novel that takes place in the 1840s I am using www.etymonline.com to check words. Does anyone know of another online etymology dictionary that is more comprehensive for phrases? Also what I'm having more trouble with is finding a replacement -- i.e. if I look up a term and find it wasn't yet in use -- so how would they have said it then? I've been going through a long process with that - trying every other term or phrase I can think of until I do find one that was in use. But perhaps there is a comprehensive resource that I don't know about. Any advice would be welcome.


message 37: by Darcy (new)

Darcy (drokka) | 111 comments I usually Google using either "origin of ...." or "etymology of ..." which tends to bring up loads of options for said word or definition.


message 38: by Yael (new)

Yael Politis Darcy wrote: "I usually Google using either "origin of ...." or "etymology of ..." which tends to bring up loads of options for said word or definition."

Thanks for the tip. I'll give it a try.


message 39: by Christopher (new)

Christopher Datta | 82 comments Christine wrote: "C.P. wrote: "It can be kind of funny at times. I have my 16th-century Russian hero say, in one or two places, "Devil take him/her." One of my beta readers objected that he sounded too 18th-century ..."

I've spent a lot of time in my career overseas. I have found tourists often seem to find it amusing to teach kids obscene phrases in English. I have heard kids say the foulest things that I'm sure they had no idea what the words meant.


message 40: by Robin (new)

Robin (ukamerican) | 548 comments J. wrote: "I don't have a source for this, but from what I understand, English swearing is derivative and comes from the Anglo-Saxon side of their heritage. After 1066, the rulers were French (William of Ora..."

I think you mean William of Normandy - William of Orange ruled in the 17th century.


message 41: by J. (new)

J. Gleason (joegleason) | 45 comments My mistake. Thanks for correcting.


message 42: by Kim (new)

Kim Rendfeld (kim_rendfeld) | 2 comments People have used foul language since the language was invented. In my fiction (set in 8th century Francia), I allude my characters' profanity but rarely use the actual obscenity. It can impeded the reader's enjoyment. Sometimes I will use something close like "God-cursed" or "son of a whore" or to be really elaborate "rat-tailed son of a whore's cur."


message 43: by Marschel (new)

Marschel Paul | 4 comments I really enjoyed learning the mid-19th century American slang and swear words for my novel, The Spirit Room. It was fun to figure out what adolescent girls would say out loud but also what they would think in their heads for their internal monologue. And then as life got rougher for my younger protagonist, I had her deepening just a tad into her swearing. I was also intrigued by all the "clean" versions of swear words. Two I used in particular were "tarnation" for damnation and "lawky" for lordy. There seemed to be lots of cleaned up alternatives. But of course, gritty characters would use gritty words in life as in fiction.


message 44: by Lisa (new)

Lisa Shea (lisashea) | 82 comments This is an older thread but I thought I'd chime in for anybody using it for reference. I found in medieval times that oaths often involved God and body parts. So they would say "God's teeth!" or "God's blood!" when they were upset.

Lisa


message 45: by Miroir (new)

Miroir Mitani | 13 comments Lisa wrote: "This is an older thread but I thought I'd chime in for anybody using it for reference. I found in medieval times that oaths often involved God and body parts. So they would say "God's teeth!" or "G..."

Thank you so much, Lisa. 'God's blood) sounds rather authentic and noble. I haven't been with this group for a week, but already have gained a good information. Thank you again.


message 46: by Lisa (new)

Lisa Shea (lisashea) | 82 comments Mirror -

I write medieval novels and I do like the feel of those oaths. They feel strong and powerful - while also in theme with the times.

Lisa


message 47: by Miroir (new)

Miroir Mitani | 13 comments My, I am impressed! Medieval English or middle English they call it? is so difficult to learn. I have clicked your photo and your portrait has that feel of Court portraits we find in palaces or chateaux.


message 48: by Lisa (new)

Lisa Shea (lisashea) | 82 comments You're very sweet, Mirror. My boyfriend took that photo. He's reasonably talented with a camera :).

I'm not even wearing my medieval garb for that one :).

Lisa


message 49: by Miroir (new)

Miroir Mitani | 13 comments Lisa wrote: "You're very sweet, Mirror. My boyfriend took that photo. He's reasonably talented with a camera :).

I'm not even wearing my medieval garb for that one :).

Lisa"


I thought I might mention that I live in Sydney Australia in a different time zone. Last night at around 23:00 local time I saw your 2 replies. As I wanted to write a proper reply to my new Goodreads friend, I chose to do so in the following morning. You see I had been down to the beach and swam myself till I was exhausted. (It is summer down in the southern hemisphere.)

Before I crushed on my bed, I was looking at the list of your medieval books. May I ask which one contains the expression ‘God’s Blood’? The reason I ask is because I would like to use the expression in my Graphic novel and would like to mention your work in Reference page.

Regards,
Mirror Miroir


message 50: by [deleted user] (new)

I am enjoying these medieval cuss words. So much more fun than the modern ones.


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