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Explicit Content

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Scene from The New Artwork and Thriller of Gossiping, Being a Real Account of All of the Ladies’s Golf equipment in and in regards to the Metropolis and Suburbs of London, c.1760. British Library Board.


What follows shall be express as a result of it’s about expletives; it could additionally appear offensive, as a result of it’s about how phrases have turn out to be so. 


I stumbled upon this query as a historic advisor for a brand new drama set within the Sixteenth century, when I wanted to evaluate whether or not sure curse phrases within the script would have been acquainted to the Tudors. The revelation – given away within the title of Melissa Mohr’s fantastic guide Holy Sh*t – is that each one swear phrases concern what’s sacred or what’s scatological. Within the Center Ages, the worst phrases had been about what was holy; by the 18th century they had been about bodily capabilities. The Sixteenth century was a interval when what was thought of obscene was in flux.

Probably the most offensive phrases nonetheless used God’s identify: God’s blood, God’s wounds, God’s bones, dying, flesh, foot, coronary heart, arms, nails, physique, sides, guts, tongue, eyes. A statute of 1606 forbade the usage of phrases that ‘iestingly or prophanely’ spoke the identify of God in performs. Rattling and hell had been early fashionable variations of such blasphemous oaths (bloody got here later), as had been the euphemistic asseverations, gad, gog and egad.

Many phrases we take into account, at greatest, crude had been medieval common-or-garden phrases of description – arse, shit, fart, bollocks, prick, piss, turd – and weren’t thought of obscene. To say ‘I’m going to piss’ was the equal of claiming ‘I’m going to wee’ right this moment and was politer than the brand new Sixteenth-century vulgarity, ‘I’m going to take a leak’. Placing physique components or merchandise the place they shouldn’t usually be created delightfully defiant phrases similar to ‘turd in your enamel’, which seems within the 1509 compendium of the Oxford don John Stanbridge. Non-literal makes use of of those phrases – which is what tends to be required for swearing – like ‘take the piss’, ‘on the piss’, ‘piss off’ – all appear to be Twentieth-century thrives. For the latter, the Tudors would have substituted one thing diabolical – ‘the satan rot thee’ – or epidemiological – ‘a pox on you’.

However the scatological was beginning to turn out to be obscene. Sard, swive and fuck had been all barely impolite phrases for sexual activity. An early recorded use of the f-word was a bit of marginalia by an nameless monk writing in 1528 in a manuscript copy of Cicero’s De officiis (a treatise on ethical philosophy). The inscription reads: ‘O d fuckin Abbot’. On condition that the usage of the f-word as an intensifier didn’t catch on for an additional three centuries, that is doubtless a punchy touch upon the abbot’s immoral behaviour.

Frig and jape had been additionally on the cusp of offensiveness. Randle Cotgrave’s 1611 French-English dictionary interprets the French fringue as ‘to lecher or lasciviously frig with the tail’ (tail was a euphemism for penis). Cunt was additionally beginning to transfer from being probably the most direct phrase to explain part of the anatomy into obscenity. Shakespeare makes jokes in Hamlet about ‘nation issues’ by which he clearly means (as the following line says) what ‘lie[s] between maids’ legs’. Bugger remained a non-explicit phrase for anal intercourse.

At present many of those phrases have an admirable grammatical flexibility for which the Tudors had no clear substitute. For a phrase to specific unlucky circumstances that appear unimaginable to beat (‘we’re fucked’), the Historic Thesaurus of English tells us that they’d have proclaimed themselves to be ‘in scorching water’ (first use 1537), ‘in a pickle’ (1562), ‘in straits’ (1565) or, in probably the most excessive predicament, at one’s ‘utter shift’ (c.1604). To ‘fuck up’ or spoil one thing, they’d have used ‘to bodge’ or ‘to botch’. To say one thing was codswallop, baloney, bollocks, they’d have gone with trumpery, baggage, garbage or the fantastic reduplicating phrases that seem within the 1570s and 80s: flim-flam, fiddle-faddle, or fible-fable.

However, holy phrases apart, in the event you actually needed to offend somebody within the Sixteenth century, you’d name them a whore, knave, thief, harlot, cuckold, or false. They nonetheless cared extra about a popularity for behaving badly than tips on how to describe the behaviour itself.


Suzannah Lipscomb is creator of The Voices of Nîmes: Ladies, Intercourse and Marriage in Early Trendy Languedoc (Oxford College Press, 2019), host of the Not Simply the Tudors podcast and Professor Emerita on the College of Roehampton. 

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