7 Truly Remarkable Events in the History of Swearing

Swearing: How it started. How it’s going.

Jack Shepherd
Cellar Door
Published in
6 min readJan 5, 2023

--

A Medieval text with the first written example of the eff word
The first written example of the eff word

N.B. This is an article about the history of swearing, so do prepare for some R-rated language.

We’ve been swearing roughly as long as we’ve been stubbing our toes or tripping over the (Proto-Indo-European) cat on the way to the (Proto-Indo-European) bathroom in the night. But the types of words that fit the category of what we consider to be “swear words” in English have changed dramatically in the last couple of thousand years. As the linguist Melissa Mohr shows in a fascinating history of swearing, Holy Sh*t, what counts as a forbidden or shocking word underwent a major shift from making oaths before God in the Middle Ages to referring to bodily acts in the Renaissance and beyond. If you wanted to offend a medieval, you’d be much better off talking blithely about “God’s arms” than telling raunchy stories about who swived the Miller’s wife when he went into town.

Lewd graffiti from Pompeii
A polite message to Restituta with a request regarding her tunic

It’s been almost 2,000 years since a Pompeiian took time out of his day to write, “Restituta, take off your tunic, please, and show us your hairy privates,” on a wall in the courtyard of the Tavern of Verecundus (as shown in the image above), and as charmingly familiar as ancient Roman rudeness is to our own sensibilities, the art of swearing has taken some absolutely wild twists and turns along the way. In no particular order, here are a few notable happenings in the history of swearing.

1. The medievals thought that swearing literally tears God’s body apart …

An image from the Bayeux Tapestry of Harold swearing an oath to William the Conquerer
Harold II making a solemn oath on two relics to William (the Conqueror) that he would live to regret

According to Mohr, swearing an oath for the medievals was asking God to witness your statement with His very body, so that “When you swear ‘by God’s nails,’ you tear the nails out of God’s hand as he sits in heaven.” This isn’t to say that this sort of swearing was forbidden — it was just an incredibly potent reason not to take an oath trivially or falsely.

--

--

Jack Shepherd
Cellar Door

I have a newsletter about crossword puzzles and a podcast about rom-coms. Formerly editorial director @BuzzFeed. Email: JackAShepherd at gmail