Evolution of Profanity

The evolution of written profanity began roughly in the

sixteenth century, and continues to change with each generation that

it sees. Profanity is recognized in many Shakespearean works, and has

continually evolved into the profane language used today. Some cuss

words have somehow maintained their original meanings throughout

hundreds of years, while many others have completely changed meaning

or simply fallen out of use.

William Shakespeare, though it is not widely taught, was not a

very clean writer. In fact, he was somewhat of a potty mouth. His

works encompassed a lot of things that some people wish he had not.

"That includes a fair helping of sex, violence, crime, horror,

politics, religion, anti-authoritarianism, anti-semitism, racism,

xenophobia, sexism, jealousy, profanity, satire, and controversy of

all kinds" (Macrone 6). In his time, religious and moral curses were

more offensive than biological curses. Most all original (before

being censored) Shakespearean works contain very offensive profanity,

mostly religious, which is probably one of many reasons that his works

were and are so popular. "Shakespeare pushed a lot of buttons in his

day- which is one reason he was so phenomenally popular. Despite what

they tell you, people like having their buttons pushed" (Macrone 6).

Because his works contained so many of these profane words or phrases,

they were censored to protect the innocent minds of the teenagers who

are required to read them, and also because they were blasphemous and

offensive. Almost all of the profanity was removed, and that that was

not had just reason for being there. Some of the Bard's censored oaths


"God's blessing on your beard"

Love's Labors Lost, II.i.203

This was a very rude curse because a man's facial hair

was a point of pride for him. and "to play with someone's

beard" was to insult him.

"God's body"

1 Henry IV,II.i.26

Swearing by Christ's body, (or any part thereof,) was off

limits in civil discourse.

"God's Bod(y)kins, man"

Hamlet, II.ii.529

The word bod(y)kin means "little body" or "dear body," but

adding the cute little suffix does not make this curse any

more acceptable.

"By God's [blest] mother!"

2 Henry VI, II.i;

3 Henry VI, III.ii;

Henry VIII, V.i

Swearing by the virgin was almost as rude as swearing by

her son, especially when addressing a catholic cathedral as

Gloucester did in 2 Henry VI, II.i

Perhaps the two worst of these Shakespearean swears were

"'zounds" and "'sblood." "'Zounds" had twenty-three occurrences.

Ten of them were in 1 Henry IV. The rest appear in Titus (once),

Richard III (four times), Romeo and Juliet (twice), and Othello ( six

times). Iago and Falstaff were the worst offenders. 'Zounds has

evolved into somewhat of a silly and meaningless word, but was

originally horribly offensive. This oath, short for "God's wounds,"

was extremely offensive because references to the wounds or blood of

Christ were thought especially outrageous, as they touched directly on

the crucifixion. "'Sblood" had twelve occurrences in all. There were

eight times in 1 Henry IV (with Falstaff accounting for six), plus

once in Henry V, twice in Hamlet, and once in Othello. 'Sblood occurs

less than 'zounds, but is equally offensive and means basically the

same thing.

Several other words came from Great Britain, but were not

included in Shakespeare's works. Today the expression "Gadzooks!" is

not particularly offensive to most. Of course, most don't know what

it originally meant. Gadzooks was originally slang for "God's hooks,"

and was equally offensive to 'zounds and 'sblood as it also referred

to the crucifixion. An interesting note is that there is a store

called Gadzooks which everyone thinks of as a pop-culture vendor to

America's youth. Some (but not many) of Gadzooks' shoppers would be

very offended if they knew the true meaning of the store's name.

Another word from this region is a Cockney expression, "Gorblimey,"

which is a word used to swear to the truth, and is a shortened form of

"God blind me." Also, in England, words such as "bloody," "blimey,"

"blinkin'," beginning with the letters "BL" are taken offense to

because they, once again, refer to the blood of Christ and the


The military has an interesting technique for swearing their

brains out without offending anyone. "They use the phonetic alphabet

(A= Alpha, B= Bravo, C= Charlie, etc.) as a code for their swearing"

(Interview). For inezce, instead of