Source: The Maastricht Hours, British Library, Stowe 17, fol. 153v.
It is impossible to tell a good story without dialogue, and believable dialogue requires a liberal dose of exclamations and interjections. Everyone from a pious priest to a salty sailor uses them to some degree—even your dear old grandmother. Stub your toe, mash your finger, or get cut off in traffic and there is a good chance you are going to shout something. The more colorful the exclamation, the more objectionable it will be considered in polite company. It was not until I became a father that I began to recognize the degree to which they are found in every aspect of popular culture. One of the principal goals I set when I first started writing The Second Great Mortality was to tell the story without using obscenities or overt sexual content. It was certainly not an easy task. In my quest to uncover the origins of many common expressions, I learned quite a bit about the history of creative cursing.
Vulgarities Coarse language has been around since the dawn of mankind. From the very moment that Eve gave birth to her first son, Adam was blessed with a kindred soul to share in the hilarity of human anatomy and bodily functions as only men can understand. One could fill a book with the endless number of colloquialisms for male and female genitalia. Medieval man was no less imaginative in his swearing. In fact, it would be safe to say that much of what we would consider to be thoroughly obscene today was more impolite than taboo in the fifteenth century. Anatomical terms that found their way into medical texts, works of literature, and even a few Medieval London street names would no doubt cause a modern sailor to blush.
A popular British euphemism for nonsense is “bollocks.” Like the more American expression “nuts,” it literally refers to the testicles. Ballocks is perhaps a more medieval spelling of a man’s stones. Swiving and sarding were medieval terms for having sex. The latter even appeared in an Old English translation of the Bible (i.e. Matthew 5:27 “don’t sard another man’s wife.” ). Piss is another example of a word that was considered acceptable enough to be included in the Bible centuries ago but would earn a sharp rebuke from most mothers today. There are several instances in King James Version where men are referred to as those “that pisseth against the wall”.
Blasphemies “You shall not take the name of the LORD you God in vain.” According to Judeo-Christian teachings, that was third law delivered to Moses on the stone tablets commonly referred to as the Ten Commandments. While it sounds very clear and unequivocal, it might surprise you to learn just how many expressions have been coined to skirt the law. The swearing equivalent of telling a white lie, mincing an oath is basically misspelling, mispronouncing, or replacing part of a blasphemous term to lessen its offensiveness.
Instead of using God’s name, why not substitute a few letters? “Oh garsh!” “Gosh darnit!” “Egad!” The popular French exclamation “Sacrebleu!” (literally holy blue) is a sublimation of sacré Dieu (holy God). Likewise, euphemisms for the name of Jesus Christ include: “Jeepers Creepers!” “Jeez Louise!” “Jiminy Cricket!” Yes, that adorable little Disney insect was named after a mild oath.
Medieval interjections did not shy from the irreverent. Men swore by the Virgin. They swore by the saints. Non-Christians were called names such as saracen (Arab or devil-worshipper), heretic, or devil’s incarnate. The word bugger, often used as an expression of anger or annoyance, originally meant a heretic, specifically an Albigensian (a Bulgarian belonging to the Orthodox Church and therefore considered a heretic by the Roman Church). Bloody did not become a Grade-A curse word until the Victorian era when it was believed that the word’s origin implied a blasphemous reference (i.e. the blood of God or Christ).
Debasements and Epithets In the same way that people enjoy demeaning a person’s heritage (e.g. redneck, hillbilly, etc.), medieval man loved to mock other’s social status. The word knave originally referred to a boy or servant but later came to be associated with a dishonest or unscrupulous man akin to rascal, scoundrel, miscreant, or cur. A scullion was a lowly kitchen servant. A villein was a tenant farmer legally tied to the lord of a manor. Other popular terms of condescension included churl, lout, whelp, bootlicker, and wretch. Women were not immune to derision, and their chastity was the most common target. Strumpet, harpy, and bawd are some of the more tame examples.
If it was not enough to ridicule a man’s rank, his low intelligence was always a prime target. Common taunts included fool, idiot, lackwit, halfwit, looby, prat, and dolt. The medieval term for a drunkard was tosspot, referring to someone who habitually ‘tossed back’ pots of beer or ale.
In the end, I was quite surprised to learn that a vast majority of our popular expressions have been around for several centuries. I hope that I was able to inject just enough colorful euphemisms into the story to make it feel historical while refraining from offending anyone’s modern sensibilities.