Thought for the Day - Clifford Longley
As a boy I'd have been in dead trouble if I'd ever used the name of Jesus as a swear word at home. Blasphemy just wasn't tolerated, even though my parents were non-believers. The boundaries between acceptable and unacceptable language are shifting all the time.
John Terry, for instance, has just been acquitted in court of racial abuse. But when I started out as a court reporter many years ago, the mere uttering of a very rude word would have been enough to get you arrested, without racial connotations. I remember how the alleged word could never be said out loud, and had to be ceremoniously written down by the witness, usually a police officer. The paper was then folded and handed to the magistrate, who carefully unfolded it and duly looked shocked, all in disapproving silence.
The most offensive swear words used to be religious rather than sexual. They contravene the Commandment "Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain," which was seen as blasphemy. That was so serious, in fact, that a whole coded language was developed so that people could go on swearing and yet stay away from the stocks - or the gallows - where open blasphemy might've put them. This is technically known as the process of "mincing", as in the phrase "mincing your words". It disguises the word's origin just enough to keep the swearer clear of the law.
Swearing offers us a brief glimpse of the religious history of our country. Before the 16th century Protestant Reformation, ordinary people would commonly have referred to the Blessed Virgin Mary as "Our Lady" - as Roman Catholics still do. Hence the oath "By Our Lady" - which was minced into the swearword "bloody" - has to be at least 500 years old. Another familiar swearword refers to the Albigensian heresy in the 13th century.
Other examples of minced oaths include the now harmless "cripes" or "crikey", which were disguised forms of the word "Christ". "Blimey" originally meant "God Blind Me!" which was a way of invoking divine punishment if I'm not telling the truth - so you'd better believe me!
A few religious swearwords are still on the banned list, so I'm not going to tell you what they are. Others have dropped out altogether. Outside comic books, nobody says "Zounds!" any more, which was a minced version of "By God's Wounds", a reference to the Crucifixion and clearly of Mediaeval origin.
Just as churches are such a familiar part of our visible local landscape you hardly notice they are there, so profane oaths and swearwords are part of our everyday verbal landscape - and again we hardly notice them. But the fact that we still know they're not polite, to say the least, means we haven't completely lost track of where they came from.