goD almighty jeSus why do we swear?
May 19, 2014 10:15 AM   Subscribe

How did 'god' and 'jesus' and presumably other religious names and figures become integral components of our anger and cursing expressions?

Has it always been this way or is it more of a culture/region/fashion phenomenon where such usage goes in and out of favour over time? Are there any languages or societies where these religious names aren't used as part of the swearing and exclamatory vocabulary?
posted by peacay to Writing & Language (10 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I'm sure there are global surveys somewhere (maybe Wikipedia has something?) but just as a data point for your last question, traditional Swedish profanity usually refers to the devil (or many of them), with the ones referring to jesus or god (e.g. "herregud") being considered weak enough that they hardly qualify as swearwords.
posted by effbot at 10:36 AM on May 19, 2014

It seems to be something that is more and less prominent given a particular culture. For instance "goddammit" is probably the only religious swear in American English that has any real heft to it nowadays (as compared to sex and excrement swears), whereas right over the border in Quebec, swearing is still much more centered around religion.

The sheer anthropological breadth of human culture makes it pretty impossible to theorize that religion and swearing go hand in hand on an innate level, since from what I understand everybody swears, but not everybody has the concept in their religion that certain words about said religion are taboo. So, yeah, out on the Trobriand Islands or something, this is not a connection that is probably made.

Also, you can look at the changes to swearing in English over just a few centuries and immediately notice that we used to have much bigger taboos around religious words ("taking the Lord's name in vain") which don't hold the power they used to. In Shakespeare's time, the word "zounds" was the equivalent of "Oh, fudge!" (It's a contraction of "God's wounds".) Nowadays it's laughable that you'd need to mince an oath like that. Meanwhile "crap" was just the Middle English word for poo; it's right there in Chaucer if you want to go looking for it. So it's definitely not something set in stone, even among one relatively stable language/culture over a few centuries.
posted by Sara C. at 10:40 AM on May 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

The always-fascinating Steven Pinker has a whole chapter on the psychology behind these and other swear words in his book The Stuff of Thought.
posted by lovableiago at 10:42 AM on May 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

You might be interested in Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing.
posted by mskyle at 10:42 AM on May 19, 2014 [3 favorites]

I'm not at all an expert here, but I think in part it is because some swear words began as literal swears. "I swear, by God, I will avenge my brother's death!" Swearing an oath typically involves invoking a higher power. There's a thin line between those kinds of oaths uttered in emotionally charged situations and more profane utterances. Similarly, there are some occasions where it is still ambiguous whether the person who just yelled "Oh, my God!" was literally offering a brief kind of prayer to call upon divine assistance, or was just spouting something with no more meaning than "that really shocked me."
posted by Pater Aletheias at 12:03 PM on May 19, 2014 [5 favorites]

In contemporary English, the bulk of the words considered swears are casual terms for things "nice" people are expected not to speak of casually in mixed company. "Nice" people don't casually refer to their genitals, their excrement, etc. in normal conversation.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 3:28 PM on May 19, 2014

Thanks team. I forgot about the commandment: "Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain". If the 10 commandments are believed to be real in a physical historical sense then that goes back to maybe 5000 or 10000 BC. And the oath-taking seems a plausible jump-starting point for exclamatory and-on-to expletive mixing. I wish Pinker was a mefite.
posted by peacay at 8:19 PM on May 19, 2014

FWIW, if a real historical figure, Moses would likely have been around the 12th century BC.
posted by Chrysostom at 9:40 PM on May 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

take the name of the Lord thy God in vain

That may not be saying "don't swear". I was in a class once where the teacher was explaining that this could actually be saying not to use the name or concept of God for false purposes. Examples would be condemning someone because they aren't as "holy" as you are or bragging about how "holy" you are. Don't use fake piousness as a yardstick to keep others down or raise yourself up. It fits in with the others better, like not bearing false witness, than a simple taboo against swearing would.
posted by soelo at 11:20 AM on May 20, 2014

'God damn you' is pretty obvious: It means 'May you burn in hell forever.'

Zounds is not 'By God's wounds', but 'By His wounds' -- the pronoun referring to Jesus. You could swear an oath on your mother's grave, or your saviour's cuts and bruises.

What's interesting to me is the overlap between 2 meanings of 'swear': to make a promise (I'll avenge my brother's death) and to invoke something worse (May God damn his killer's soul to everlasting torture). Excrement and sex add more layers.
posted by LonnieK at 6:55 PM on May 20, 2014

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