Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing

Colin Burrow writes:

Roll up, roll up all you ‘mangie rascals, shiteabed scoundrels, drunken roysters, slie knaves, drowsie loiterers, slapsauce fellows, slabberdegullion druggels, lubbardly lowts … fondling fops, base lowns, saucie coxcombs, idle lusks, scoffing Braggards, noddie meacocks, blockish grutnols, doddi-poljolt-heads, jobbernol goosecaps, foolish loggerheads, slutch calf-lollies, grouthead gnat-snappers, lob-dotterels, gaping changelings, codshead loobies, woodcock slangams, ninnie-hammer flycatchers, noddiepeak simpletons, turdie gut, shitten shepherds, and other suchlike defamatory epithets’. As these few tasters from Sir Thomas Urquhart’s translation of Rabelais indicate, swearing can be fun: ‘slabberdegullion druggels’ (slovenly dimbos) and ‘noddie meacocks’ (limp-wristed wimps) have the surreal energy of abuse forged in the heat. But Urquhart’s list of obscenities does gradually tail off. ‘Shitten shepherds’ is tired and formulaic. It’s time to move on. Foulness quickly becomes boring. Really good swearing relies on formulaic elements, but needs to be precisely adapted to the moment. In this respect dear old Robin in the 1960s Batman TV series was one of the best swearers, though his lips were never soiled with a common-or-garden profanity. He could combine ‘Holy’ with more or less anything in order to create his trademark ejaculations, which were always to the point. Number two in my list of all-time favourites is ‘Holy chocolate éclair!’ Number one has to be ‘Holy uncanny photographic mental processes!’

(LRB 26 September 2013)

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