Mincing Your Words

Did you know that many of our swear words have religious roots? Or have you any idea where the phrase ‘mincing your words’ comes from? I’d never really thought about it until I heard Thought for the Day on Radio 4 last Monday with Clifford Longley.

He explained how years ago swearing in public could get a person arrested and punished. Bad language would be noted down by the police officer who had witnessed it and then, in court, the piece of paper would be silently shown to the judge so that he could decide on the offender’s comeuppance.

The most offensive swearing had its basis in religion and therefore contravened the commandment, “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.” Hence, the reason that many people took offence.

To avoid the repercussions of their bad language, people used to ‘mince their words’ to disguise what they were really saying. Here are a few of the minced expressions:

By Our Lady (which referred to the Virgin Mary) became Bloody

God Blind Me became Blimey

Christ became Crikey or Cripes

By God’s Wounds became Zounds (I have to admit I’ve never heard of this one)

These minced words passed into common use at different times in the last few hundred years. So, if you write historical fiction and have characters with a tendency to bad language – take some time to discover exactly what they would have said and whether they would have been in danger of getting arrested for it!

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  1. #1 by Keith Havers on July 22, 2012 - 10:00 am

    Interesting isn’t it, Sally? My old grammar school headmaster seemed to be an expert on this kind of stuff and I heard Melvyn Bragg talking about it on Radio 4 a few years ago.
    I believe ‘God Blind Me’ actually became ‘Gor Blimey’ or ‘Cor Blimey’. And calling someone a ‘Berk’ may sound tame but it is, in fact, rhyming slang and is quite rude.

    • #2 by Sally Jenkins on July 22, 2012 - 11:57 am

      Keith – I won’t ask what ‘Berk’ is supposed to rhyme with!

  2. #3 by jac dowling on July 22, 2012 - 12:21 pm

    Sally – I* think Zounds was used in Restoration comedy and/or by Thackeray…not sure which, but it sounds Congreve-ish!

    • #4 by Sally Jenkins on July 22, 2012 - 6:02 pm

      Thanks for the info, Jac. Also just discovered ‘strewth’ is a mincing of ‘His (i.e. God) truth’.

  3. #5 by susanjanejones on July 22, 2012 - 6:12 pm

    My Mum’s favourite word is ‘strewth’ I remember my Grandparent’s using it as well, and they classed it as a swear word. It always sounds funny and old fashioned to me. I noticed in People’s Friend Sally, that they often have people saying ‘lor,’ which I pressume they’re shortening for Lord. Quite surprising really, but I’ve seen it quite a lot in recent stories. Looking forward to seeing yours in there. Another favourite of mine is ‘Holy Moses.’ It seems to convey what you mean.

    • #6 by Sally Jenkins on July 22, 2012 - 8:28 pm

      Susan, I’ve never noticed ‘lor’ in PF. But it could be quite useful when characters get frustrated – I can’t imagine proper swearing in PF!

  4. #7 by Hertfordshire Mummy on July 24, 2012 - 6:41 am

    What a great post – I love finding out about the original meaning of words – sometimes it can be quite a surprise!

  5. #8 by Lili@creativesavv on July 30, 2012 - 2:35 pm

    Love this!
    I love learning the origin of word usage. So interesting!

  6. #9 by Writer / Mummy on August 7, 2012 - 7:40 pm

    This is fascinating, I love hearing where words come from. I read a lot of Georgette Heyer and she has some great Regency language including swear words. When I’ve read too many in a go I start using the words and get really odd looks from people!

    • #10 by Sally Jenkins on August 7, 2012 - 8:10 pm

      I’ve never read Georgette Heyer – but she must be good if you can absorb yourself so deeply into her language.

      • #11 by Writer / Mummy on August 7, 2012 - 8:29 pm

        Ah I can completely recommend her if you like light-hearted romance with humour and great language. I have read them all so many times I applied to do my PhD on her leading men. A very clever lady, it’s such a shame she didn’t really like her books or have much respect for her readers. She undersold herself and us!

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