Actually Swearing

I’ve spent a lot of time talking about “swearing” as a general category. But why is “swearing” a label we use to refer to bad words? In court, one swears to tell the truth. In marriage, one swears to honor and cherish and whatever. When one enters public office, one goes through a “swearing-in” ceremony. And of course we cannot forget about the most sacred type of promise left to us in this age of perfidy: the “pinky-swear.” To swear is to promise in the most sincere and holy of ways, so why is the word also synonymous with “call your dad a shitlord?” Well … because of how sacred those oaths once were, it turns out.

I’ve talked before about the two overarching categories of bad words: obscenity and profanity. Obscenities are words we don’t use because they refer to taboo body parts or functions – fucking, shitting, pissing, farting, tickling the sweaty windsock, etc. Profanity, on the other hand, refers to words that are bad because they violate some high-level social or divine prohibition – god damn, go to hell, holy shit, etc. One might argue that the word “motherfucker” is unique in that it straddles the two categories (phrasing).

These days, most of our bad words are obscenities, not profanity. Scholars like Melissa Mohr argue that this is because of how much privacy we have these days. We have the luxury of shame, in that we don’t have to share a bed with our siblings while they have sex, or poop in the same room as our dads, so we can afford to wall those kinds of words off from polite conversation. The importance of religion in regulating public affairs has also declined in recent times due to things like contract law, riot cops, and the government being run by vampires. Thus, profanity doesn’t pack the punch it used to.

In Medieval Europe, on the other hand, people had very little privacy, so shitting wasn’t such a big deal. But religion was a much bigger deal than it is now, and not just because the church was the biggest single source of education/cool robes. People needed to rely on each other’s word for a lot of things, and that’s where swearing came in. The idea was that when you swore, God actually took note and made sure you kept your end of the deal, so you better not fuck it up. This also meant that if you routinely broke your oaths, or just swore about a bunch of dumb shit all the time for basically no reason, you were essentially wasting God’s time. Not a thing you want to be doing.

What’s more, there was this idea going around that people’s words could physically alter the bodies of the dudes up in heaven. This probably came from how Catholic Priests seemed to be able to stuff Christ’s body into a bunch of wine and crackers after every Sunday service, so people figured this was just a thing you could do.

Now, you might think that knowing that a certain class of words has the incredible power to not only attract God’s attention, but also physically fuck up His body and the body of His son would make people a little bit afraid to use these words. But it actually just made people want to use those words all the time. It’s the same reason people use words like “fuck” now: when you stub your toe or you’re pissed off at someone or you just saw someone cut off a dude’s head, you want to use the most powerful language available to you. And so we ended up with a catalog of beautiful old-world swears, including “God’s bones,” “God’s balls,” “Christ’s Nails,” “Christ’s blessed heart,” and so on.

Over time, many of these oaths were shortened or minced. We got the ultralight “by God,” which became “By golly,” “by gosh,” “by gum,” and my favorite, “by gad,” because that one just looks like a typo. “Jesus Christ,” became “Jeeze,” and eventually “Jeeze Louise,” and we’ve even incorporated gods from alternate pantheons, as in “By Jove,” and “By Odin’s Beard.”

But it wasn’t until I saw the oath “By Asimov’s Beard” in a recent webcomic that I realized we’ve entered a new era of swears. In this secular era, we are empowered as never before to swear to all kinds of dumb shit. You were probably wondering why I’ve been going on at such length about the history of oaths, and the answer is this: through my studies I have cracked the code, the underlying formula of this powerful yet distinguished swear-type. Now you too can harness the linguistic power that the Medieval Europeans held in such high regard. Simply arrange your swear thusly:

(by)[Subject]’s [object]!

Some notes:

The subject of your swear must be a proper name, and it must not be a living person. It may be a fictional character, a divine entity, or a deceased person of godlike stature.

The object may be literally anything, as long as it might conceivably be possessed by the subject. “Beard” is always acceptable if nothing else is forthcoming. Some examples follow:

By …

  • … Cthulu’s wings!
  • … Lincoln’s log!
  • … Xena’s blades!
  • … Cleopatra’s beard!
  • … Caesar’s ghost!
  • … Loki’s lung!
  • … Hubbard’s hands!
  • … Juno’s eyes!
  • … Bowie’s bulge!

And so on. But I have an ulterior motive here, a higher purpose: phrases like these were once profane because we believed that words had magic meaning, that our promises could have a physical effect on the world around us. When you say these swears, put the full force of your sincerity behind them. Bring that magic back into the world. Bring that magic back into the word, and then keep your word. Swear you’ll do it.