Mr Alan Moore asked my opinion from the Letters column last week on the mother who insisted that swearing meant ‘taking the Name of the Lord in vain’, but using the word f*** was just coarse language.
I’m not sure this isn’t a question better directed to Dear Mary, since swearing is as much defined by its effect on social taboo as by dictionaries. The word swear extends even to a kitten as anyone who read The Spectator on 11 April 1896 will remember: ‘When Phyllis was a kitten she had wild fits, tearing round the room and swearing horribly,’ wrote Francis Galton. Since one of Galton’s habits was swapping the blood of rabbits and other domestic animals, it is no surprise that Phyllis should have sworn.
There has, in Britain, been a tendency to move from breaking religious taboos to breaking sexual or scatological taboos. By the time that Eliza Doolittle offends in the drawing-room (‘Not bloody likely’), or, in the film version, at Ascot (‘Move your bloomin’ arse’), we are a long way from the oaths that Wycliffe complained about in the 14th century, with ‘men swerynge herte & bonys & nailis & othere membris of crist’.
The meanings of the words swear, swearing, oath and profane have broadened through the centuries. Swearing by God ends up as bad language, just as profanity descends from ungodly speech to mere rudeness. Swearing oaths, as jurymen still do, was to risk the retribution of him by whom you swore, if you swore falsely. If, like the Prioress in Chaucer, our greatest oath is by St Eloy, the offence seems less.