Journey with me and return to a simpler time: of knights and their fair maidens, castles and moats, a sexed-up interpretation of the Arthurian legend, and a quest for the Holy Grail as conceived by the Ministry of Silly Walks. Yes, I’m talking about times medieval (but not Medieval Times, which is in Lyndhurst, New Jersey, and other locations).
When you need to verbally express anger, rage or disgust without offending chaste maidens’ ears, sample these words or phrases from the Middle Ages (identified as the years between the 11th or 12th and 15th centuries). And please, don’t assume this is the same time period as the Elizabethan era – we’ll get to Shakespeare’s playful lexicon of taunts and put-downs in a future post.
Invoking God in an Oath Was Uncouth (and Rather Frequent): Way back when, words you and I consider extremely vulgar in modern culture were piddling when compared with the perceived power behind a well-delivered oath. In fact, pledging an oath or swearing fealty to your lord or lady was quite acceptable “when things were rotten” (yes, this is a fond shout-out to dear Mel Brooks).
But saying “by God’s bones” was an impertinent thing to do because it invoked religion (i.e., God’s name) in a negative way. Any part of God’s body worked into an oath to vilify someone or a group of people was equated with the possible decline of medieval society!
According to a Boston Globe interview with Melissa Mohr, author of Holy Sh*t – a Brief History of Swearing, profane variations of God’s body parts (as bad words) included “God’s bones, nails, wounds, precious heart, passion, God’s death—that was supposedly one of Queen Elizabeth I’s favorite oaths.” (Okay, so there was some medieval spillage into her era…)
Drop the Medieval F-Bomb with a Snarky “Sard Off!”: Until I researched this topic, I wasn’t aware that my treasured f-bomb didn’t come to be until the 15th century. Before then, getting caught in the act of “Fornication Under Consent of the King” was referred to as sard by those long-suffering serfs and royal nobles of medieval England.
If you enjoy barking out the f-bomb while driving, keep a Post-it note handy with the phrase “go sard yourself” scribbled on it. For a detailed explanation of the word’s origin, please visit my courtly friends at medievalists.net.
Being Called a Churl Was Demeaning…: During the era of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales and his challenging-to-decipher Middle English, getting medieval on someone’s @$$ didn’t always involve bodily functions or fornication. For striking a verbal arrow into the heart of a medieval citizen, your sharpest weapon targeted the individual’s personal character or family/parental pedigree.
Back in the 1400s, a churl was considered to be a “country bumpkin” or other lowly individual. But a scullion, the lowest of the low, was the entry-level servant in a well-to-do medieval household or castle. Similarly, a “lousy swine” was a pig-like person most likely the human host for an assortment of blood-sucking louse. You get the general idea. Substitute any of these medieval verbal slights for the modern @sshole or sh!thead and you’re all set…
These Words Defined the Criminal Element of Centuries Yore: Here’s a quote from an obscure website I found (credit goes to Shawn Vincent) that’s too good to pass by: “Wherever there is society, there are criminals.” If you really want to mess with the mind of someone you suspect as unethical or slightly shady, throw any of these medieval beanbags at their 21st-century head:
- Boothaler (marauder, plunderer)
- Footpad (someone who robbed pedestrians)
- Poxy-cheeked strumpet (someone who worked for the stewsman and survived a bout of smallpox)
- Silk-snatcher (someone who stole bonnets…)
- Stewsman (allegedly, the proprietor of a house of ill repute/prostitution).
Will you try a few of these oral medieval catapults the next time someone cuts you off in traffic or irks you greatly? If you’re hesitant to reach this far back, feel free to expand your swear-word repertoire via the original “Best International Swear Words to Love and Use” or its relatives: Gangnam Style, Yiddish Style, and Scandinavian Style. Whatever you do, refrain from pursuing a (medieval) career as a thimblerigger…
Lori Shapiro is the owner of By All Writes LLC, a business-to-business (B2B) writing, editing, and research company in Marlton, New Jersey. She revels in shielding her clients from the pain of writing their own print and web marketing copy. Please call Lori Shapiro at 856-810-9764 or email By All Writes LLC at firstname.lastname@example.org for a no-obligation project quote today!
I’ve always been partial to a curse my late college would use: “You sack of ignorance! You abyss of unknowing!” He was also known to throw out this line from “MacBeth”; “May the devil damn black, thou cream-faced loon”.
If you’re going to curse someone out, do it with flair. The “F-bomb” is so pedestrian.
Thanks for chiming in with some “tasty” oaths from your college years. I will definitely work an Elizabethan/Shakespeare-influenced “International Swear Words…” blog post into my editorial calendar. Call me pedestrian, but I’m very attached to the f-bomb (especially when I’m driving)!