In medieval English, at a time when wars were fought in disputes over religious doctrine and authority, the chief category of profanity was, at first, invoking—that is, swearing to—the name of God, Jesus or other religious figures in heated moments, along the lines of “By God!” Even now, we describe profanity as “swearing” or as muttering “oaths.”
It might seem like a kind of obsessive piety to us now, but the culture of that day was largely oral, and swearing—making a sincere oral testament—was a key gesture of commitment. To swear by or to God lightly was considered sinful, which is the origin of the expression to take the Lord’s name in vain (translated from Biblical Hebrew for “emptily”).
The need to avoid such transgressions produced various euphemisms, many of them familiar today, such as “by Jove,” “by George,” “gosh,” “golly” and “Odsbodikins,” which started as “God’s body.” “Zounds!” was a twee shortening of “By his wounds,” as in those of Jesus. A time traveler to the 17th century would encounter variations on that theme such as “Zlids!” and “Znails!”, referring to “his” eyelids and nails.
In the 19th century, “Drat!” was a way to say “God rot.” Around the same time, darn started when people avoided saying “Eternal damnation!” by saying “Tarnation!”, which, because of the D-word hovering around, was easy to recast as “Darnation!”, from which “darn!” was a short step.
By the late 18th century, sex, excretion and the parts associated with same had come to be treated as equally profane as “swearing” in the religious sense. Such matters had always been considered bawdy topics, of course, but the space for ordinary words referring to them had been shrinking for centuries already.
Chaucer had available to him a thoroughly inoffensive word referring to the sex act, swive.
I think that qualifies as the word of the day!
We are hardly beyond taboos, McWhorter notes; we just observe different ones:
Today, what we regard as truly profane isn’t religion or sex but the slandering of groups, especially groups that have historically suffered discrimination or worse. Our profanity consists of the N-word, that C-word once suitable for an anatomy book discussion of women’s bodies, and a word beginning with f referring to gay men (and some would include a word referring to women beginning with b).
It might seem strained to compare our feelings about the N-word with a bygone era’s appalled shuddering over the utterance of “By God!” But do note that I have to euphemize the N-word here in print just as someone would have once have felt compelled to say, “By Jove!”
But we are just as capable as previous eras of policing our taboos with unquestioning excess. An administrator in Washington, D.C.’s Office of the Public Advocate had to resign in 1999 for using the word niggardly in a staff meeting. At the University of Virginia, there was a campus protest in 2003 after a medical school staffer said that a sports team called the Redskins “was as derogatory to Indians as having a team called n— would be to blacks.” Julian Bond, who was then the head of the NAACP, said that only his respect for free speech kept him from recommending that she be fired. In 2014, the lawyer and writer Wendy Kaminer elicited aggrieved comments for saying, during a panel discussion at Smith College, that when we use euphemisms for the N-word we all “hear the word n— in our head.”
Some might object that we should not check that impulse, and that extremism is necessary to create lasting social change. But it’s useful to recall that, when it comes to profanity, there were once people who considered themselves every bit as enlightened as we see ourselves today, with the same ardent and appalled sense of moral urgency. They were people who said “Odsbodikins” and did everything they could to avoid talking about their pants.