Cursing and swearing: an Englishman’s birthright?

A short and modest vindication of the common practice of cursing and swearing. (Sp Coll BE6-d.19). Detail from titlepage.

A short and modest vindication of the common practice of cursing and swearing. (Sp Coll BE6-d.19). Detail from titlepage.

Lickorous glutton, freckled bittor, jobbernol goosecap, ninny lobcock. Believe it or not these bizarre terms of abuse were all common swear words in the seventeenth century. In fact, swearing and cursing in Elizabethan and Stuart England seems to have been widespread and relatively free from opprobrium, both in print and in public. Yet curiously, one hundred years later, use of obscene and profane language in print and polite conversation was not only frowned upon but, as this recently catalogued eighteenth-century pamphlet testifies, illegal. So what happened?

In essence, the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries saw a grassroots reform movement sweep the country that had a lasting impact on bad language. The movement had a mission to hunt out the most potty-mouthed offenders and to encourage the forces of law to act against them!

Driven in part by new religious and moral societies such as the SPCK (Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge) and the SRM (Society for the Reformation of Manners), this movement was arguably an outcome of the rise of a newly-moneyed middle class attempting to differentiate themselves from the working classes by becoming moral guardians. The poor couldn’t afford to join such societies and the upper classes had no great interest in joining.

But, the reform movement was undoubtedly also influenced by the new fashion for Politeness, a more secular idea based on self improvement and good manners. The value of conversing in a polite, reserved and proper manner in the increasingly class-integrated urban coffee-house culture was imported from the continent and promoted by the newly established Spectator newspaper and the newly ascendant Whig party.

While previous generations had taken a far more liberal stance towards bad language, many draconian laws – often having been passed to help prosecute treason and sedition but hitherto rarely used – still existed. The reform movement pressured government to take a stance against moral decay by using these existing laws to prosecute public obscenity.

A short and modest vindication of the common practice of cursing and swearing. (Sp Coll BE6-d.19). Detail from page 4.

A short and modest vindication of the common practice of cursing and swearing. (Sp Coll BE6-d.19). Detail from page 4.

This slim pamphlet, written anonymously by A Gentleman, and published in 1746 goes by the title, A short and modest vindication of the common practice of cursing and swearing; occasion’d by the new Act of Parliament against the said practice. The new Act of Parliament mentioned in the title is 19 Geo. II c.21, a law which, although clearly suppressing free speech, is now viewed as an improvement on earlier anti-swearing legislation, since it raised the burden of proof required for a conviction. Before this Act, defendants could be found guilty in absentia on the testimony of a single, anonymous witness! However, the Gentleman author of this pamphlet saw the new law as an encroachment upon liberty and a means of gagging free speech in the tumultuous wake of the recent Jacobite uprising. He states:

It is well known to all who are conversant with the history and manners of the English nation, that swearing and cursing hath been constantly and uninterruptedly practiced [sic] by this People, from time immemorial: and it is equally notorious how tenacious they are of their customs and privileges.

If you would like to read the pamphlet in full, why not visit us in Special Collections? Or, to learn more about a history of swearing in English, try reading: Swearing: a social history of foul language, oaths and profanity in English by Geoffrey Hughes; or: Swearing in English: bad language, purity and power from 1586 to the present by Tony McEnery.



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