A minced oath, also known as a pseudo-profanity, is an expression based on a profanity which has been altered to reduce or remove the disagreeable or objectionable characteristics of the original expression; for example, "gosh" used instead of "God", "darn" or "dang" instead of "damn", "heck" instead of "hell", and "blimey" instead of "May God blind me!" Nearly all profanities have minced variants; the words that are most taboo give rise to the most.
FormationThe most common methods of forming a minced oath are rhyme and alliteration. Thus the word bloody can become blooming, bleeding, or ruddy. In Cockney rhyming slang, rhyming euphemisms are sometimes truncated so that the rhyme is eliminated: prick became Hampton Wick and then simply Hampton. (The phrase flashing his Hampton, in turn, led to the use of the word flasher for an exhibitionist.)
Minced oaths can also be formed by shortening: b for bloody, or bitch, eff for fuck. In the same way, bleep arose from the use of a tone to mask profanities on radio.
Bark's parts of speech are of an awful sort -- principally adjectives. I won't, says Bark, have no adjective police and adjective strangers in my adjective premises! I won't, by adjective and substantive!... Give me, says Bark, my adjective trousers!
HistoryThe Cretan king Rhadamanthus is said to have forbidden his subjects to swear by the gods, suggesting that they swear instead by the ram, the goose, or the plane tree. Socrates favored the "Rhadamanthine" oath "by the dog". Aristophanes mentions that people used to swear by the birds instead of by the gods, adding that the soothsayer Lampon still swears by the goose "whenever he's going to cheat you". Since no real god was called upon, Lampon may have considered this oath safe to break.
The use of minced oaths in English dates back at least to the 14th century, when "gog" and "kokk", both euphemisms for God, were in use. Other early minced oaths include "Gis" or "Jis" for Jesus (1528).
Late Elizabethan drama contains a profusion of minced oaths, probably due to Puritan opposition to swearing. Seven new minced oaths are first recorded between 1598 and 1602, including sblood for God's blood from Shakespeare, slight for God's light from Ben Jonson, and snails for God's nails from the historian John Hayward. Swearing on stage was officially banned by the Act to Restraine Abuses of Players in 1606, and a general ban on swearing followed in 1623. In some cases the original meanings of these minced oaths were forgotten; struth (God's truth) came to be spelled strewth and zounds changed pronunciation so that it no longer sounded like God's wounds. Other examples from this period include slid for "God's eyelid" (1598) and sfoot for "God's foot" (1602). Gadzooks for "God's hooks" (the nails on Christ's cross) followed in the 1650s, egad for oh God in the late 1600s, and odsbodikins for "God's little body" in 1709.
AcceptabilityAlthough minced oaths are not as strong as the expressions from which they derive, some still find them offensive. One writer in 1550 considered "idle oaths" like "by cocke" (by God), "by the cross of the mouse foot", and "by Saint Chicken" to be "most abominable blasphemy". The minced oaths "'sblood" and "zounds" were omitted from the Folio edition of Shakespeare's play Othello, probably due to Puritan-influenced censorship. In 1941 a U.S. federal judge threatened a lawyer with contempt of court for using the word "darn". Zounds may sound amusing and archaic to the modern ear, yet as late as 1984 a writer recalled that "some years ago", after using it in print, he had received complaints that it was blasphemous because of its origin as "God's wounds". Bart Simpson from the The Simpsons introduced to American audiences the minced oath, "¡Ay, caramba!" (pronounced [ˈai | ka.ˈɾam.ba]) from the Spanish interjection ¡ay! (denoting surprise or pain) and caramba (euphemism for carajo/penis). This exclamation also appears in the Disney film The Three Caballeros, in which even the Spanish-speaking characters state that they do not know what it means.
Minced oaths in fiction
Writers of fiction sometimes face the problem of portraying characters who swear without offending audiences or incurring censorship. Somerset Maugham directly referred to this problem in his 1919 novel The Moon and Sixpence, where he admitted:
Strickland, according to Captain Nichols, did not use exactly the words I have given, but since this book is meant for family reading, I thought it better -- at the expense of truth -- to put into his mouth language familiar to the domestic circle.
In particular, authors of children's fiction sometimes put minced oaths into the mouths of characters who swear a lot, as a way of depicting a part of their behaviour that it would be unconvincing not to represent, but also avoiding the use of swear words which would be considered unsuitable for children to read. In some cases, minced oaths are used which it seems very unlikely people would actually use in real life; examples include "blessed", "By Jove", "golly" or "gosh", "gee", "dagnabit" and "goldarn it". Napoleon Dynamite, in the film of the same name, which is rated PG, uses minced oaths to a particularly comical effect.
Online, alternative typographical glyphs are sometimes used to evade profanity filters (such as $hit instead of shit, @ss or @rse instead of ass or arse). "fsck", from "filesystem check", is commonly used on Usenet and in other technology-related circles to replace "fuck". The Fark website replaces words like "fuck" with "fark" and "nigger" with "attractive and successful African-American" (while replacing overused phrases like "first post" with "boobies" to prevent the common spam practice, and alters the time stamp of such posts to two hours later). On the Something Awful forums, filters replace "fuck" with the phrase "gently caress" and "shit" with "poo-poo" for unregistered users.
In some rare cases, this makes matters worse however. For example, ProBoards forums replace the word "cock" with "thingy", thereby transforming the statement "cock his shotgun" into "thingy his shotgun".
The term dork (from Yiddish) is believed to have been coined as an alternative to "dick" which was coined as a vulgar term for a penis. In current popular usage, the term does not particularly have vulgar connotations as it is frequently used to describe an eccentric or quirky person, an accepted synonym for geek or nerd. In previous decades, the term "dick" was used in this fashion as well but currently rather refers to a person (usually male) who is perceived as obnoxious or arrogant, a more profane synonym to jerk.
- Reprinted Pieces by Charles Dickens
- Swearing: A Social History of Foul Language, Oaths and Profanity in English
- Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed. (CD-ROM) (1994).