A minced oath is a euphemistic expression formed by misspelling, mispronouncing, or replacing a part of a profane, blasphemous, or taboo term to reduce the original term's objectionable characteristics. Some examples include gosh, darn, dang, and heck.
Common methods of forming a minced oath are rhyme and alliteration. Thus the word bloody (which itself may be an elision of "By Our Lady"—referring to the Virgin Mary) can become blooming, or ruddy. Alliterative minced oaths such as darn for damn allow a speaker to begin to say the prohibited word and then change to a more acceptable expression. In rhyming slang, rhyming euphemisms are often truncated so that the rhyme is eliminated; prick became Hampton Wick and then simply Hampton. Another well-known example is "cunt" rhyming with "Berkeley Hunt", which was subsequently abbreviated to "berk". Alliteration can be combined with metrical equivalence, as in the pseudo-blasphemous "Judas Priest", substituted for the blasphemous use of "Jesus Christ".
Minced oaths can also be formed by shortening: e.g., b for bloody or f for fuck. Sometimes words borrowed from other languages become minced oaths; for example, poppycock comes from the Low Dutch pappe kak, meaning "soft dung". The minced oath blank is an ironic reference to the dashes that are sometimes used to replace profanities in print. It goes back at least to 1854, when Cuthbert Bede wrote "I wouldn't give a blank for such a blank blank. I'm blank, if he doesn't look as if he'd swallowed a blank codfish." By the 1880s, it had given rise to the derived forms blanked and blankety, which combined together gave the name of the long running and popular British TV show Blankety Blank. In the same way, bleep arose from the use of a tone to mask profanities on radio.
The Cretan king Rhadamanthus is said to have forbidden his subjects to swear by the gods, suggesting that they instead swear by the ram, the goose or the plane tree. Socrates favored the "Rhadamanthine" oath "by the dog", with 'the dog' often interpreted as referring to the bright "Dog Star", i.e., Sirius. Aristophanes mentions that people used to swear by 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 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 By God's blood from Shakespeare, 'slight for God's light from Ben Jonson, and 'snails for By 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; the oath 'struth (By God's truth) came to be spelled strewth. The oath Zounds changed pronunciation - changing the vowel to be as in the word "found", so that it no longer sounded like its original meaning of By God's wounds. Other examples from the 1650s included 'slid for "By God's eyelid" (1598), 'sfoot for "By God's foot" (1602), and Gadzooks for "By God's hooks" (referring to the nails on Christ's cross). In the late 17th century, egad meant oh God, and ods bodikins for "By God's bodkins [i.e. nail]s" in 1709.
Although minced oaths are not as strong as the expressions from which they derive, some hearers may 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 as a result of 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 the columnist James J. Kilpatrick 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". (He had written an article entitled "Zounds! Is Reagan Mad?" in the Spartanburg Herald for 12 June 1973, and also used "zounds" in June 1970.)
Literature and censorship
It is common to find minced oaths in literature and media. Writers sometimes face the problem of portraying characters who swear and often include minced oaths instead of profanity in their writing so that they will not offend audiences or incur censorship. Somerset Maugham referred to this problem in his 1919 novel The Moon and Sixpence, where he admitted that "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".
- Hughes, 12.
- Hughes, 7.
- "What does "Judas Priest" mean?". Straightdope.com. 10 May 1996.
- Hughes, 16–17.
- Hughes, 18–19.
- prep. by J. A. Simpson ... (1994). Oxford English Dictionary 1 (2nd ed.). Oxford Press. ISBN 978-0-19-861186-8. definition 12b for blank
- Echols, Edward C. (1951). "The Art of Classical Swearing". The Classical Journal 46 (6): 29–298. JSTOR 3292805.
- Dillon, Matthew (1995). "By Gods, Tongues, and Dogs: The Use of Oaths in Aristophanic Comedy". Greece & Rome, 2nd Ser. 42 (2): 135–151. JSTOR 643226. doi:10.1017/s0017383500025584.
- Hughes, 13–15.
- Hughes, 103–105.
- Definition from the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary.
- Hughes, 13.
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- Kermode, Frank (2001). Shakespeare's Language. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. p. 166. ISBN 0-374-52774-1.
- Montagu, Ashely (2001). The Anatomy of Swearing. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. p. 298. ISBN 0-8122-1764-0.
- Leland, Christopher T. (2002). Creative Writer's Style Guide: Rules and Advice for Writing Fiction and Creative Nonfiction. Cincinnati, OH: Writer's Digest Books. p. 207. ISBN 1-884910-55-6.
- Kilpatrick, James J. (1984). The Writer's Art. Fairway, Kansas: Andrews McNeel Publishing. p. 83. ISBN 0-8362-7925-5.
- Kilpatrick, James J. (12 June 1973). "Zounds! Is Reagan mad". Herald-Journal.
- Kilpatrick, James J. (11 June 1970). "Zounds! 5 cents a bottle". Herald-Journal.
- Somerset Maugham, The Moon and Sixpence, ch. 47; quoted in Hughes, 187.
- Hughes, Geoffrey (1991). Swearing: A Social History of Foul Language, Oaths and Profanity in English. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell. ISBN 0-631-16593-2.
- prep. by J. A. Simpson ... (1989). Oxford English Dictionary (1) (2nd ed.). Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-861186-8.