A minced oath is a euphemistic expression formed by deliberately misspelling, mispronouncing, or replacing a part of a profane, blasphemous, or taboo word or phrase to reduce the original term's objectionable characteristics. An example is "gosh" for "God".
Many languages have such expressions. In the English language, nearly all profanities have minced variants.
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 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 British TV quiz 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.
There are a number of minced oaths in the Bible. For example, use of the names or titles of God would be inappropriate in the Song of Songs because it is a secular text. Thus in verse 2.7, the Shulamite says, "I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, by the gazelles or the wild does." The Hebrew words ṣᵉba’ot 'gazelles' and ’aylot haśśadeh 'wild does' are circumlocutions for titles of God, the first for either (’elohey) ṣᵉba’ot '(God of) Hosts' or (YHWH) ṣᵉba’ot '(Jehovah is) Armies' and the second for ’el šadday 'El Shaddai'.
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 "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. 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.
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 and related Wounds changed pronunciation in the Great Vowel Shift, but the normal word wound did not (at least not in RP), so that they no longer sound like their original meaning of "By God's wounds".
Although minced oaths are not as strong as the expressions from which they derive, some audiences 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. One example is The Naked and the Dead, where publishers required author Norman Mailer to use the minced oath "fug" over his objections. Somerset Maugham referred to this problem in his novel The Moon and Sixpence (1919), in which the narrator explained 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".
J. R. R. Tolkien pretends a similar mincing of profanity in The Lord of the Rings, stating in In Appendix F of the novel: "But Orcs and Trolls spoke as they would, without love of words or things; and their language was actually more degraded and filthy than I have shown it. I do not suppose that any will wish for a closer rendering, though models are easy to find."
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