Be careful with those words. They’re ancient holy relics. They’re soaked with a divine spirit. They’re broken bits of oaths, pieces of sacred words of eternal commitment, now used as playthings. I’ll show you… but not quite yet.
We don’t utter oaths as exclamations and imprecations and expressions of emotional intensity much anymore. Most of us are more likely to call on sex and other bodily functions to express dismay at the arc of a crystal glass to a tile floor or a steel hammer to the wrong kind of nail. In general, we feel one of two ways about names for the divine: a few of us consider them so inviolable and sacred that we would never use them to express shock, anger, or other emotions of the edge; the remainder of us seldom consider them of enough account to be satisfactory for the purpose. But there were times when it was otherwise.
A bit about taboo
Taboo words – notably swearwords, as they are commonly called – are an interesting thing. Where ordinary words water our worlds with a garden hose, taboo words open a fire hydrant. Cognitive psychologists rely on this fact; they sometimes use taboo words as distractors in stimulus-response experiments to slow down responses in contrast with ordinary words.
In the same way as we respond instantly with a different emotion when we see a colourful vase headed for the floor than when we see a colourful pillow doing the same – because we know something’s about to get broken – and in the same way as in a big empty house we can be calm when we hear the clicking of the radiators or the creak of walls in the wind but our hair will spring into porcupine quills at the sound of a foot-weighted creak of the floor – because we fear that we’re about to get hurt – we respond with an immediately different emotion when we hear (or say) a taboo word than when we hear (or say) an ordinary word, even one that sounds similar to a taboo word or denotes the same object. With a taboo word, we understand that something’s about to get broken – specifically a social norm, a key part of the contract that we agree to in our behaviour – and we have the thrill of fear that we’re about to get hurt – because we are breaking a social norm. We may well have learned this literally: spanking hurts, and the taste of soap is nothing you’d want to repeat either. (Trust me.)
So why do we use taboo words in certain circumstances? Why do we shout what we shout when we lose a bet or gain a fracture? I just told you! Taboo words are charged with a strong emotion and a sense of danger and of breaking norms, and they zap the discourse with that charge when we deploy them. If we feel a strong emotion, taboo language can help communicate it (it can also help release it: swearing helps people deal with pain, as has been shown in an experiment that I’m glad I did not take part in); if we want to provoke a strong emotion in another person, taboo language helps trigger it. And if we want to show disrespect of a particular person or social context, there is hardly a better way to do it. Think of all the times you (or, ahem, other people) use swearwords: it’s like tearing up the rulebook in someone else’s face. In a way, it’s like jumping off a cliff (but surviving)… or pushing someone else off one.
But how do we decide which words are taboo? We know that sex is charged and so is personal sanitation, and people feel strongly about their mothers, but there are a lot of words that aren’t such obvious choices, especially in some other languages, right? Québécois French uses references to liturgical elements, for instance (the tabernacle, the host, and the ciborium), which may seem odd. But at the time those words gained their taboo force, the Roman Catholic Church was such a dominant force in Quebec that it was able to enforce rigid respect for the ritual elements, and if you wanted to add a taste of smashing the control machine, a good way to do it was to use the names of those elements loosely. They keep the charge today because once a word is nailed in place as taboo language, its denotation is less and less important. Taboo is all about connotation. Language is behaviour, and loose use of taboo language is by definition misbehaviour.
Calling it by name
We are very sensitive to names. If someone calls your name, you respond by reflex; if they say it wrong (especially if on purpose), you are almost certainly provoked. It works with divine beings, too: “Speak of the devil and he appears.” There are fairy tales (Rumpelstiltskin) and operas (Turandot) in which finding someone’s name is key to the plot. It is normal to avoid giving the “true” name of something you find threatening. Voldemort is He Who Must Not Be Named. Ancient Indo-Europeans were afraid of bears and so didn’t call them by their “true” name, with the result that in modern European languages the word for ‘bear’ (including the word bear) is as a rule descended from something meaning ‘the brown one’. Some cultures are still like this with names for some animals. And in our own culture, we tend to say “passed on” or “went to rest” or “is no longer with us” rather than plain “died.”
There’s a word for something, and there’s the word for it.
So I can talk about copulation and vaginas and feces and so on very clinically (when the situation requires it), but there are other words I might use for those things that would be very disrespectful and would probably upset some of my readers. And (almost) no one is upset by the sound of a word such as shift or funk. It’s just like how you can walk in public in a swim suit but not in your underwear, even though they’re (often) almost identical.
Back to the oaths, by George
So, now. Today we are not prone to swearing oaths often – just in court, and when getting married, and on other solemn occasions that are, for most of us, very infrequent. But there was a time when giving one’s word was a very important part of social interaction. It was more common than it is now, at least in part because of the paucity of other similar mechanisms for establishing trust and the frequent need for such, and oaths – swearing by some holy person or thing – were readily used because of the pervasiveness of religion in all aspects of everyday life.
We know words have power, for the simple reason that you absolutely must not think of a hippopotamus right now, and for the equally simple reason that you have just magically had a hippopotamus appear in your head. And of course we know words can provoke all kinds of emotions. And I have already talked about the special power of names. So, clearly, words have magical power, a connection to the divine. And so, clearly, if you really want to make a strong and definite statement, you can make an oath, take a vow, give your word and give it eternal power by attaching it to a sacred name. People used to take oaths seriously, you know: an oathbreaker was the worst kind of person, damned for all time. There was no fine print to let them off.
Which also means that you could touch fire by swearing oaths recklessly. (This is, after all, why we call using taboo language swearing.) You could get that taboo charge by making a divine vow that was as easily broken as the glass in your hand. “As God is my witness, they’re not going to lick me” is intense and carries a strong intent. “By God and all the saints, this is the finest piece of beef I’ve ever had!” are the words of someone who has had a lot to drink and is very freely expressing a convivial emotion.
Back when this was a popular things, people would recklessly make oaths not just by God – or other divine persons, such as the Virgin Mary and various saints (by George) – but by particular things associated with God (somehow specificity makes reckless oaths more intense): God’s arms, God’s bones, God’s bread, God’s death, God’s eyes, God’s fish (perhaps from God’s flesh), God’s guts, God’s hooks (apparently the nails used on the cross), God’s lid (I don’t know either), God’s light, God’s mother, God’s name, God’s passion, God’s pity, God’s sides, God’s soul, God’s teeth, God’s words, God’s wounds (on the aforementioned cross)… All of these have been used in print, showing up first between the 1300s and 1500s (depending on the specific one) and last used in earnest anytime from the 1600s to, for a few of them, about the last time someone at the Oxford English Dictionary had a chance to check the papers for it.
Fiddlesticks for the more squeamish
Of course, some of us just want to almost touch fire. We’ll shout “Fudge!” when we see a tear in our FCUK brand pants. We’ll say “Darn! Shoot!” when we discover that our local Fuddrucker’s is closed. We might say “Shut the front door! You son of a beehive!” when we receive startling news from a friend (especially if we’re about 15 years old… and about 15 years ago). And this, too, is not a new thing.
Which is why people used to mince those oaths, making a sound-alike or leaving bits off, and in writing they would change the spelling for the sake of deniability (sort of how many an Anglophone Canadian youth may have written “eau, phoque” in French class at some time).
Which, to get back to the name of this thing, is how we get gadzooks and zounds. They seem old-fashioned now, and not just hokey but a bit zany, thanks to the z. But that z is a respelling of ’s. Gadzooks is God’s hooks, barely altered; I suspect it retained popularity longer than some others because of the googly-eyed oo and the rakish kicking k, and probably the fun of saying it. Zounds is shortened from God’s wounds, where God’s is clipped right down to the possessive suffix – also done with some others, such as zlid for God’s lid (and really, no, I don’t know why “lid”) – and wounds has had the w elided. And because people in recent times have generally encountered it first in print, the standard pronunciation now rhymes with sounds rather than with wounds. (Why we say wounds the way we do is a subject for a separate disquisition.)
So. These two zany, hokey, old-fashioned words are really broken oaths, profaned references to the crucifixion, ancient amulets cast into use as sporting dice. Such has been their lot.
And of course, with that past left behind, they are perfectly innocuous, altogether drained of the numinous… right?
Will you be cursed or otherwise punished if you use them?
Well… you try it, and let me know.