In 1517, Martin Luther nails his ninety-five theses to the door of Wittenburg Cathedral, and a dance of death begins between a radical Anabaptist with many names and a loyal papal spy known mysteriously as “Q.” In this brilliantly conceived literary thriller set in the chaos of the Reformation-an age devastated by wars of religion-a young theology student adopts the cause of heretics and the disinherited and finds himself pursued by a relentless papal informer and heretic hunter. What begins …

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My mom doesn’t like the movie “The Revenant” because she claims words like “Shit” and “Fuck” weren’t in an early 19th century man’s lexicon. When did these words enter our lexicon?(r/AskHistorians)

I have a long thing about the ancient origins of English swear words here, where I methodically try to go through and answer exactly “when these words entered our lexicon”. Many of which have origins as old as English and the others were once not vulgar words that gained increasingly vulgar meanings–if I say to you the words “balls”, “cock”, “jugs” you might think of merely the obscene meanings rather than round objects, rooster, pitchers. Likewise, words like “crap” and “bitch” had non-obscene origins that became obscene over time (because people in those times, gasp, used them obscenely with such regularity that their obscene meanings over powered their conventional meanings). It’s somewhat difficult to know exactly which people swore, and how much, and in front of whom historically because those are exactly the kind of things that are not likely to be written down in noble prose–unfortunately, we don’t have a 19th century “urban dictionary” nor 19th century internet forums to gage how often and in which contexts people habitually swore. In novels and the like, there’s a tremendous amount of censorship–self-censorship, of course, but also more formalized censorship. This most famous form of 19th century censorship was “bowdlerization“, where even Shakespeare was censored to remove the naughty bits. “Banned in Boston” was the watchword.

As for fiction, the four Italian anarchist writers behind the novel Q, an adventure mystery set during the Protestant Reformation, I think put it best in a little essay they wrote in response to complaints about the “anachronistic” language they used in the novel:

>In the past ten months, since our first novel was published in English, some reviewers have complained about the allegedly “anachronistic” language we used in the book. As a matter of fact, any novel that’s written nowadays but is set in a fairly remote past is to be penned in a more or less “anachronistic” language, at least if the author wants people to read it […]

>However, those reviewers are not talking about that. They’re talking about profanity. They’re talking about foul language. Although they use the term “anachronisms”, obscene utterances is what they really mean. There were complaints about “the wealth of f**k’s and ‘s**t’s” in the novel. […]

>Human beings always cursed and swore, they did it in all ages, always by referring to catabolism, rough sex and the genitals. In Romance languages (Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Rumanian etc.) we still use the Latin words, e.g. “merda” [shit] and “culum” [ass]. As far as the history of the Italian language goes, one of the earliest written sentences in Vulgar (ancient Italian) is “Fili de le pute traite” [Pull, you sons of whores!], which appears on a Twelfth Century fresco in a Roman church.

The essay has a small image of the fresco (it’s in the Basilica of San Clemente), but here’s a bigger one–the man on the far right is the one doing the cussing in “Vulgar”. For reference, the modern forms of those words in those languages are merda, merde, mierda, merda, [rahat] and culo, cul, culo, cu, cur, respectively.

For more on the actual origins of the English swearwords (plus a few select favorites from other languages), again, check out my little piece linked at the top. It’s one of my favorite things I’ve ever put on Reddit. But, all that said, while it’s very clear that people swore in the 19th century, it’s very difficult to say how much because it simply wasn’t written down. We can guess that probably men swore more than women, probably lower class men more than refined men, probably men among men more than in mixed company, etc. but with the evidence we have, it’s very difficult to say who exactly swore and exactly how much and in which circumstances. But we can say they definitely swore, and some of them certainly swore like sailors, and you can tell your mother we have been saying “shit” and “fuck” since before the Angles and the Saxons invaded England and became the Anglo-Saxons–just compare shit to Scheisse and fuck to ficken and you’ll see how truly ancient these words are.

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Luther Blissett

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Harvest Books

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My mom doesn’t like the movie “The Revenant” because she claims words like “Shit” and “Fuck” weren’t in an early 19th century man’s lexicon. When did these words enter our lexicon?

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