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Profanity is a term we use to describe naughty words, but as a definition, profanity is anything that happens when specific religious terms get stolen from their original intent and applied with manipulated meaning. Think of words like damn or hell. They are appropriate when used in context of their biblical meaning, but offensive when you hear them in an action movie, for example. When it comes to the origin of curse words, the Latin term “profanus” actually meant “outside the temple” to signify terms that desecrated what was held sacred. If you’ve watched the tv show, Becoming Elizabeth, which is set in 16th century England, the f-word gets used liberally on that show, which surprised me and made me wonder if the f-word was, in fact, historically accurate, or if that had been added for modern flare. To find out exactly what words were expletives for Shakespeare’s lifetime, and which ones were normal for him but highly offensive to us today, we are sitting down with our guest, Jesse Sheidlower to explore the colorful world of Elizabethan language and profanities. 

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Jesse Sheidlower is a lexicographer, editor, author, and programmer. He is past president of the American Dialect Society,[3] was the project editor of the Random House Dictionary of American Slang, and is the author of The F-Word, a history of the word “fuck”; he is also a former editor-at-large at the Oxford English Dictionary. New York Magazine named him one of the 100 smartest people in New York.

More about Jesse and connect with his work:

I’ll be asking Jesse Sheidlower about:

  • What are some examples of curse words that are offensive words today, but would not have been offensive for Shakespeare’s lifetime?
  • What words in his plays would we maybe gloss over when reading them today, but would have been offensive curse words or phrases when they were written?  
  • What was the most obscene phrase you could say for Shakespeare’s lifetime?  
  • …and more!

Melissa Mohr, Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing

John McWhorter — 9 Nasty Words

New (4th) edition of Jesse’s book, The F-Word (This link is to the 3rd edition. The 4th edition was not out at time of writing these notes)

Fun website article Cassidy Found on “Minced Oaths” : Zounds! What the fork are minced oaths? And why are we still fecking using them today? by Kirk Hazen

1606 law to restrain players from cursing on stage. More details inside!

Curse Words for Shakespeare’s Lifetime

Learn the difference between a curse word, a profanity, and an oath. Plus, you’ll hear examples of real people in the 16-17th centuries who were arrested, or fined, for using some of these terms. Find out what they said, and how they were punished with our guest, John Spurr.

“O, there be players that I have seen play, and heard others praise, and that highly (not to speak it profanely).”

— Hamlet (III.2)

Screencapture by me, Cassidy Cash, on August 2, 2023, of a digital archive copy of “Westward-Ho” by Thomas Dekker and JohnWebster, showing use of. the word “Zounds” as an expletive. West-ward Hoe. As It Hath Beene Diuers Times Acted by the Children of Paules. | 1607| Tho[mas] Dekker and John Webster, VVest-vvard Hoe. As It Hath Beene Diuers Times Acted by the Children of Paules. (facsimile of 1st edition; Old English Drama Students’ Facsimile Edition; 170) (Printed at London: And to be sold by Iohn Hodgets dvveling in Paules Churchyard, 1607; OCLC 70724531). | Source

Examples of 16th Century Curse Words

When it comes to offensive language, there’s a broad scope of applicable terms that fall within this definition. There are words used to curse someone, obscene terms, taboo terms, and then there are broader terms like just plain mean things to say. For Shakespeare’s lifetime, religious terms were considered the most highly offensive.

Words like “zounds” or “God’s Blood”, and even “by God” were considered at the top of the most offensive words list.

“and thereof comes that the wenches say ‘God damn me;'”

Comedy of Errors (IV.3)

1606 statute from a compilation of Acts of Parliament, from the academic subscription service Historical Texts.  Https:// | Provided by John Spurr | Used by permission.

Words in Shakespeare’s Plays That Are There To Offend or Shock

In Shakespeare’s plays, many of the stronger language (ones that today would be rated PG-13 or R) that get spoken on stage are religious words. This will be religious terms. Words like damn, hell, by God, etc.

Jesse shares that you can see the evolution of language and the offensive nature of certain terms displayed through Shakespeare’s works, because after 1606 there’s decidedly fewer curse words on stage. This change is due to a law that was passed, specifically regulating players, and outlawing the use of profanities on stage.

“There are a lot of “By God” “Zounds” and “God’s Blood” and after 1606, there’s much fewer of these because you weren’t allowed to use them.”

These are images of Marston’s Jack Drum’s Entertainment (c.1600) highlighting “King” where a foppish French knight, much intent on sex, who is called J. fo de King (family name pronounced near homophone to f-ing). This reference was shown to me on Twitter by Natalia Pikli | The images are screenshots from from where you can look at a complete digital copy of Marston’s play. If you’re interested in Marston’s naughty words, there’s more info from @MatthewSteggle Oxford editor of the play here.

Sexual Vocabulary

Title page of the first edition of Iacke Drums Entertainment: or the Comedie of Pasquill and Katherine by John Marston, printed in 1601 for Richard Olive (aka Richard Oliff), London. | Public Domain | Source

In today’s English language (at least here in the US), many of the worst offending curse words are manipulations of sexual terminology, or words describing sexual behavior that is considered taboo. In Shakespeare’s lifetime, there existed words of. this variety (dictionaries, for example, from. the16th century define the f-word as a sexual act).

We see Shakespeare pun on these words in his plays, but never directly using them in his dialogue. That could be the result of how offensive the word was considered to be, but Jesse suggests it has more to do with the fact that sexual terms did not carry the same shock value they do today, and were not as useful for providing emphasis in a dramatic presentation. For comparison, Jesse points out that the f-word appears in Chapman’s translation of the Illiad, a high-brow publication, which. was published in 1611, and versions of it existing in 1598.

In John Florio’s dictionary, published in 1598, he enumerates the f-word, and the dictionary writes out the word and identifies it as non-offensive. Jesse explains that John Florio was including the f-word among many possible synonyms for Italian words. This word appeared in several dictionaries of the period.

Above are close up screen shots of John Florio’s dictionary from 1650s, where he uses the word “f*ck” to define various Italian terms in English. The pictures shown are definitions for “Bastie” and “Allattare”; Vocabulario italiano & inglese, a dictionary Italian & English, by Florio, John, 1553?-1625, pages found on

“By my life, this is my lady’s hand these be her very C’s, her U’s and her T’s and thus makes she her great P’s. It is, in contempt of question, her hand.”

— Malvolio, Twelfth Night (II.5)

Modern Curse Words in Shakespeare’s Plays

Of course there. are words, like “damn,” for example, which appear in Shakespeare’s plays as offensive language and continue today as offensive as well.  There are other words, like c-nt, which appears in Twelfth Night, that were offensive for Shakespeare as well.

However, if you type in “c-nt” (using the whole word, not the edited version shown here) into a text search engine like Open Source Shakespeare, you won’t find it. Why not? Well, because Shakespeare has Malvolio spell it out instead of speaking it. When he says “very C’s, her U’s and her T’s” The “and her T’s” is pronounced “N her T” which of course, spells the curse word.

Jesse shares there’s a place in Shakespeare’s Henry V, where the character points out that c-nt is very offensive in French.

Jesse also shares that in writings of the period, some offensive language is identifiable as such because publications would take the effort to place dashes where letters might belong to otherwise spell the word out so that a reader can recognize the curse word, but it is not spelled out completely.

Lastly, to curse someone outright, you might just insult them by invoking the image of anything ugly, evil, or profane. As Mercutio does in Romeo and Juliet, when he lets out a tyraid of expletives, he says,

“A plague o’ both your houses! ‘Zounds, a dog, a rat, a mouse, a cat, to scratch a man to death! a braggart, a rogue, a villain, that fights by the book of arithmetic! Why the devil came you between us?”

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That’s it for this week! Thank you for listening. I’m Cassidy Cash, and I hope you learn something new about the bard. I’ll see you next time!