A Writer On Writing: Mincing Your Words
Sally Jenkins has some bad-language advice for writers of historical fiction.
Did you know that many of our swear words have religious roots? Or have you any idea where the phrase ‘mincing your words’ comes from? I’d never really thought about it until I heard Thought for the Day on Radio http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thought_for_the_Day with Clifford Longley. http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/religion/clifford_longley.shtml
He explained how years ago swearing in public could get a person arrested and punished. Bad language would be noted down by the police officer who had witnessed it and then, in court, the piece of paper would be silently shown to the judge so that he could decide on the offender’s comeuppance.
The most offensive swearing had its basis in religion and therefore contravened the commandment, “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.” Hence, the reason that many people took offence.
To avoid the repercussions of their bad language, people used to ‘mince their words’ to disguise what they were really saying. Here are a few of the minced expressions:
By Our Lady (which referred to the Virgin Mary) became Bloody
God Blind Me became Blimey
Christ became Crikey or Cripes
By God’s Wounds became Zounds (I have to admit I’ve never heard of this one)
These minced words passed into common use at different times in the last few hundred years. So, if you write historical fiction and have characters with a tendency to bad language – take some time to discover exactly what they would have said and whether they would have been in danger of getting arrested for it!