Classical Swearing: A Vade-Mecum

by Barry Baldwin

“Man invented curse-words to give form and substance to his malign wishes, and he invented swear-words to back up his vows and establish his veracity.” - Burges Johnson, The Lost Art of Profanity (1948)

You might expect the Greeks who supposedly had a word for everything (actually they didn’t: no noun for “orgasm”, though one supposes they did have them) and the Romans (likewise lacking a term for “suicide”, despite all that falling on swords in Shakespeare) with their reputation for plain speaking would not line up with the American Indians, Japanese, Malayans, and Polynesians who do not curse but rather with those many cultures in which - as Geoffrey Hughes puts it in his book of that name - “Swearing is fascinating in its protean diversity and poetic creativity, while being simultaneously shocking in its ugliness and cruelty. It draws upon such powerful and incongruous resonators as religion, sex, madness, excretion, and nationality, upon an extraordinary variety of attitudes including the violent, the shocking, the absurd, and the impossible.”

The Jews had to be ordered in the Third Commandment to stop blaspheming. Robert Graves remarks that “the chief strength of the oath in Christian countries is that it is forbidden by authority.” The great advantage of polytheism is that it gives you a generous choice of gods to invoke. Thus, Greeks and Romans could swear from the top with “By Zeus” or “By Jupiter”, or by the god of choice - Apollo, Hermes, Venus, etc. - or with laconic inclusivity “By All The Gods.” One character in Plautus’ play Bacchides gets the best of both maledictory worlds, taking four lines to list fifteen individual deities before capping his inventory with “And All The Other Gods As Well,” earning from a bystander the awestruck compliment “Boy, can he swear!” Jupiter, incidentally, slid into English in 1570 via the euphemism “By Jove”, though no Roman ever exclaimed “Jumping Jupiter”, favourite ejaculation of baseball catcher Flannagan in the movie It Happens Every Spring. A few of the Twelve Olympians (themselves only allowed to swear by the infernal river Styx) rarely had their names taken in vain: Ares/Mars (odd that the war god should be avoided by such warlike societies), Artemis/Diana and Athene/Minerva (because both were virgins?), Hera/Juno (Mrs Zeus/Jupiter, also his sister), and ephaestus/Vulcan the misshapen god of technology (do they or don’t they swear by their computers in Silicon Valley?). The Roman scholar Gellius (2nd cent. AD) maintains Roman women never swear by Hercules or men by Castor. Perhaps it was inappropriate for the weaker sex to swear by the macho saint of strength - does any modern woman invoke Arnold Schwarzenegger? Among men, “By Hercules” was a very mild drawing-room oath: Cicero admits it to his formal courtroom prose. Castor’s name suited females, since it suggested the Latin for “chaste” (casta ), but for that very reason it was too sissy for the lads. One oath, Edepol (“By Pollux”), was acceptably cross-gender, but even here the sexes tended to go separate ways, women preferring the truncated form Pol. This looks like an ancient anticipation of H. L. Mencken’s “deaconic swearing” or “bootleg profanity”, equivalent to (say) “Golly” or “Goshdarn” or “Gorblimey” or “Gadzooks”, the hope being that the god will not recognise himself in such substitutes. Perhaps this also applies to the Greek “Go To The Crows” in lieu of “Go To Hell;” a Roman variant, thanks to crucifixion, was “Go Hang On The Cross.”

The Cretans evidently went overboard in blasphemy. An ancient commentator on Plato records that their king, Rhadamanthus, outlawed divine oaths and substituted “By The Dog”, “By The Goose”, and sundry other zoological zappers. The first of these was famously the favourite expostulation of Socrates, occasionally expanded to “By The Dog Of Egypt.” Why, we don’t know. This may have helped get him into trouble in 399 BC: one charge against him was that he worshipped strange gods. No other ancient is so associated with canine cursing. One presumes many had their own private idioms, like the character in Plautus’ The Little Carthaginian who invokes the painters Apelles and Zeuxis - like saying “By Picasso” or “By Hockney.”

The comedians Aristophanes and Cratinus confirm the antiquity of “By The Dog” and “By The Goose”. Likewise, “Hound” as a curse entered English around the year 1000 (a pseudo-millennial innovation?), “Dog” c. 1325, while in all ancient British war films Germans were forever crying Schweinehund. As early as Homer, both men and women were routinely abused as “Dogs”, and in Petronius’ comic novel Satyricon (1st cent. AD - movie fans will know Fellini’s version) a drunken wife apostrophises her husband as “Cur”. This provokes him enough to thump her, perhaps an unsurprising reaction: the lexicographer Hesychius says “dog” was slang for “prick.” It was also the lowest throw in Roman dice, so she could additionally be saying “You Zero.” And dogs, especially puppies, were allegedly adept at performing cunnilingus on their mistresses, thereby adding another lexical level - I find myself here humming Paul Anka’s Puppy Love. No sign, though, of any classical anticipation of “Dog’s Bollocks” for “Brilliant” as in contemporary British slang. “Goose” doesn’t appear to have any ancient double-entendre, unlike many animals and birds (e.g. “sparrow” = “penis”), though we can’t be quite sure; Shakespeare brought this poultry specimen into Henry VI Part One (1591) to designate a poxed whore.

The same Petronian husband later calls his wife a “Viper”, a common soubriquet for whores. In view of the borborological Barry McKenzie, the less enduring creation of Dame Edna Everage’s Aussie begetter Barry Humphries, and his penile “Jake The Snake”, I should add that, while the Greeks used this same metaphor, the Romans (strangely?) did not. Earlier, this husband - it is not the ideal marriage - had flung the missus over a settee, causing her to exclaim Au Au, solemnly explained by a Roman grammarian as “the usual cry of a very distressed woman” - pretty tame by our Nineties standards.

Petronius, although one of very few Roman authors (Plautus and Martial are others) to give us the flavour of Latin as it was spoken by “ordinary” people - this sadly huge gap is only partly filled by the graffiti still visible on the walls of Pompeii - tends to eschew “four-letter words”, doubtless as unrealistic a procedure as their absence from that doyen of British proletarian soap operas Coronation Street, though who knows what secret scatologies may lurk beyond such terminologies as “Flaming Nora”, “Gordon Bennett”, and “Chuffed To Little Mint Balls”? When a character says “the cold sucks,” he takes refuge in Greek. Given this, such permitted phrases as “piss hot and drink cold”, “not worth your own piss”, “more like a pisspot than a woman”, “like a mouse in a pisspot”, and “he had Jupiter by the balls” must have had little or no shock value.

Another character unleashes a stream of abuse at fellow-guests. Choice examples: “mutton-head”, “fruit”, “fly-by-night vagabond”, “clay-pot”, “wash-leather”, “curly-headed onion”, “come-hither man”, “rat”, “puffball.” Many are unique to him. Quite a few connote stupidity. Compare these items from a list of sixty-three in Hughes: “addlepate”, “airhead”, “berk”, “fruitcake”, “pudding-head”, “spaz”, “twit”, “zipalid”. As Hughes says, “no reader would be uncertain by the end that this list related to stupid people, but equally no reader would be familiar with all these terms.” The same no doubt applied to Petronius’ audience.

Ethnic slurs are now officially taboo, though this does not mean they are extinct in spoken conversation. Indeed, they still hang around in print. Only the other day, in an American crossword, one clue was “half breed” and the answer “Méti”, an offensive term to one segment of Canadian society. Greeks dismissed everyone who couldn’t speak their language as idiots who go “Ba-Ba”, hence “barbarian”. Cappadocians were proverbially stupid. Romans dubbed Hellenes “Greeklings.” The Latin equivalent of “Tell it to the Marines” is “Let Apella the Jew believe that.” Horace asks, “You want I should fart in the faces of the circumcised Hebrews?” They didn’t much go in for racism based on colour - though remove one ‘G’ and a Latin word for “black” gives us the N-word - but such expressions as “turn black into white” and “scrub an Ethiopian white” hint at its existence. The Elder Pliny mentions a tribe ashamed of their black skins, albeit they painted themselves red - not white. Still, being English, I must give pride of place to St Jerome for his lambasting - amid the solemn context of a Biblical commentary - the theologian Pelagius as “You Scottish Porridge-Eater.” Offensive body language was part and parcel of ancient insult. The commonest Roman gesture was to wiggle the middle finger at an enemy. This digit was called “the finger of shame.” It may have to do with Greeks on the island of Siphnos, whose supposed predilection for sticking fingers up a partner’s anus produced the verb “to Siphnosize”; I recall Ringo Starr’s lament in Help: “I’ve ‘ad some luvly times wiv this finger.” To scratch your own head with a single finger connoted effeminacy - both Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great were thus ridiculed. Hughes cannot trace sticking out your tongue further back than Elizabethan times, but it too was a Roman habit. A Roman also invented “Mooning” when one Marcus Servilius exposed his bare bum to a crowd he was haranguing on election day. The Byzantine emperor Andronicus took it a stage further with his public buttock barings and mimed defecations. In Petronius, a slave “not satisfied with cursing” kept lifting up his leg and farting. Breaking wind was considered a good omen, though, in certain religious rites - I must here subjoin a British drollery: “Sir, you have farted in front of my wife.” “Sir, I am sorry, I didn’t know it was her turn.”

You might not expect the (officially, at least) pious Byzantines to have contributed much to the history of swearing. You would be wrong. Their capital, Constantinople, sets the pace. One of its downtown thoroughfares was called Hooker Street, thus anticipating the Gropecunt Lane of mediaeval Oxford (since downgraded to Magpie Lane). Effing and blinding turns up not only in lampoon and satire, but in works of scholarship. This is a trend from which dreary modern academic writing would much benefit. One lonely example, a letter (Nov. 21, 1985) in the London Review of Books in which a Professor Hawkes told a Professor Hough to “piss off,” only whets the appetite. Did Hawkes realise how Byzantine he was being? Commentators’ marginal notes to the satirist Lucian contain no less than thirty-nine terms of abuse, ranging from “moron” to “boy-buggerer”. The 12th century scholar Tzetzes writes off an academic rival as “bull-father, moonstruck son of a goat” and many other things. Even A. E. Housman never ventured this far in his famously scurrillous tirades at rival editors. The favourite Byzantine cursing technique was to build up a dizzyingly-long compound of insulting adjectives, a trick inherited from Aristophanes. These often ran for many lines and sentences. I could fill an entire essay with examples. St. Symeon Metaphrastes did not blush to dub an enemy “you enema-nurtured shit-eater.” Leo the Philosopher trounced a student as “O stammer-speaking, very stammering, always stammering mouth” - hard to get away with that in namby-pamby modern pedagogy. Another Leo is among countless sins “a fabricator of filthy books, a cheating innkeeper, a sodomiser of strumpets.” Whether they knew it or not, the Antipodean quoted in Bill Hornadge’s The Australian Slanguage (1980) for his “you rotten, bloody, poofter, commo, mongrel, bastard,” and Kevin Kline to John Cleese in A Fish Called Wanda, “you pompous, stuck-up, snot-nosed, English, giant twerp, scumbag, fuck-face, dick-head, arsehole” are being entirely Byzantine. It seems right that, according to the Penguin Book Of Insults (1981), when Theodore Roosevelt wished to abuse Woodrow Wilson, the best/worst thing he could come up with was “you Byzantine logothete.”

Byzantium extends into the Middle Ages. Over in England, the ritual of competitive insults known as “Flyting” was popular from Bede to Shakespeare. Hughes, providing generous examples, traces this to the extempore “skaldic verse” of Old Norse. He could have gone back much further. Flyting was a classical procedure. Horace treats us to some extracts from one such verbal slugfest between two professional comedians on a trip across Italy. They are low on wit, high on taunts at physical defects. Virgil presents one shepherd accusing another of bestiality. He would have been tickled by a recent discussion on the World Wide Words electronic newsletter (distributed by Michael Quinion, UK) of whether England or Australia gave birth to the expression “sheep-shagger” (cue for a third Austin Powers movie?).

Sensitive readers had better stop here, for I have reached the classical antecedents of what in America are called the “Big Six” - “cock”, “cunt”, “fart”, “fuck”, “piss”, “shit.” When comedian George Carlin satirised this lexical sextet (plus some related terms) in a 1975 radio monologue “Filthy Words”, a citizen’s complaint was upheld by the US Supreme Court. Not altogether a bad thing, if you agree with the adage “Censorship is the mother of linguistic invention.”

Both this and Carlin’s routine were anticipated by Cicero. Writing to a friend, he discusses with copious examples the linguistic pruderies of Roman Mrs Grundys, hyper-sensitive Stoics who objected not only to “dirty” words but to combinations of innocent ones that produced them. For instance: avoid the noun intercapedo (“interval”) because its last four letters spell pedo (“fart”); don’t say illam dicam (“I should mention her”) because that is pronounced landicam (“clitoris”); bini (“two each”) will upset Greek speakers since binein is their word for “fuck.” Cicero, in his own writings a master of invective without ever using “four-letter words”, adopts an air of sweet reason towards the whole business.

I can only scratch the surface in this little essay. The mere fact there is enough material to fill fat modern books (listed below) tells its own tale. By a convention that we don’t fully understand, the “worst” words were eschewed in Graeco-Roman literature, save stage comedy and satire. They don’t appear in erotic writing - no ancient Henry Miller. For Rome (no equivalent for Greece), we also have the graffiti - ranging from semi-literate scrawl to sophisticated poetic parodies - on the walls of Pompeii, where one bit of scribble provides the best comment on the rest: “I wonder, O Wall, thou stayest in place/Such a weight of bad writing thou hast on thy face.”

In Latin both the F- and C- words are primary obscenities of equal weight, unlike English - “cunt” is still avoided on the BBC even by those who have no qualms about “fuck.” Though they look similar, lexicographers don’t think the words futuo and cunnus are the direct ancestors of the English ones - if they were, why did “cunt” not enter English until c. 1230 and “fuck” only in 1503?

A kerfuffle has been caused by The Lonely Planet Phrase Book (1999), which claims that most Brits cannot make a single sentence without participial use of the F-word. Be that as it may - it contradicts Robert Graves’ belief that swearing there was in decline and would continue to be, an opinion that defied the national reputation for coprolalia that goes back at least to the days of Joan of Arc - no such claim could have been made about the Romans (or Greeks). Strangely or otherwise, these words are not used as expletives. “Fucking Hell” in Latin would be futuens orcus , but no such locution exists. There is no logical reason why a Roman could not have said it, but its absence from Pompeian graffiti seems decisive. Nor, at any written level, do they address each other as fututor (“you fucker”) - but did Roman yobs never shout Futue Off at each other on Saturday nights? It’s the same with cunnus, except for a single Pompeian graffito which aims it at a male homosexual. Quite why this is so remains a mystery. Romans were not squeamish about calling each other “bugger”, “cocksucker”, “cunt-licker”, “prick”, and “sodomite”, while Martial rattles on about such matters as “cunt-farts” (poppysmata cunni) and the quality and price of a blow-job are frequently animadverted upon in the graffiti. The most concentrated shower of filth comes in the Priapea, a collection of anonymous short poems in which Priapus, a well-hung erect Worzel Gummidge or scarecrow, reminiscent of the phallic Cerne Abbas giant in Dorset, threatens boys and girls who invade his gardens with every manner of penetrative sexual revenge - they are all translated by W. H. Parker (1988). “I’ll ram you through your own arsehole” is a typical delicacy of phrase, while “you scabby bitch, more poxed than a queer,” suggests that a modern Priapus would be labelling AIDS “the gay disease.” At one moment he says, “to put it in good old plain-speaking Latin, I’ll stick it up your arse.” So, why did this Roman directness have such limits?

The ancients were also un-British in not calling each other “wankers.” Masturbari and masturbator have no direct synonyms, and there is a distinct shortage of expressions comparable to “toss off” or “beat your meat”, though Aristophanes does have the god Dionysus “scratching my chickpea.”

“You arsehole” is another modern locution they avoided. The basic Latin word culus has left a rich legacy in the Romance languages. It was sometimes interchangeable with cunnus, which may seem odd, but the same is true of “prat” and “tail” in English where “frig” connotes both masturbation and intercourse and “fanny” is backside in America, vagina in Britain. Ancient slang is thus frequently useful for illustrating modern, one reason for this essay. Tackling the question of how “nunnery” can mean “brothel” in Hamlet, Hughes just quotes the comment “the harlottes at Rome were called nonariae “ by Ranulph Higden (1432-50). So they were, but nonaria (one of a huge number of Latin words for prostitute) simply means “ninth hour girl”, this being the time at which they could legally begin to ply their trade. Likewise, Hughes spends two puzzled pages on the vernacular uses of “fig” in English, unaware that in Latin it was a derisive term for haemorrhoids caused by excessive indulgence in passive sodomy. There are many other helpful classical precedents for modern offensiveness, e.g. “bag” for old woman or prostitute, “ring” for anus (little heard now, but common when I was a boy), “crack” for vagina, “rosebud” for vagina (did William Randolph Hearst and Orson Welles know this?), “having the rags on” for menstruating.

“Prick” was a Roman favourite. Catullus calls an enemy “you fucked-up mentula “ (the basic word) in one poem. In another, he tells how the orator Calvus was heckled by an audience member shouting “you loud-mouthed prick” (diserte salaputium). A graffito, complete with drawing of penis, dubs Pompey “not a man but a prick” (sopio). Another ancient rhyparologist orders “eat shit, you pricks” - shades of Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, famous for coining “fuddle-duddle” as his term for “fuck off” (mouthed at opposition MPs in parliamentary debate), who once told striking postal workers in French (mangez de la merde) to consume excrement. At quite a different semantic level, the emperor Augustus called Horace “cleanest of cocks” in a friendly way, perhaps comparable to amicable British uses of this word. One also expects that the Roman called Mutto (Mr Prick) mentioned in a Cicero speech had to endure a lot of repetitive jokes on his name. Penis and testicles go together, not just anatomically. It must have been a godsend for Roman lawyers that testis means both “witness” and “testicle” - likewise for wits in general that anus is both “bum” and “old woman” - albeit Cicero (notorious for his cutting wit) doesn’t much go in for it: too infantile, perhaps. But he will talk about “Rome having its balls (coleos) cut off” in a treatise on oratory. A speaker in Petronius laments “if only we had the balls,” while the contemporary poet Persius groans “if only we had a drop of our fathers’ spunk.” Natural functions play their part. While Romans didn’t say “Piss off” or “piece of piss” (British demotic for an easy task), they had such expressions as “piss in your own child’s bosom” and “shit on your own balls.” Priapus typically goes further: “what a pile of shit your prick is.” Cicero calls the Senate “shit” (stercus) and the electorate the “dung-heap (faex) of Romulus.” Catullus alliteratively dubs an enemy’s historical writings as “shitty sheets of scrap-paper” (cacata charta); Martial dismisses a rival’s poems as “fit for a shit.” In modern English style, the poet Lucilius complains about “piss-poor” (mictilis) food,” Martial about a cake that was “pure shit” (merda). The latter characteristically pulls several of these scatological threads together in this witty shitty ditty: “When you fuck, you shit when you come/Whadda ya do when a man’s up your bum?”

Taking a cue from Jeffrey Richards’ (a history don) review of Hughes in the London Sunday Times, we may chart various stages in English bad language. Anglo-Saxon swearing had magical connotations; this yielded to blasphemy in the pious Middle Ages. Secular indecency took over in the Renaissance and Reformation. Elizabethans, led by Henry VIII and Good Queen Bess, loved to mock their enemies’ physical oddities. Puritanism compelled new ways to circumlocutory blasphemy. Relative decorum prevailed in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, epitomised by Johnson’s omission of most crude words (although “fart” and “piss” were admitted) from his Dictionary and Thomas Bowdler’s sanitised Shakespeare - a trend offset by such Victorian pornography as The Pearl (“clitoris”) and the anonymous sexual memoir My Secret Life. Robert Graves thought that his predicted decline in swearing might be upset by “a new shock to our system” - this came in the shape of the Sixties. In our Nineties, the decline of class distinctions, religion, and sexual taboos has dimished blasphemy and insults based on social status and physiological swearing, leaving racial epithets and references to physical disabilities as the only ones beyond the pale. All such patterns are liable to interruption. Only today, I read in the Spectator (July 31, 1999) this injunction from columnist A. A. Gill to a rival scribe: “Go fuck yourself, you smelly dago Lesbian cunt.” While we can say that the bawdy of Aristophanes coincides with the apogee of Athenian democracy and that Plautus in the Roman Republic is less gross than many “decadent” imperial writers, it is impossible to impose these patterns on to Greek and Roman swearing, and perhaps they would not even have understood them. Still, Cicero’s aforementioned letter on what is and is not proper in Latin might at least suggest recognition of Taylor’s final point, “profanity is in a bad way,” looking forward to the next shock in the national nervous system. Overall, despite the huge gaps in our knowledge, we are probably as safe in applying to ancient swearing as to modern the remark of Jonathan Swift, himself no mean coprologist, “oaths are the children of fashion.”

© 2006 by Barry Baldwin



About the Author

Barry Baldwin was born in 1937 and educated in England. He emigrated to Australia in 1962, re-moving to Canada in 1965, where he is Emeritus Professor of Classics, University of Calgary, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. He has published around 30 short stories in print (magazines and book anthologies), and has a novella, "Not Cricket", in Chapbook form (Rembrandt & Company Press, USA), also in e-zines. He has been a Finalist in the Arthur Ellis Awards (Canada 1999) and the Anthony Awards (Bouchercon, 2000, USA) in the mystery short story category.


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