A Quotation from Eric Partridge


I’ve been reading “The World of Words” by Eric Partridge (published by Routledge, 1938). In Chapter 2, entitled “The English Language” – chapter 3 is “The American Language” – he draws largely on Otto Jespersen’s Growth and Structure of the English Language, quoting often, and sometimes not acknowledging the source directly. On page 68, we find the following paragraph:

The Puritans influenced the language by causing a diminution both of swearing as a habit and of the number of oaths: whence Law (or Lawks) for Lord, drat it, and goodness gracious. ‘The English swear less than other European nations and … when they do swear the expressions are more innocent than elsewhere.’ Thus it is to the Puritans, or rather to their lingering influence, that we owe a certain number of English euphemisms – mild words for strong words. Why, it is even customary to speak of oaths as expletives or profane language! ‘Where a French or German or Scandinavian lady will express surprise or a little fright by exclaiming (My) God!, an Englishwoman will say Dear me! or Oh my! or Good gracious!‘ Euphemism reached its height of prudery and ludicrousness in the period 1840-70, when, in England, trousers were called by many comic names of the unmentionables kind and, in America, the ladies spoke of the limbs of a piano. ‘Prudery is an exaggeration, but purity is a virtue, and there can be no doubt that the speech of the average Englishman is less tainted with indecencies … than that of the average Continental.’

Can this be true? I know that when I was a student working in a factory, the men would not swear in front of the women, although the women were as hard-swearing as the men amongst themselves. What sort of people did Jespersen (and Partridge, for that matter) mix with? Perhaps language was milder in in the 1930s, or perhaps Jespersen, as a foreigner, was spoken to rather deferentially by the ‘natives’. Whatever, I cannot believe that the position is still the same today. If it is, then the profanity of ‘Continentals’ must be something quite amazing.


  1. It’s rather odd what various languages take to be profane or obscene. I had the impression while living in a Norway that about the most horrible word I cd say was fanden (actually pronounced /fɑːn/) which simply means ‘Devil’. I think I’ve seen it translated in film subtitles with a suitably shocking English word. And there are words I hear in the soundtracks of some French films that I’m quite relieved they refrain from rendering literally.

  2. When I was in Turin many many many years ago, I was always puzzled by the fact that the very worst imprecation one could utter in Piemontese literally means “false god” or maybe “false God”.

  3. An expletive in Bangor Welsh of the 1970s was the exotic ‘Sharif’ from Omar Sharif, from “o ‘ma” from original “ffwcia o ‘ma” (f*ck off)!

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