Posted by: Jack Henry | September 21, 2017

Editor’s Corner: Historical Swear Words (Rated PG)

I love words—all kinds of words. So I was delighted to find the following list of Shakespearean/Elizabethan swear words (late 1500s to mid-1600s) on Don’t worry; by today’s standards, they are all safe to use in public and in mixed company—not kind, but safe. In deference to time, I’ve cut the definitions down. Click this link to read a little more about each word.

Knave: The word knave was used to insult someone of the male gender. In Shakespeare’s time, the word was used to describe a liar, a cheat, or a con artist.

Cozen: To cozen someone was to cheat them. This may be an abbreviation of the phrase “to make a cousin of” which references a classic scam from Renaissance Europe.

Scumber (or scummer): This word is a substitute for the more common s-word.

Whelp: We know that whelp is a word for a puppy, but when applied to a human child, it was considered an insult.

Churl: This word is a derogatory synonym for peasant. It was very insulting in a time of lords and peasants (churl could be likened to the offensive phrase trailer trash—not cool).

Block: This word was used to imply that a person was as stupid as an inanimate object.

Pander and Bawd: These words were used to refer to male and female pimps (respectively).

Sblood: This Shakespearean phrase is short for God’s blood. It was especially offensive because it took the lord’s name in vain and brought “blood into the picture for extra effect.”

Jobbernowl: The knowl is the crown of the head, so this word meant something like stupid head or numbskull.

Scald: This word is a synonym of scurvy, a disease that resulted in swollen, bleeding gums and loose teeth; bruised skin; and a bunch of other nasty symptoms. Obviously, calling someone a scald was a pretty big insult.

Bedlamite: Bedlam was (and still is) the nickname for the Bethlehem Royal Hospital (now called Bethlem Royal Hospital). It’s the oldest and most famous psychiatric hospital (still in operation) in Europe, founded in 1247 to care for the poor and indigent. The hospital became known as Bedlam beginning in the 1600s, and it became infamous for its inhumane conditions and poor treatment of its patients and the mentally ill. The word bedlam (meaning “a scene of mad confusion”) dates back to the early 1600s and is associated with the hospital. The term bedlamite was used as an insult for anyone acting crazy.

For those who are interested, I found an article about Bethlem Royal Hospital called “10 Crazy Facts from Bedlam, History’s Most Notorious Asylum.” It’s a little long, so save it for after work. I can’t vouch for its accuracy, but I can vouch for its creepiness. I found it quite disturbing. Consider yourself warned.

Donna Bradley Burcher | Senior Technical Editor | Symitar®

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  1. […] week, I wrote a post about historical swear words. And the word historical made me think. I know that many of us are confused about whether to use […]

  2. […] family was already at their wit’s end after I wrote about, and started using, historical swear words and words that make you sound “wicked smart.” They’re going to run away crying after I throw […]

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