Saturday, May 06, 2006


On Swearing

Daniel Defoe, An Essay upon Projects (1697):
Swearing, that lewdness of the tongue, that scum and excrement of the mouth, is of all vices the most foolish and senseless; it makes a man's conversation unpleasant, his discourse fruitless, and his language nonsense.

It makes conversation unpleasant, at least to those who do not use the same foolish way of discourse; and indeed, is an affront to all the company who swear not as he does; for if I swear and curse in company, I either presume all the company likes it, or affront them who do not.

Then 'tis fruitless; for no man is believed a jot the more for all the asseverations, damnings, and swearings he makes; those who are used to it themselves, do not believe a man the more, because they know they are so customary, that they signify little to bind a man's intention; and they who practise them not, have so mean an opinion of those that do, as makes them think they deserve no belief.

Then, they are the spoilers and destroyers of a man's discourse, and turn it into perfect nonsense; and to make it out, I must descend a little to particulars, and desire the reader a little to foul his mouth with the brutish, sordid, senseless expressions, which some gentlemen call polite English, and speaking with a grace.

Some part of them indeed, though they are foolish enough, as effects of a mad, inconsiderate rage, are yet English; as when a man swears he will do this or, that, and it may be adds, God damn him he will; that is, God damn him if he don't: this, though it be horrid in another sense, yet may be read in writing, and is English: but what language is this?

Jack, God damn me Jack, how dost do, thou little dear son of a whore? How hast thou done this long time, by God? — And then they kiss; and the other, as lewd as himself, goes on:

Dear Tom, I am glad to see thee with all my heart, let me die. Come, let us go take a bottle, we must not part so; prithee let's go and be drunk by God. —

This is some of our new florid language, and the graces and delicacies of style, which if it were put into Latin, I would fain know which is the principal verb.

But for a little further remembrance of this impertinence, go among the gamesters, and there nothing is more frequent than, God damn the dice, or God damn the bowls.

Among the sportsmen 'tis, God damn the hounds, when they are at a fault; or, God damn the horse, if he balks a leap. They call men sons of bitches, and dogs sons of whores: and innumerable instances may be given of the like gallantry of language, grown now so much a custom.


The grace of swearing has not obtained to be a mode yet among the women; God damn ye does not sit well upon a female tongue; it seems to be a masculine vice, which the women are not arrived to yet; and I would only desire those gentlemen who practice it themselves, to hear a woman swear: it has no music at all there, I am sure; and just as little does it become any gentleman, if he would suffer himself to be judged by all the laws of sense or good manners in the world.

'Tis a senseless, foolish, ridiculous practice; 'tis a mean to no manner of end; 'tis words spoken which signify nothing; 'tis folly acted for the sake of folly, which is a thing even the Devil himself don't practice. The Devil does evil, we say, but it is for some design, either to seduce others, or, as some divines say, from a principle of enmity to his maker: men steal for gain, and murther to gratify their avarice or revenge; whoredoms and ravishments, adulteries and sodomy, are committed to please a vicious appetite, and have always alluring objects; and generally all vices have some previous cause, and some visible tendency; but this, of all vicious practices, seems the most nonsensical and ridiculous, there is neither pleasure nor profit, no design pursued, no lust gratified, but is a mere frenzy of the tongue, a vomit of the brain, which works by putting a contrary upon the course of nature.

Again, other vices men find some reason or other to give for, or excuses to palliate; men plead want to extenuate theft; and strong provocations to excuse murthers; and many a lame excuse they will bring for whoring; but this sordid habit, even those that practise it will own to be a crime, and make no excuse for it; and the most I could ever hear a man say for it was that he could not help it.

Besides, as 'tis an inexcusable impertinence, so 'tis a breach upon good manners and conversation, for a man to impose the clamour of his oaths upon the company he converses with; if there be any one person in the company that does not approve the way, 'tis an imposing upon him with a freedom beyond civility; as if a man should fart before a Justice, or talk Bawdy before the Queen, or the like.

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