Edwardian Expletives


Ben Lemmon

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I have searched for anything that would give me some idea of what curse words would have been used in the Edwardian Era. For some reason, I find it highly unlikely for anyone to have used the words Rose and Jack used on Cameron's Titanic. I doubt anyone was that foul-mouthed back then… even the sailors, though I could be wrong. Anyway, what are some mild expletives that would have been used in moments of intense stress? I am talking of those moments when a 20 lb cat jumps on your back using his claws, and you can't get him off, no matter what you do. Anyway, any information would be appreciated. And please, nothing too smutty!
 
Dec 2, 2000
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>>I doubt anyone was that foul-mouthed back then…<<

Don't bet on it. "Polite Society" may not have used nasty language in public, but behind closed doors, all bets are off. The lower classes wouldn't have been quite as inhibited.

Beyond that, I think you'll find that most of the "Colourful metephores" in use now were around then, including the ever popular F-Bomb. Gestures such as "The Finger" have been around since the days of the Roman Empire. (I saw a reference in the works of Suetonius.) Research the history of a given word or term. You just might be surprised at what's been out there for a very long time.
 

Dave Gittins

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In an extraordinary Australian novel, published in 1903, the author attempts to reproduce the language of bullock drivers, with which he was very familiar.

He wanted to get published, so he resorted to using inserting terms like (adj) (complicated expletive) (Sheol) (crimson carnal) (quadruple adjective) into their speech. It doesn't require much imagination to work out what they mean and it's rather good fun to read. These men used profane language frequently and were legendary for their ability to get bullocks moving with the aid of a whip and curses.

Overseas readers will probably find it hard to get Such is Life by Tom Collins (Joseph Furphy). I don't know if there's a US or British equivalent.
 
Dec 29, 2006
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The British working class would not have used (or even understood) the American "single finger" gesture; the British version is a two-finger "V" sign, which is thought to have originated during the Hundred Years War and basically means "Go Forth and Multiply".

Regarding swear words in use by common seamen in or around 1912, "bloody" and "bugger" would have been very common (as in "bloody Hell" and "bugger off"). I wonder, too, if there would have been regional variations - London slang, for example, being very different to Irish or Scouse slang. I think, as an example, that something to the effect of "Bugger off you little toe-rag" is what a Londoner might have said to a ship mate who had annoyed him in some way?
 
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I wonder if the B word was in use in Britain? I know it was used over here. Not in polite Society of course. I think the F bomb was but wasn't used as we use it today.

Here in the USA we used son of a fiddlers b***h or if you were a woman you are a Fiddler's or tinker's b***h.
I don't give a tinkers damn was a goodie. Great balls of fire was a Civil War favorite that was some what tame by 1912. I think D*mn it was used although I could be mistaken. You low down Sh*t kicker or just plain sh*t kicker was a favorite of the west. Cowboys loved to cuss.
 

Ben Lemmon

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After reading some of A Night to Remember, I found that the expletive "d*mn coupled with taking the Lord's name in vain had been used by H.G. Lowe. I'm wavering on the validity of this statement, though. Inger, do you know whether or not he said anything like this the night of the sinking?
 
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Personally, on the night of the sinking, no matter how devout and reticent I usually was, I think I might have said just about anything if I were an officer charged with lowering boats.
 

Inger Sheil

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Oh, yes - certainly. "Jump, God damn you, jump" was his exact phrase with Daisy Minahan - she noted his language had been so blasphemous that women in the boat thought he was drunk (although I've never seen an account from any of these other women). She also records a "you ought to be damn glad you're here" comment. Then there was "If you'll get the hell out of it..." to Ismay. I've always thought that when he said he had to "halloo" a bit to get people off the falls when he was lowering the boat that the "hallooing" wasn't quite as genteel as the phrase suggests. Not an expletive, but he did tell the people in his boat to "shut up" when they started arguing over whether to travel to the Carpathia or wait for her to come to hem. Some of the women seemed to rather admire his language and overall attitude - Collyer called him a "proper John Bull" and seemed delighted that he gave Ismay "socks".

It was considered at the time - and ever afterwards - that the rough side of Lowe's tongue could be quite rough indeed. One relative I interviewed who visited him as a child in the 30s was amazed at the language he used. Another remembered the tradition on that side of the family that he had the manners of a Victorian gentleman coupled with a great fluency in high seas invective.

I can't give you specific examples of the top of my head, unfortunately, beyond those above. His son noted to me that he thought the "God damn you" was very mild by today's standards. If I can think of others I'll pass them on - I can think of some emphatic phrasing he used, but not actual expletives (although I have a vague recollection of a "bloody" or two, I'd have to check and see I'm not misremembering").
 

Jim Kalafus

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Ben...a GREAT source for genuine...invective... you can get transcripts of court-martial records. Many of which involve situations that got out of hand after an underling cursed at an officer and things began to accelerate. I have reference numbers for a few hilarious Civil War examples. You might want to dig in around 1910, to see what was au courant amongst those who reached the breaking point during the Titanic era.
 

Jim Kalafus

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And, just to throw a further wrench into this... how much of Miss Minahan et al's reaction to Lowe's language was, in fact, genuine and how much was it maintaining a facade of gentility? I ask, because blasphemy featured prominently in a....predictable... number of Lusitania first week accounts, and no one seemed particularly surprised or offended. Now, either the Lusitania's women were either far more worldly, or far less ...uhh...dignified, than their 1912 sisters, or a degree of facade maintenence may have been at play in the case of the latter.
 

Inger Sheil

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Sorry Bob - you beat me to the punch while I was writing my response!

Most of the women under his charge seemed to be quite understanding when it came to Lowe's language - certainly Rene Harris, the Comptons, Selena Cook, Nellie Walcroft, Clear Cameron and others raised no objection, and in some cases stressed his courtesy and the way in which he tried to keep their spirits up. Cameron noted that the two young officers (Moody and Lowe) had been cursing as they held back men and urged women into the boats, but it was she (rather than Collyer - d'oh) who spoke with admiration of how "Officer Lowe gave him [Ismay] socks before he left the Titanic…he didn’t know who he was talking to and what’s more he didn’t care. If ever there lived a John Bull it’s him." Mind you, Cameron herself called Ismay a "damn coward" in her correspondence, so Lowe's language doesn't seem to have phased her - quite the contrary, if anything.

Minahan's comments on Lowe's language inspired sarcastic newspaper editorials on her criticism ("At best he should have confined his choice of words to those that would have been appropriate in a friendly game of parlour croquet") and words of defence from women like Rhoda Abbott who - although she had not been in the boat when Lowe had his exchanges with Minahan - thought the criticisms levelled at him for his use of language were unfair, and noting that he could not have been more courteous.

I agree that - if anything - Lowe was probably moderating his language while among the passengers. He said later on board the Carpathia that his only regret was some of the language he had used to the ladies in his boat.

I do wonder if he used stronger language in his exchange with Ismay than he recalled at the American Inquiry - it's interesting that one paper noted that Ismay seemed "relieved" when Lowe repeated the words...raising the possibility that they were a censored version of what Lowe actually said.
 

Inger Sheil

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Interesting point, Jim - as I said above I think the rough side of Lowe's tongue could be very cutting indeed, and not only through use of specific swear words. He freely told passengers to "shut up" (although given the context of his remark it is entirely understandable - he was quelling a lot of voices piping up with unreasonable suggestions that the Carpathia should come to them rather than vice-versa); told reporters that where he came from they would get a "punch in the nose" for looking over a guest book (hotel register); and cheerfully described how he would like to despatch some of the American reporters with a gun.

I wonder if Minahan would have been quite so convinced he was drunk if she hadn't been directly on the receiving end of "Jump, God damn you, jump" - that's the point that really seemed to rankle with her. The other specific examples she offers really don't seem to be that dire, or could read quite differently depending on their context (which she does not provide). Other passenger and crew accounts of Lowe's conduct in the boat stress his professionalism, even when noting some colourful language use. But if they - like Minahan - had found themselves being blared at by an officer, perhaps they, too, might have faulted him.

I also suspect that Minahan was the source of the question put to Lowe about whether he was drinking on the night (which he indignantly denied, with his response given very sympathetic newspaper coverage). If so, there could be an element of justifying the allegation of intoxication with the suggestion that the women at her end of the boat "all thought he was under the influence of liquor"...i.e. that it wasn't just her, but everyone else who shared the impression as well.
 

Bob Godfrey

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Well, ain't that always the way, Ing. Ben waited hours for a bus and then two came along one right after the other! But of course if I'd been a gentleman I'd have let you go first :)

Getting back to Ben's original question, this might be a good moment to remember the famous use of the word 'bloody' in Pygmalion, first performed in England in 1914. Shaw put the word in Eliza Doolittle's mouth to shockingly funny effect, but many in the audience felt it to be more shocking than funny. On the first night more than a few left their seats at that point, and it's said that some women fainted. For years afterwards phrases like "he used a Pygmalion word" were employed (in the Press, for instance) to bowdlerise accounts of the use of inappropriate language. A half century later, when My Fair Lady was scripted, 'bloody' had lost its power to shock, so 'arse' was substituted. Lord knows what they'd need to use today for anything like the same effect!

But Shaw knew of course that a word which everybody was familiar with would be shocking only because it was spoken by an actress on the stage. It's all a matter of context. Just about every four-letter word in the devil's dictionary was in common use in the Victorian and Edwardian periods by the 'lower orders' (male and female) and well understood by everybody else. But it was part of the gentrification process for those who sought to advance themselves up the social ladder that such words were no longer appropriate if you didn't want to give away the fact that you had risen from humble origins. And that of course is exactly the context in which Eliza Doolittle brings the house down with "not bloody likely".
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Jim Kalafus

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Yes...I brought up the entire Minahan tangent because I did not want Ben to fall into the all-too-common trap of added a cutsesy segment in which Victorian/Edwardian women fall into dead faints, based on Miss Minahan's apparent case of the vapors whilst speaking of Lowe. Because, although the Minahan accounts is famous...

>Minahan's comments on Lowe's language inspired sarcastic newspaper editorials on her criticism ("At best he should have confined his choice of words to those that would have been appropriate in a friendly game of parlour croquet") and words of defence from women like Rhoda Abbott who - although she had not been in the boat when Lowe had his exchanges with Minahan - thought the criticisms levelled at him for his use of language were unfair, and noting that he could not have been more courteous.

...the bemused contemporary reaction to it is not. QUITE a few authors, starting with Walter Lord, have endowed the passengers with a Victorian sensibility (excess nobility/excess gentility/ heavy on the vaporing) that evidence more than suggests they did not possess.

So, Ben...get to work finding court martial records of subordinates who cursed out their officers ("You can take a swift s--k out of my a--" being an 1863 example I am looking at as I type this) around 1912 for a word-for-word account of what invective was used by whom and to what effect. And, PLEASE, don't have the women over react....
 

Inger Sheil

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Oh, I love fill in the blanks! Or the instances when you find out that later writers have substituted words for the original obscenity. During the Jerilderie raid in 1879, bushranger Ned Kelly snapped at one of his gang members, Steve Hart, calling him (according to early published versions) a "bloody thing". Steve then had a grumble to some of their hostages, expressing his admiration for Kelly but also having a good old rant about why he shouldn't have been called a "bloody thing". It's a bit hard to appreciate why Hart took it so hard until you find out that, of course, the word was not "thing" at all, but rather something that would still cause resentment in most of those on the receiving end of it today.

And then there's what Aaron Sherritt said he would do to another gang member, former friend Joe Byrne, if he caught him - kill him for a start, and then something else that was a rather graphic. Saying it to Byrne's mother, mind you, was not a good move - once Byrne heard about it, it pretty much sealed Sherritt's fate. It's only very recently that the phrase has actually been widely published - in earlier literature it was referred to in the most tantalisingly vague way. But these were pretty rough rural Australians!

Our ancestors were certainly very earthy - Lincoln had a bawdy joke or two, and at least one that dealt with the subject of flatulence. It's possibly a good thing that schoolkids don't know that their sense of humour has such an illustrous 19th century precedent- they don't need the encouragement.
 

Kris Muhvic

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Naughty-Naughty!
Ha! Been reading about the anarchists in U.S.(late 19th-early 20th c.) and whoa! All the taboo words of today were utilized back then!

Question- I heard the "F" word originated back in the 14th(?) cen. as a shipping slang term. The job of threading the end of rope though pulleys or whatever rigging they had then. Could see how that became a euphamism for other ...dalliances!
 
Dec 2, 2000
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Easley South Carolina
>>Question- I heard the "F" word originated back in the 14th(?) cen. as a shipping slang term.<<

I'm sure you could google it up but the information I've seen in some dictionaries is that the F-bomb came from a German word. I wouldn't be shocked if it turned out that an even earlier version started life at sea. There was a lot on the old sailing vessels to give reason to use colourful metephores and a lot of them.
 
May 3, 2005
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>>I doubt anyone was that foul-mouthed back then… even the sailors,<<

I would bet even money on "even the sailors" being a bit foul-mouthed on occasions.
 
Dec 2, 2000
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>>I would bet even money on "even the sailors" being a bit foul-mouthed on occasions.<<

That's what's known as a sucker bet!
wink.gif
 
May 3, 2005
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>>That's what's known as a sucker bet!<<

I think there is a scene in ANTR where Lightoller makes a comment on not betting on a sure thing.

I base my opinion on the subject from four years service in the USN.
 

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