Elizabethan Oaths, Curses, and Insults

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Generate your own insult!

Find yourself tempted to say that effin word too often? Modern english is unimaginative when it comes to expletives, contenting itself with a paucity of four-letter equivalents for the range of human distress. This is due in part to television, which favors the quick over the skillful, and likewise to the accelerated requirements of modern life; a passing car permits no more than a few syllables and a gesture.

Some television humor runs counter-current thanks to the to-the-letter FCC restriction on certain dirty words. South Park, Drawn Together, (even Beavis & Butthead -- but with a limited vocabulary) create a shocking verbal effect by creating dirty concepts without the use of the dirty words. Still the pace of the delivery dictates a low complexity. Many shows now employ the dirty words and merely bleep out a fragment.

Five hundred years ago, little in life moved more quickly than a trotting horse. With no media to fill the day, there was nothing but space for song and speech. Elizabethans took a delight with language, weaving together terms to form stinging phrases of wit. Shakespeare himself is thought to have invented (or first published) nearly 1,700 words. This was a period prior to the first English Dictionary (published 1604) where you might stitch together "ale" and "louse" to accuse your neighbor of being an "ale-louse" and no one could gainsay your usage.

For the faire worker, this freedom allows you to be not only period-correct, but to avoid the angry eye of parents with children.

The common equivalent of disgust is fie (f-eye). This is not the eff-word you're thinking of, but more akin to "ugh" or "bleh". Fie upon your artless speech! Fie, away sir! The modern eff-word was in usage by 1500, but the learned Elizabethan would employ the common verb swive. Humorous modern effects result from the use of terms such as pig farker (middle low german "ferken"), which means pig farmer and is rather different from a pig swiver. Careful with this unless you're looking for a fight.

Oaths are an affirmation of truth made upon some object of untarnished purity. Oaths are not taken lightly, to do so forms the basis of swearing -- because one swears an oath (for example, on the Bible in court). The strongest oaths involve swearing by God, for example God's teeth or wounds (Z'wounds). A similar contraction is thought to have turned "By-your-Lady" into the British oath bloody (but in the late 1600s). "By My Trowth" employs the old-english for truth to swear by one's (presumed) honesty (similar to "by my word").

As a faire worker, you can use gentle oaths to spice up your language. Make use of the object most pure to your character for proper effect. As a smith you might swear by your hammer or tongs, a farmer by his plow, a soldier by his sword, a drunkard by his cup. For a humorous effect, employ a double-entendre by swearing against something of dubious virtue: by my gammer's withered leg! Good Elizabethans would not swear by Odin's beard or similar pagan heresy, but that is the right idea.

Curses are an expression of desired harm. A pox upon thee! basically wishes death upon the recipient (either via small pox or syphilis (french pox)). As with oaths, a curse is most effective upon an item of pre-eminent worth. "May thy hammer be brittle!" "May thy plow seize!" "May thy cup be as unto a sieve!" "May thy pigs be set upon by ravens and torne asunder leaving only bespecked bone and curdled fat for which the rats upon to feast!" Particularly serious are those things involving livelihood or reproduction. "May thou suffer fallow fields! May thy mares be barren, and thy tongue be leaden!"

Because you are actively wishing someone harm, curses are best used with other actors and not against the public unless the context is so humorous or the curse so unwieldy and ridiculous that no offense could be taken. Be careful. If in doubt, target an object and not a person: "a pox unto those words" rather than "a pox unto thee".

In modern times, curses have mostly fallen from usage with the exception of damn you and the more direct go to hell. Neither of these is appropriate for the observant Elizabethan.

Insults demean the target in some way by calling into question their abilities, worth, or social position. The notion of demeaning changes over time: calling someone a "farmer" in Elizabethan times generally wouldn't be an insult because nearly everyone was a farmer. But an ale-soused apple john (drunken withered old apple) is unambiguously an insult.

To create florid Elizabethan-like insults, use the lists above to stitch together several terms that reflect poorly upon attributes of your victim. As with modern insults, these are most effective if they have a basis in truth or draw an unflattering comparison. Unlike modern insults, brevity is not of foremost concern.

Examples

You are fat.
By my trowth, thou dost make the millstone seem as a feather what widst thy lard-bloated footfall!
You've got a big mouth.
In sooth, thy dank cavernous tooth-hole consumes all truth and reason!
You are ugly.
Thy vile canker-blossom'd countenance curdles milk and sours beer.

References

Shakespeare's Insults: Educating Your Wit
Shakespeare's Insults: Educating Your Wit
Wayne F. Hill, Cynthia J. Ottchen
Buy New: $11.83 / Used: $0.01 (154 avail)
Book Of Insults: Ancient & Modern
Book Of Insults: Ancient & Modern
Nancy McPhee
Buy New: $9.78 / Used: $0.01 (37 avail)

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