Curses, but not Foiled Again

I’ve been editing Lord of Misrule (almost finished!), and it is always interesting to see what minutiae of the period suddenly will crop up as a problem when one is at this stage of finishing. I discovered that my hero has been saying “bloody hell” in the rough draft on the rare occasions that he felt the need to swear (usually in his head, not out loud). Yes, poor man, a lot of frustration there.

The problem with that (for me) is twofold at the least: first, I believe that is an extremely strong and even today quite offensive curse in Britain, and second, I write “clean/sweet” (choose your preferred label) Regencies, and I think that is too strong a curse for many of my readers, especially the ones who like Christian romances.

So of course, I’ve had to take time out from editing to study up on Regency cursing.

I’m not fond of “By Jove” even though the phrase is period –it sounds like a popinjay to me, not a hero. Might work for a best friend; in fact I’ve used it that way. The hero of my very first book used “Devil take it” as his cursing phrase, but I don’t want to go to the same well over and over –we writers like characters to be as unique as real people are, if we have enough skill to achieve that. Besides, my LOM hero, Adam, has a tendency to compare himself to the Devil or claim to be him, so things could get confusing. J But I have discovered an assortment of articles, blogs, and other sources all dealing with this vocabulary issue. Clearly this is a common problem!

Interestingly, “bloody” which is considered quite bad even though commonly used now, was not so terrible until about the time of the Regency. Even the illustrious Maria Edgeworth had a character use it in 1801, but that is about the last time it was acceptable for a very long period. (Ref.

For me, the problem with using “bloody” remains all about the modern reader’s sensibility, rather than period accuracy. If Adam uses “bleeding” instead, does the change in word form make it less offensive?

Historical sources make a distinction between profanity and obscenity in cursing –the former having to do with religious references and the latter about body parts and functions. Several scholarly articles talk about swearing and class distinctions. It seems to me after only a brief study, I’ll admit, that when looking at the differences in the way the upper class and lower class swore, at least historically, the upper class was more likely to stick with profanity and the lower classes tended toward the obscene.

That interests me, because I have the impression that often the lower classes were actually more religious than the upper class, and I wonder if there’s a case to be made of that influence on each class’s choice for bad language! Neither sort quite serves my purpose for poor Adam, so I begin to see why I am having trouble.

The problem with many of the sources is that they lump cursing and swearing in with slang in general, and an article that sounds promising may not actually have much to offer to the specific point. Slang is easy –just get a copy of the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue. That isn’t what I’m looking for. But author Joanna Waugh has a fabulous list of expressions (with dates) on her website:

The best article I found was an old post by Nicola Cornick on the Word Wenches blog:  She does an elegant job of handling the topic, but some of it still deals with insults and not cursing the way I am looking for it.

 In the end, I am going to modify Adam’s swearing by making one up, substituting only slightly milder words: “bleeding blazes” works for me. It’s still strong, but no longer blatantly profane. Swears don’t have to make sense –they’re about strong emotion, not logic.

But researching this topic has made me yearn for a book I came across only once ever, gifted to a friend who later died, and which then could not be found among his effects afterwards, sad to say. It was a marvelous flip book for creating Shakespearean insults. The author had gone through all of Shakespeare’s writing, collecting the insult words and dividing them into nouns, verbs, and adjectives. The book was ingeniously divided into sections so that you could flip between them and construct your own phrases. Someday I would love to come across that book again!

What do you think about swearing in novels? Does finding profanity in a story offend you? Does obscenity belong only in erotica? If you write, have you ever created swears for your characters, or have any favorites that you like to use? Lots to talk about. Please let me know in the comments!

Nov 5: I’m back to add some material from discussion this post generated on Facebook. Plus an apology that some comments were delayed in showing up here –first time commenters sometimes need approval and the emails seeking it were in my spam folder!

Author Ella Quinn compiled the following list of Regency curses from her research and gave me permission to share it with you here. Thank you, Ella!

Words gentlemen used when they swore:
Devil it, Bollocks, Bloody, Hell, (Gail’s note: but not Bloody Hell together, several people have assured me) Damn his eyes, Damme, (Egan uses Demmee), Devil a bit, The devil’s in it, Hell and the Devil, Hell and damnation, Hell and the Devil confound it, How the devil . .

Words that could be used around a lady: Perdition, By Jove’s beard, Zounds, Curse it, Blister it, By Jove, Confound it, Dash it all, Egad, Fustian, Gammon, Hornswoggle, Hound’s teeth, Jove, Jupiter, Lucifer, ‘Pon my sou, Poppycock, Zeus.

Oaths appropriate for ladies were:  Dratted (man, boy, etc.), Fustian, Heaven forbid, Heaven forefend, Horse feathers, Humdudgeon, Merciful Heavens, Odious (man, creature, etc.), Piffle, Pooh, What a hobble (bumble-broth) we’re in.

How do you like those?  —Gail

About Gail Eastwood

Gail Eastwood is the author of seven Regencies that were originally published by Signet/Penguin. After taking ten years off for family matters, she has wobbled between contemporary romantic suspense and more Regency stories, wondering what century she's really in and trying to work the rust off her writing skills. Her backlist is gradually coming out in ebook format, and some are now available in new print editions as well. She is working on the start of a Regency-set series and other new projects. Stay tuned!
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15 Responses to Curses, but not Foiled Again

  1. Joanna Waugh says:

    Glad you found my list helpful, Gail! And I love “bleeding blazes.” The idea of making up a swear word/phrase never occurred to me. Thanks for blazing (pun intended) a new trail in that regard!

    Joanna Waugh

    • LOL, Joanna! I love your list –what a great resource you’ve given all of us! Thank you. I should pass along a tweak you might want to give it when you have a chance –I found a date of 1788 for ‘botheration’ which you have as later (beyond our period). I must say I was glad to find that date since I’m fond of that exclamation! 🙂

  2. Elena Greene says:

    I’m not offended by profanity or obscenity in novels. In most cases, it supports the characterization. I do prefer if it is accurate to the period–although I am OK with slang being used in dialogue a bit before one can find it in written records. It also has to be used appropriately. I remember reading a Regency set book where the heroine used “bee’s knees” as a curse, which rattled me since I knew that term was used in the early 1900s to signify something excellent, kind of like “the bomb” now.

    • Elena, I so agree with you (no surprise, right?) –cursing and slang both are important parts of characterization, which is why I thought it might be interesting to take a harder look at this topic. Like every other kind of detail, their use needs to support the story, and it certainly hurts if the words chosen are blatantly out-of-period. Just another thing that should be researched when in doubt! That’s one reason I loved Joanna’s list when I found it –what a huge help, although it pays to double check all sources.
      Thanks for popping in!!

  3. Elena Greene says:

    Oh, and I think it’s great to invent things. That’s how slang originated anyway.

    • Right, good point!! And hey, we invent all these people and places and events, so who would know better than we do how our fictional characters curse? But the choice does still need to “sound” period, so it’s good to know what real people were saying and when. I think that’s part of what Georgette Heyer did so well –her inventions blend in almost seamlessly with what is authentic in her stories.

  4. Nancy says:

    I am opposed to profanity and obscenity in all books. I sometimes long for the days of yore when such language was pretty much censored out. All sorts of hard boiled detectives were shot and shot others without uttering an offensive word. I really do not wasn’t to read passages filled with the F word or s$#$ and cringe at the number of characters who take the Lord’s name in vain. I have to over look such in favorite authors and do face the problem of what does the character say when he is in a vehicle going down a hill without brakes. If authors have gentlemen in regency set books swearing that is one thing.. It is quite another to have young females doing it.
    I tend to use damme and devil take it or you . I greatly favor making up words. Sometimes a work in Greek or Latin or –or Spanish , Portuguese and French will do. German has some great sounding words for curses.

    • Nancy, thanks for weighing in on this! I think it’s a delicate balance to find words that are not too offensive and yet reflect the strong emotion. I love “damme” –I forgot about that one! And I think using foreign words is a great idea.

  5. Suzanne Brownrigg says:

    Hi Gail.

    I read “Lord of Misrule” It won the Pulitzer Prize and is a novel about horse racing. ??

    • Suzanne, I’m sure my upcoming Regency romance with this title isn’t going to win a Pulitzer Prize, I just hope it will entertain readers who enjoy holiday romance stories. It takes place during the 12 days of Christmas, ending with Twelfth Night, and draws on the very old tradition of selecting a “Lord of Misrule” to stir up entertaining happenings and charge forfeits to enhance the celebrations. Titles aren’t exclusive properties the way the words of a story are. If you look on Amazon you’ll find several other books with this title as well –each unique.

  6. Sandra says:

    I think it’s the author’s prerogative. How boring the world would be if every author wrote the same way. In my Regencies, I have my gentlemen curse when appropriate, and sometimes my heroines do too, to a lesser degree, also when appropriate. No matter what time period, cursing was evident. It happens, the same as hugging, kissing, and indulging in hanky panky. All of those things make Regency stories all the more wonderful. Do you. Don’t worry about anyone else.

    • Sandra, I quite agree with you. It’s not the cursing itself that tripped me up, but rather the choice of words to use –something that fits the character, is or at least sounds period, yet won’t offend my readers (well, at least most of them). This post has stirred up some discussions on Facebook which have yielded interesting suggestions ranging from great period terms to the idea of not “showing” the curse at all, just saying he cursed. I may edit my blogpost to include some addenda. Thanks for joining the conversation!

  7. Vicki L. says:

    A friend of mine and I used to use the Latin names of plants. Because sometimes they made WONDERFUL sounding curses…Nyssa sylvatica is a nice one (black gum) Rolls off the tongue nicely. (smile)

    • Vicki, that’s truly creative! Nyssa sylvatica is lovely indeed, although it sounds to me a little bit like a magic spell… maybe too much Harry Potter influence on me? Or just a tiny hint of magic in Lord of Misrule? LOL. Thanks for visiting and commenting!

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