Those Politely Swearing Romans

Tip o’ the pileus to the folks at History of the Ancient World (fellow Canucks!) for pointing us to this press release from the University of Reading which we completely missed:

Feck! Codswallop! Most of us swear at some point during our lives but we adapt our bad language to different audiences so as not to cause offence. However new research from the University of Reading shows that the Romans had already perfected the art of less offensive swearing in public, something we continue to use today.

Despite the fact that foul language is generally considered to be unacceptable, it is an everyday phenomenon. Most people use expletives if the situation warrants it, or perhaps even when not. However there are occasions when adding profane emphasis to our words is unavoidable, yet we feel hindered to do so given certain circumstances, such as in the work place or when around young children.

In these cases the English language, as with most other languages in the world, offers less offensive, often even humorous alternatives. These types of replacement profanities – from ‘blooming’ to ‘feck’ – appear to be acceptable to some extent, even in the public sphere and among educated people.

Professor Peter Kruschwitz, Head of the University’s Department of Classics, has found that these types of concealment strategies can already be found in Roman times. By systematically examining Latin exclamations that were used in the Roman world in public situations, Professor Kruschwitz has established that the Romans, too, employed similar techniques to escape falling hostage to foul language use in public.

Professor Kruschwitz said: “The notion of words being ‘just words’ certainly does not apply to curses and swear words. Casual swearing does not normally belong in the public sphere and, if it has to be used, its impact needs to be lessened by concealment strategies which reduces the obscenity of the swearing. We have our own way and words of dealing with these scenarios – but this is nothing new. My research shows that the principles we, in the main, uphold regarding swearing in public were already in use over 2000 years ago.

“The Romans employed a host of minced oaths to escape using foul language in public. Where in English one might wish to say ‘Judas Priest’, instead of blasphemous ‘Jesus Christ’, a Roman playwright had used the less of offensive O Apella, o Zeuxis, the names of two famous Greek painters, for ‘by Apollo and Zeus’. Interestingly enough, even the most boorish of Roman plays, full of verbal abuse, do not really resort to expletives to do with sexual organs, activities, or other bodily functions.

“They also used onomatopoetic terms such as butubatta or spattaro, perhaps close to something like ‘blah blah’ or ‘codswallop’, which conveyed someone’s contempt for another person. Dramatised expressions of contempt and dismay were also popular such as attatae or as we might say ‘shoot’ or ‘dang’.”

Professor Kruschwitz’s research is published online in Fabrizio Serra editore, Italy’s foremost publisher of scholarly journals.

… sadly, of course, the article isn’t free … the standard (it seems) 30 bucks. Sounds like it would be very interesting and I’m kind of surprised that this hasn’t been picked up by a pile of newspapers yet (it’s from a couple weeks ago).