Mincing Our Oaths

Thoughts on being a potty-mouthed atheist in a world of Religious profanity.

As a bona-fide + atheist I find myself curiously conscious about the oaths I speak. Every time, in a moment of anger, I inadvertently begin barking “Jesus!” or “Christ!” or “God Damn it!” I feel slightly embarrassed afterward, as if my thoughtless reliance on these oaths, and others like them, were a betrayal of my own ideals. + It is almost as though the involuntary use of these words, signifiers of Ideas I reject, reveals some sort of personal weakness. + What it reveals, however, is the simplest of dumb-dumb facts. Namely that the English language is so brim-full of Religious oaths, that to remove them from one’s vocabulary would effectively render you, in your anger, red-faced and vein-popped but mute. 

Religiosity penetrates language like mold veins an exceptionally blue cheese. This is true for the English language in general but is particularly pronounced when it comes to profanity. This fact is not remotely surprising if you take even a second to think on it. The word profanity itself is a religious one for Christ’s sake! + Were it not for the act of measuring all utterances against God’s hair-trigger wrath, there would, strictly speaking, be no such thing as “profanity.” 

Profane,  from the Latin profanare “to desecrate,” from profanus “unholy, not consecrated,” from pro fano “not admitted into the temple (with the initiates).

The term has been broadened, in modern usage, to encompass any “naughty” words not fit for “polite” company + Even so, the desire to have something forceful to say, which properly utilizes a good long row of exclamation points +, when we stub our toe, or cum, or get punched in the neck, or open a cable bill while in public has lead us to coin a plethora of seemingly benign substitution expletives.

Today these substitutes, so numerous as to vastly outnumber the “curses” they stand-in for,  are mostly the kind of limp, forceless words you associate with grandparents, cartoon characters, and 7 year-olds. They are also the kind of words that are so ingrained in our language and minds that we never give a thought to their origins or what they are actually standing-in for. A euphemistic substitute of this kind has a name, if you were not aware, and that name is “minced oath.” +

Minced Oath.  A semi-technical term for a specific kind of euphemism or disguise mechanism, whereby an offending term or taboo phrase is modified so as to be used without giving offense. Periphrasis or circumlocution is the most common modification, that is, to “speak around” a profane word, implying it without saying it.

While there have long been linguistic taboos associated with the scatological and the sexual + it will not surprise you to learn minced oaths are, as a group, overwhelmingly Religious in origin.

Just a few examples:

Gosh darn it — God damn it
Jeepers Creepers — Jesus Christ
Tarnation — Damnation
Dad gum — God damn
Doggone it— God damn it
Jiminy Cricket — Jesus Christ
For Pete’s sake — For St. Peter’s Sake
By golly — By God’s body
By Jove — By Jupiter/Jehovah
Judas Priest — Jesus Christ
Good gravy — Good God
Drat — God rot it
For crying out loud — For Christ’s sake
Goodness gracious — Good God
Holy mackerel — Holy flesh
Jumping Jehosaphat — Jumping Jesus
Suffering succotash — Suffering saviour
Blimey — God blind me
Dangnabbit — God damn it
Gee whizz / geewhillikers — Jesus’ whiskers
Good grief — Good God
Egad — Oh God
Gadzooks — God’s hooks
Zounds — God’s wounds +

That there are so very many of these types of minced oaths is actually somewhat comical, not to mention quite revealing in regard to Man’s outlook on taboo language.

Why comical? Because these archaic forms sound silly to our modern ears? + No. Because as a good hardline theologian (or hardline amateur) will happily remind you, any God worth the knee-pains of prostrating oneself before would not, could not, be fooled by a bit of loophole-exploiting linguistic flimflam. Which is to say, minced or not, the intention is identical and so the iniquity is equal.

Quote: “It is a vain endeavor on the part of some to avoid the guilt of profane swearing by mincing their oaths, as is the practice of many whose consciences still trouble them so much as to hinder them from the more out-breaking forms of this sin. Minced oaths are either oaths, or they are nonsense. If oaths, they are of course profane. If they are nonsense, they are not “good nonsense,” and are clearly forbidden by Matt. xii. 36. -William S, Plumer, D.D. LL.D., The Law of God, 1864.

It’s our persistence, in spite of this fact, which I find revealing. It would seem that we modify our speech knowing full well that the modification does not successfully solve the “problem.” We are motivated not by fear of God’s wrath + evidently but by fear of more tangibly immediate reprisals by the morality patrol. In short we will modify our behavior so as not to hassled by other (very real, persistent, and annoying) humans but not to protect against “eternal damnation” in the (very theoretical, abstract, quite possibly imaginary) afterlife.


I am tempted to say that not only has profanity been historically framed by Religious attitudes, but that ultimately, and in more than merely a semantic way, it’s precisely Religion’s imperative against profanity which powers the great profanity dynamo. The whole purpose (and satisfaction) of cursing is the emphasis it affords, the action of saying something instantly an unmistakably recognizable as apart from genteel speech. Had Religious attitudes, over centuries, not explicitly shaped an entire canon of taboo utterances for us to utilize… well, where would we be then? We’d be grunting and groaning in exclamatory frustration.

Either that hurling fistfuls of feces.

Anyhoo, let’s amble back around to profanity and my atheism shall we?

As I said, I tend to feel betrayed by my own profane vocabulary when cursing. As though using Religious words, in the service of that perfect angered emphasis, were offering free press to Christianity, or worse, an implicit acceptance of their “sacredness.” It is habitual, after all, yet I can’t help but feel a twinge of annoyance that even in the midst of my passionate, animal, fist-shaking, secular tirades Religion ought to impose itself into my life. Of course, when I take the time to analyze this reaction, the irony of it, I can’t help but laugh.

For one thing our modern take on the term “profanity” has clouded an important distinction…

“The person on the street uses the term “profanity” broadly to refer to all categories of offensive speech. however, profanity and blasphemy are specific categories of religious speech sanctioned by religious authorities. To be profane means to be secular or indifferent toward religion. Blasphemy is more troublesome; it is an attack on religion and religious figures. It represents and intentional and offensive threat to religion…” -Why We Curse: A Neuro-psyco-social Theory of Speech, by Timothy Jay

So adhering to this more precise definition my existence is the “profanity,” while my use of Christian terminology, when swearing oaths, is more accurately “blasphemy.” That distinction goes a long way in easing my mind since blasphemy is something, as an atheist, I really don’t need to lose any sleep over or shy away from. 

Moreover, when you get right down to it, were I able to remove all references to “bearded men in the sky” from my angry outbursts, what would be the result? I’d be very obediently following the 2nd commandment in a way most devout, minced-oath-bandying believers can’t seem to manage, and that, my potty-mouthed friends, is just plain crazy talk.

In closing-

Having thus, worked it all out in my mind I’m confident I will no longer feel embarrassed by involuntary blurtings of “Jesus fucking Christ!” when, say, a rabid squirrel scampers up my pant-leg or a coworker, smilingly, asks me about my weekend.

Still, I think that it would be useful to have a good long list of non-religious oaths at our disposal should we choose to “go in another direction” with our anger. In as much I’ve started a post over at the annex where I’m soliciting your best minced oaths, in-use, inherited, or invented. If you’d like to contribute click here.

Hope you enjoyed.