Imágenes de páginas


O, the fifteenth letter and fourth vowel of the English, as of the Latin, alphabet. In Greek, however, and in the parent Phoenician it was separated from N by a character which in the former had the value of ks (§) and in the latter was a sibilant. It has no traceable Egyptian prototype. While in form it is identical with the ain of the Phoenicians and Hebrews, that peculiar guttural sound, to us well-nigh unpronounceable, was arbitrarily changed by the Greeks to the present vowel sound. Hence the otherwise plausible theory that O represents and is imitated from the rounded position of the lips in its utterance is untenable. It is more likely it represents an eyeball, the word ain meaning "eye." The ancient Greeks doubled the O when they wished to give it the long sound, but eventually this double O developed into a new character, w, omega, or big O, and the single O became known as omicron, or little O.

In logic the sign O is used as the symbol of the particular negative proposition. (See A.)

Anciently the letter was used as a synonyme for anything circular or approximately so, as representing the shape of the letter.


Fair Helena, who more engilds the night
Than all yon fiery oes and eyes of light.

SHAKESPEARE: Midsummer Night's Dream, Act iii., Sc. 2.
May we cram

Within this wooden O [the theatre] the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?

Henry V., Prologue.

O. K., a popular American abbreviation, meaning "all right," used not only in current talk but in serious business, as in the marking of documents, etc. Quite a cycle of legendary explanations have gathered around the It is plausibly held that in early colonial days the best rum and tobacco were imported from Aux Cayes, in San Domingo. Hence the best of anything came to be known locally as Aux Cayes, or O. K. The term did not, however, pass into general use until the Presidential campaign of 1828, when the supposed illiteracy of Andrew Jackson, the Democratic candidate, was the stock in trade of his Whig opponents. Seba Smith, the humorist, writing under the name of “Major Jack Downing," started the story that Jackson endorsed his papers O. K., under the impression that they formed the initials of "Oll Korrect." It is not at all impossible that the general did use this endorsement, and that it was used by other people also. But Mr. Parton has discovered in the records of the Nashville court of which Jackson was a judge before he became President, numerous documents endorsed O. R., meaning Order Recorded. He urges, therefore, that it was a record of that court with some belated business which Major Downing saw on the desk of the Presidential candidate. However this may be, the Democrats, in lieu of denying the charge, adopted the letters O. K. as a sort of party cry, and fastened them on their banners.

Oaths and Curses. The good John Keble, a poet himself as well as a Christian, in an article that appeared in the British Critic somewhere about the forties, after characterizing swearing as a hateful custom, nevertheless admits that it clearly indicates "a mind overcome with some violent but restrained feeling, and seeking a vent for it anyhow, and so far the very condition of poetical composition." Another poet and moralist goes still further. Coleridge, in his Apologetic Preface" to a certain poem against Pitt, con

[ocr errors]

siders “a rapid flow of outré and wildly combined execrations" as "escapevalves to carry off the excess of the passions as so much superfluous steam," and goes on to speak of such violent words as "mere bubbles, flashes, and electrical apparitions from the magic caldron of a fervid and ebullient fancy, constantly fuelled by an unexampled opulence of language.' The inference is plain. Poets must be expected to swear. The great poetic heart must find occasional relief in blasphemy. It is one of the privileges of the genus irritabile. Possibly the same rule will hold good with all highly-organized and sensitive natures. Shakespeare, at least, seems to have thought so. He puts into the mouth of the fiery and poetical Hotspur the counsel to his wife not only to swear, but to swear boldly, with a high-born and feminine roundness and fulness of volume:

Swear me, Kate, like a lady as thou art,
A good mouth-filling oath."


Cloten, in "Cymbeline," lays down an even broader proposition: a gentleman is disposed to swear, it is not for any standers-by to curtail his oaths, ha?" And Cloten was a queen's son. Nevertheless he was not quite a gentleman. In the romantic and picturesque past, kings, nobles, and men of parts ransacked the language for strange oaths. To swear by some portion of the Deity or of a saint was especially fashionable and æsthetic. Our English ancestors blasphemed indifferently in French and in English: they said morbleu (which is morte de Dieu), tudieu (tête de Dieu), corbleu (corps de Dieu), ventre-bleu (ventre de Dieu), sam-bleu (sang de Dieu), or else "Zounds," "'Slid,' "'Sblood," and "'Sdeath" ("God's wounds," "God's lid," "God's blood," and "God's death"). The Plantagenet kings were known by their refined and characteristic oaths. The favorite blasphemies of royalty are on record, the Red King being, as his temperament and complexion would have led us to expect, very full and ingenious and original in the matter of cursing. One of his least objectionable oaths was by "St. Luke's face." His royal father, the Conqueror, usually swore by "the splendor of God." John's oath was by "God's tooth," Henry II.'s by "God's eyes." Elizabeth swore with a vigor and masculinity that make her favorite expletives unquotable. Shakespeare is usually careful to follow history in this regard. He makes Richard III. swear by St. Paul, which was his favorite oath according to tradition, though once the dramatist trips up in substituting "by my George,"-.e., the figure of St. George on the badge of Knights of the Garter, which was not used until the reign of Henry VII. Lord Herbert of Cherbury in his own quaint manner tells us that his defence of James I.'s habit of cursing was much celebrated in the French court." The Prince de Condé complaining on a visit to Lord Herbert that the king was much given to cursing, "I answered that it was out of his gentleness; but the Prince demanding how cursing could be gentleness, I replied yes; for tho' he could punish men himself, yet he left them to God to punish."

[ocr errors]

But indeed the French kings were not far behind the English. Like the English, too, they were choice in their oaths: each had his own. We all remember how in "Quentin Durward" Louis XI. iterates "Pasques Dieu !" even to weariness. The feats of that monarch and his successors are thus recorded in a popular poem called the "Epitheton des quatre Rois," probably written in the time of Francis I. :

Quand le Pasque Dieu décéda, (Louis XI.)

Le Bon Jour Dieu lui succéda. (Charles VIII.)
Au Bon Jour Dieu deffunct et mort

Succéda le Dyable m'emporte. (Louis XII.)
Luy décéda, nous voyons comme

Nous duist la Foi de Gentil Homme. (François I.)

Henry IV. introduced the curious oath "Jarnicoton" into polite conversation. He had been in the habit of saying "Je renie Dieu" ("I deny God"), but his confessor, Father Coton, a Jesuit, expostulated with the royal penitent, and begged him rather to use the words "Je renie Coton :" hence arose the new expression. It may have been on some such principle that he manufactured his still more famous oath Ventre St.-Gris. Certainly St.-Gris is mentioned in no Church calendar. He may have been an imaginary saint, invented as the patron of drunkards, as St.-Lâche was invented for the lazy, and Ste.Nitouche for hypocrites.


Shakespeare has recorded a large number of curious oaths which were doubtless common among all orders of society in his time. Hamlet swears by "St. Patrick," by "Our Lady," and by "the rood;" Polonius and many others, by "the mass;" Mrs. Page, by "the dickens" (devilkins, or little devil); Parson Evans, by "God's lords and his ladies," "'od's [God's] plessed will," and "the tevil and his tam ;" Corporal Nym, by "welkin and his star;" Shallow and Page, by "cock and pie,”—possibly a reference to the cock and magpie, a common ale-house sign, but more probably God and Pye,-i.e., a prayerbook. Scattered among the plays continually reappear such expressions as "od's lifelings" (God's dear life), "by my halidom" ("holy dame," or possibly "holy dom" salvation, or state of being holy), "bodikins" ("little body"), "Marry" (a supposed corruption of Mary), "by my fay" (faith), "'Slid" ("God's lid"), "odsme" ("God smite me"), not to mention "Fore God," "God a mercy," "Mercy on me,' Faith," "Upon my soul," "by Gys," and a host of similar interjections. No wonder that James Howel in one of his "Epistolæ Ho-Elianæ," dated August 1, 1628, writes, This infandous custom of swearing, I observe, reigns in England lately more than anywhere else; though a German, in highest puff of passion, swears by a hundred thousand sacraments, the Frenchman by the Death of God, the Spaniard by His Flesh, the Irishman by His Five Wounds, though the Scot commonly bids the Devil hale his Soul, yet for variety of oaths the English roarers put down all. Consider well what a dangerous thing it is to tear in pieces that Dreadful Name, which makes the vast fabric of the world to tremble."

99 66

But on the authority of Sir John Harrington, half a century previous, we learn that the great national oath which has overshadowed all others was already beginning to assert its sway :

In olden times an ancient custom was

To swear in mighty matters by the mass;
But when the mass went down, as old men note,
They swore then by the cross of this same groat;
And when the cross was likewise held in scorn,
Then by their faith the common oath was sworn;
Last, having sworn away all faith and truth,
Only God damn them is the common oath:

Thus custom kept decorum by gradation,

That, losing mass, cross, faith, they find damnation.

The last-named oath has been looked upon as the shibboleth of the English for nearly five centuries. At the trial of Joan of Arc (anno 1429) one of the witnesses, Colette, being asked who "Godon” was, replied that it was a nickname given to the English from their favorite exclamation (SHARON TURNER: History of the Middle Ages, 8vo ed., vol. ii. p. 555). And the maid herself, while chained in her prison-cell, proudly said to the Earls of Warwick and Stafford, "You think when you have slain me you will conquer France, but that you will never do. Though there were a hundred thousand Goddammees more in France than there are, they will never conquer that kingdom." The name by which the English were known to Joan of Arc has followed their morning drum-beat around the world, so that in every savage and

[blocks in formation]

civilized clime their favorite imprecation has become the national sobriquet. In 1770 Lord Hales tells us that in Holland little children saluted the English with the words "There come the Goddams." Captain Hall more recently informed us that when a Sandwich-Islander wished to propitiate a British crew he wooed them with congratulatory phrases from their own tongue : "Very glad see you! Dash your eyes! Me like English very much. Devilish hot, sir! Goddam." Nor must we forget the disastrous attempt of the British to colonize the Isthmus of Darien. The expedition carried a goodly company of clergymen to convert the heathen natives, for it was intended that Christianity should consecrate commerce. But the colony proved a commercial and theological failure, and the colonists left behind them no mark that baptized and godly men had set foot on Darien save the great national oath, which from its frequent reiteration had caught the ear and been retained in the memory of the native population.

Beaumarchais, in the "Mariage de Figaro," laughingly extols the beauty and compactness of the English language: "You only need one expression, Goddam; that will carry you through." He acknowledges that there are other words used occasionally by the English in conversation, but the substance and depth of the language are in that magical oath. Lord Byron corroborates Beaumarchais :

Juan, who did not understand a word

Of English, save their shibboleth "God damn!"

And even that he had so rarely heard,

He sometimes thought 'twas only their "salam,"
Or "God be with you!" and 'tis not absurd

To think so, for, half English as I am

(To my misfortune), never can I say

I heard them wish "God with you" save that way.

Don Juan, Canto xi., Stanza 12.

Yet, in spite of this world testimony to the peculiarly national character of this oath, Mr. Julian Sharman would rob the British of the glory of originality. He would have us believe that the expression is corrupted from the dame-Dieu (dame de Dieu, "lady" or "Mother of God") which the soldiers of Henry V. heard continually on the lips of the French soldiery, but that, as the word Dieu was a phonetic poser, they were "forced to Anglicize it to fit it to the remainder of the oath." This is a good specimen of perverse ingenuity. It is absurdly unlikely that English soldiers carefully put the cart before the horse and exchanged their native tongue for a foreign one in those very moments of anger or excitement when language is apt to be most racy and natural. Besides, they already had the oath "Mother of God;" why exchange it for the feebler God-dame or God-mother?

A more odious formula of strong language, the adjective "bloody," is also traced by Mr. Sharman to a foreign source, to the Holland bloedig (German blutig), which Ben Jonson and his fellows brought back with them from their "Low-Country soldiering" in Holland. Unfortunately for this theory, neither Ben Jonson nor any of his contemporaries uses the word as an expletive. It was not till the days of Dryden and Swift that it appeared in literature or on the stage. Swift uses it with a beautiful impartiality: in one place, "It grows bloody cold, and I have no waistcoat," and in another, having walked from London to Chelsea in his gown, "It was bloody hot." The word, in fact, was a "swagger" one in those days before it penetrated to the lowest strata of society and ousted from the streets almost every other adjective. A well-known story tells of a bargee running with the boats at Oxford and shouting, "Hooray! hooray! hoo-bloody-ray!" Max O'Rell, in "John Bull and his Island," quotes an English workman as saying, "I told my bloody master that he only gave me a bloody sovereign every bloody

week, and that I wanted five bloody shillings more. He said he had not the bloody time to listen to my bloody complaints." He is rather inclined to favor the etymology which makes it a corruption of the by'r lady of Shakespeare's day. But Murray sees in it a reference to the habits of the "bloods" or swells of the eighteenth century. Bloody drunk-as drunk as a bloodwas probably its first appearance. Gradually its apparent association with bloodshed and murder recommended its use to the rougher class as an adjective that appealed to their imagination.

During the time of the Commonwealth some effort was made to suppress profane swearing. But the Restoration brought back an unbridled license of tongue. Macaulay tells us that, in order to spite the Puritans, "the new breed of wits and fine gentlemen never opened their mouths without uttering ribaldry of which a porter would now be ashamed, and without calling on their Maker to curse them, sink them, confound them, blast them, and damn them." Nor was the habit checked or impeded by the "glorious Revolution of 1688." The plays and novels and the gossip of the period prove that profanity was quite an ordinary exercise of the English lungs. It did not much matter whether those lungs were placed in a male or a female breast. Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, calling on an eminent judge and finding him absent, departed in a flurry of vituperative indignation without leaving her name. The servant could only report to the judge on his return that the visitor had not mentioned her name, but that "she swore like a lady of quality." The armies which swore so "terribly in Flanders," according to Uncle Toby's report, were English troops engaged in the siege of Namur in 1693. Congreve's "Old Bachelor," produced in that very year, fairly bristles with oaths. Not only has it all the common blasphemies, but a number of new refinements. Thus, "zounds" becomes "oons," "God's blood" becomes "adsblud," and the Shakespearian "'Slid," "adslidikins." Then we have "O Lord," "By the Lord Harry," "Gad," Egad," Gadsobs,' ," "Gadszooks" or "Odszooks" ("God's looks"), and the puerile "Gad's daggers, beets, blades, and scabbards." "By the Mass" becomes "By the Mess," or simply "Mess." In this, as in the various substitutions of Gad for God, we see the mincing pronunciation affected by the dandies and loungers of the period, who turned o into a and a into e.



In Sheridan's "Trip to Scarborough" (first acted in 1777) we have Lord Foppington rapping out a number of new oaths. "Death and eternal tortures, sir," he cries to his tailor, "I say the coat is too wide here by a foot!

As Gad shall jedge me, it hangs on my shoulders like a chairman's surtout!" "Stap my vitals," however, is his favorite adjuration. Bob Acres' "genteel style" of oaths is, of course, a mere burlesque. Its specialty is that it adapts itself to the subject in hand: "Ods whips and wheels, I've travelled like a comet !" ་ Odds blushes and blooms, she has been as healthy as the German Spa!" "Odds minims and crotchets, how she did chirrup at Mrs. Piano's concert!"

But we do not need the evidence of fiction and the drama to prove that until quite recent times hard swearing was a sign of good breeding. Lord Chancellor Thurlow swore from the wool-sack. When a certain bishop, claiming the right of presentation to an ancient benefice, sent his secretary to argue the point, Thurlow cut the latter short. "Give my compliments to his lordship," he said, "and tell him I will see him damned before he presents." That," remonstrated the secretary, "is a very unpleasant message to deliver to a bishop." "You are right," said Thurlow; "it is. Tell him I'll see myself damned before he presents." Almost as pointed was the rejoinder of King William's attorney-general to the American clergyman who had crossed the Atlantic to solicit alms for a pious foundation in Virginia. "Sir," urged

« AnteriorContinuar »