Take the 2-minute tour ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

It's always been on in mind, how can a single word have two meanings so opposite as "Swear" has?

More specifically, how did the word "Swear" assumed its good and bad face?

Was it born as good and then started to be used also as bad? The opposite?

Citing a comic I read a couple of days ago, if someone tells you "Swear to God", what do you do by default? An oath or a mean sentence?

(They may appear as multiple questions but in the end they all go back to the main one...)

share|improve this question
3  
Note that oath has the same ambivalence, and for the same reason. –  StoneyB Apr 4 '13 at 10:10
    
Oh well, I didn't know! I thought oath was the good-only kind of sewar! –  Frhay Apr 4 '13 at 10:50
    
Yes, foul oaths is almost a fixed phrase in Victorian literature. –  StoneyB Apr 4 '13 at 11:33
add comment

1 Answer 1

up vote 12 down vote accepted

The word swear comes from the Old English swerian (past tense swor / pp sworen), meaning a solemn oath.

In the original use, swear means a solemn promise ("I swear that"), made to someone ("I swear to"), optionally with collateral put down in the event that the promise is broken ("I swear on"), for instance "I swear on my life", "I swear on my homestead" or "I swear on my honor".

Note that you swear to somebody. For instance, "I swear allegiance to my liege" means I promise loyalty to my lord/king.

"I swear to God" evolved from this meaning a solemn promise to God — generally as an appeal to a higher power for increasing the weight of a promise ("I swear to God that I will pay my rent by next week") or as a way of adding emphasis and solemnity when announcing a self-imposed duty e.g. "I swear to God that I will find the perpetrator of this crime".

The extended meaning (i.e. as an expletive) comes from medieval times (c. early 15 century) in relation to "I swear to God". In the event that someone broke this promise, it was interpreted by many (including the Catholic Church) as a sin, because it was a taken as a direct breach of the third commandment:

Exodus 20:7 Do not take the name of the Lord in Vain

Note that the objection here is not "taking the name of the Lord" (i.e. swearing to God), but rather taking it in Vain — i.e. swearing to God and subsequently breaking the promise.

The notion of swearing being overtly bad, or crude, evolved from this meaning — where saying "I swear to God" is a solemn oath not to be taken lightly — for fear of going to hell.

For this reason, invoking sacred names over trivial incidents was therefore something that was not to be done in polite company, and something that children should be actively discouraged by their parents from doing.

Until the mid 1700s, use of obscenities ("cursing") was treated completely separately, and during the mid 1700s the two became lumped together as "swearing and cursing". By the mid to late 1700s this was being frequently shortened to "swearing", and the term "swearing and cursing" eventually petered out in the mid 1800s.

The word swearword is an American English colloquialism from roughly 1883.

In modern English, swear meaning to promise has become increasingly uncommon except perhaps in legal contexts and particularly in American English — and consequently "I swear to God" meaning a solemn promise to God would be a very archaic interpretation. The meaning of "I swear to God" nowadays is pretty much exclusively used as an expletive.

share|improve this answer
    
Interesting, especially the 'in vain' part, but how did non-religious words, ie obscenities, come to be known as swearing? –  Mynamite Apr 4 '13 at 9:56
2  
@Mynamite: Until the mid 1700s, use of obscenities ("cursing") was treated completely seperately, and during the mid 1700s the two became lumped together as "swearing and cursing". By the mid to late 1700s this was being frequently shortened to "swearing", and the term "swearing and cursing" eventually petered out in the mid 1800s. –  Matt Apr 4 '13 at 10:06
2  
+1 Compare the 1606 Act to restrain abuses of players, which provided that if “any person or persons do or shall in any stage play, interlude, show, maygame, or pageant jestingly or profanely speak or use the holy name of God or of Christ Jesus, or of the Holy Ghost or of the Trinity, which are not to be spoken but with fear and reverence, shall forfeit for every offence by him or them committed, ten pounds.” –  StoneyB Apr 4 '13 at 10:09
    
Great answer, thanks... :) –  Frhay Apr 4 '13 at 12:21
add comment

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.