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I've been reading Trollope's The Way We Live Now, and have noticed a little stylistic quirk; that the words devil and damned appear blanked out, as d----- and d------. They appear in sentences like...

The d---- you do!


It's all d----- nonsense.

The Victorians have an unenviable reputation for prudery, but surely those words can't have been so taboo as to need blanking out, could they? Or is Trollope rendering them this way for comic effect (it certainly makes me smile)?

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I've seen people flag comments in web forums because the word "damned" was used. So this phenomenon is not quite restricted to Victorian times. It's still alive. – teylyn May 31 '11 at 12:26
up vote 6 down vote accepted

Yes, the Victorians were that prudish, or at least pretended to be in public.

In Wuthering Heights (published 1847) there's a mention by the "everyman" character Mr. Lockwood of words being blanked out in this way, when he has difficulty sleeping during his stay at Wuthering Heights, and notes Heathcliff's anger:

'And you, you worthless—' he broke out as I entered, turning to his daughter-in-law, and employing an epithet as harmless as duck, or sheep, but generally represented by a dash

(We can only guess what the word might have been, but it must have been obvious to readers then — maybe cow?)

There's also (in my edition) a note in the preface by Charlotte Brontë about the way offensive words were blanked out like this, and how some words were (with much consideration) kept intact rather than being expleted, in order to convey the coarseness of the characters in the novel (devil is used quite liberally). Many Victorians found the novel quite shocking at the time:

A large class of readers, likewise, will suffer greatly at the introduction into the pages of this work of words printed with all their letters, which it has become the custom to represent by the initial and final letter only—a blank line filling the interval. I may as well say at once that, for this circumstance, it is out of my power to apologise; deeming it, myself, a rational plan to write words at full length. The practice of hinting by single letters those expletives with which profane and violent persons are wont to garnish their discourse, strikes me as a proceeding which, however well meant, is weak and futile.

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Very interesting quotations; where's the second one from? – TimLymington Jan 28 '12 at 11:25
That second quote is from the preface in my edition written by Charlotte Brontë, who explains some of the background to the book's completion and publication. – njd Feb 1 '12 at 11:13

In this 1859 edition of a different Trollope novel, the words devil and damn are not blanked out, even in contexts where it is used as a curse word:

And what the devil is it to you what word I used to her?

Damn him!

The blanking out is found in this 1875 edition of The way we live today, and indeed this modern edition continues the practice. But note that even in the 1875 edition the word devil is also used unblanked as an exclamation (in addition to many literal uses):

What the devil does that matter?

So on this evidence it seems that the words, while frowned on in polite society, were hardly so shocking as to be unprintable; I suspect it is like the situation today where some newspapers will obscure obscenities that other reputable newspapers are happy to print.

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I think you need to distinguish prudery (which would be sensitive to sexual and scatological expletives) from religious sensitivity. Many people used to believe (and some still do) that uttering any blasphemy was not so much offensive as dangerous, and for some even the words "damn" and "devil" used out of context would come into this category.

It is well-known that Victorian prudery sometimes reached what we would regard as comical levels, such as draping the legs of pianos so that nobody would be offended by the sight of a naked leg; or the terms "white meat " and "dark meat" for poultry, to avoid having to say "breast" or "leg".

But historically this is a different phenomenon from the concern with blasphemy. Lewis Carroll was genuinely shocked and pained in 1881 to hear children on stage utter the word "Damme" (in a children's performance of HMS Pinafore).

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The piano legs isn't quite true - it's from Captain Frederick Marryat's "Diary in America". The American central character is credulous enough to be conned by the English host into believing stories about piano legs. It's a satire on how dumb Americans will believe anything that sophisticated English tell them. – mgb May 31 '11 at 16:28
It's possible he wasn't quite so perturbed by damme as by the fact it was children saying it, as small children shouldn't, really. It reminds me of the passage in To Kill a Mockingbird where Scout Finch is reprimanded for asking someone to "pass the damn ham". – Brian Hooper Jun 1 '11 at 11:44
@Martin Beckett: thanks for the correction. I campaign against the promulgation of hoary legends, so I should have checked that one. – Colin Fine Jun 1 '11 at 13:11
@Brian Hooper: yes, it's quite clear that it was the fact that it was children singing the words that upset him. But this was not that he found it offensive, but that he was horrified by the juxtaposition of "pure young lips" and Hell. – Colin Fine Jun 1 '11 at 13:14

Of course, all obscenities go from truly shocking to daring to annoying to repetitive, until they are replaced - it's the nature of the beast. But yes, in the period when your eternal fate was a constant preoccupation, damn as a swearword was genuinely shocking. (An interesting parallel with the recent use of the f-word?).
C S Lewis (around WWII) points out that it isn't as bad as it seems: 'The man who barks his shin and says "Damn that chair" does not genuinely wish the chair to be endowed with an immortal soul, which should then be consigned to perdition.' So the word is not in itself appalling: the misuse of the concept of eternal hellfire might be.

(Quotation not verbatim; as Flann O'Brien said " I haven't my references with me as I write. Chiefly because you look so damn silly hauling a bookcase into a pub.")

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