Are there in English any cases of using religious words for swear words, most likely in predominantly Christian regions?

I ask because in the Canadian province of Québec, which is primarily francophone, religious words get used for swearing quite a great deal when speaking French. (I suppose this might be explained by a will to express against religious abuse from time to time, or by a rejection of religious authority.)

For example, French profanity like maudit tabarnack, mon enfant d’criss, and hosti d’faux prètre could be respectively translated into English as damn tabenacle, as my son of Christ, and as host of false priest.

Most use cases conjoin the word damn with some religious object, but at other times they are turned into imperative verbs such as décolisse or décrisse (saying “de-chalice” and “de-Christ”), which could translate into go away or break or tarnish. The most common swear word one hears in Québec is Tabarnak!

Is there anything in the anglophone world comparable to this peculiarly Quebecker/québécois habit of using words related to religion for profanity?

  • 1
    Thanks 'ant' for editing and re-tagging, i apreciate and it truely represents my thought. Commented Dec 27, 2013 at 4:34
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    Milche, I just heard my father in your words (you forgot Cristophe) (?sp). I tell this story to my kids. In English, we do say, Cripes for Christ, Geez for Jesus, Gosh for God, darn for damn, Jesus, Mary & Joseph, Jesus H. Christ, God Almighty, and others, but not to the extent of tabarnak, colisse, hosti, etc. I think this to some extent is cross-cultural, but I don't know about other Catholic/formerly Catholic countries. Interesting to see it addressed here. Commented Dec 27, 2013 at 5:18
  • @Susan who did i forgot, 'Le p'tit criss' ? Cristophe is a name and perhaps used has a more acceptable deviation of the use of the word 'Christ' has a bad word. Commented Dec 27, 2013 at 5:35
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    I read about some academic study on foul language in Europe ... They found that in northern Europe the worst words dealt with sex, while in southern Europe the worst words dealt with religion.
    – GEdgar
    Commented Dec 29, 2013 at 15:05
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    'Damn' and it's mincings are religion based. THe ones in Quebecois just stand out because they refer to very particular icons of Christianity that aren't commonly referred to elsewhere.
    – Mitch
    Commented Dec 29, 2013 at 17:24

2 Answers 2


This question is really very interesting.


The short answer is no, not really: there is nowhere today in the English-speaking world where religious imagery is anywhere near as frequently used for swearing as occurs in French-speaking Québec.

Detail, details, details

I strongly encourage anyone who can read French to read the Wikipedia article on Sacre québecois in the French version, not just in the shorter and duller English version.

The richness and versatility of Quebecker religious profanity is remarkable. Yes, using religious words as “offensive” language — swearing, cursing, taboo words, whatever you care to call them — occurs in all languages, regions, and cultures. But in Québec they surpass anything seen in Spain or Portugal or Italy or even France herself. And that’s without yet venturing into the English-speaking world.

If you read the section on Sacres outside Québec French, you will see that these really have no equivalent in English. Oh sure, a few common curses or milder minced oaths in English deal with religion — as I mentioned earlier, that sort of thing happens everywhere. But nothing like in Québec.

The WP article does mention an older habit of Irish Catholics, which is the only thing I could find that even starts to approach the Quebecker experience:

Irish Catholics of old employed a similar practice, whereby ‘ejaculations’ were used to express frustration without cursing or profaning (taking the Lord’s name in vain). This typically involved the recitation of a rhyming couplet, where a shocked person might say ‘Jesus who, for love of me/Died on the Cross at Calvary’ instead of ‘Jesus!’ This is often abbreviated simply to ‘Jesus-hoo-fer-luv-a-me’, an expression still heard among elderly Irish people. Also: ‘Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!’

Sure, examples of using Christian words in English exist, although some appear dated:

  • My God! > My goodness!
  • (God) damn it! > Gosh darn it!
  • Jesus! > Jeeze!
  • Holy Christ! > Holy cow!
  • Go to Hell!
  • Devil take you!

And even

  • Curse words > Cuss words

The WP article on minced oaths lists a few of these dated expressions, most of them now unrecognizable in their original forms:

In some cases the original meanings of these minced oaths were forgotten; bloody became a contraction of “by Our Lady” (i.e., the Blessed Virgin Mary), ’struth (“By God’s truth”) came to be spelled strewth, and zounds changed pronunciation (with the vowel as in found) so that it no longer sounded like “By God’s wounds”. Other examples from this period include ’slid for “by God’s eyelid’ (1598) and ’sfoot for “by God’s foot” (1602). Gadzooks for “by God's hooks” (the nails on Christ's cross) followed in the 1650s, egad for “oh God” in the late 17th century, and ods bodikins for “by God’s bodkins” (i.e. nails") in 1709.

Even were those still in vogue, they are next to nothing compared with the long Quebecker list on WP. I will omit that list here to avoid giving offence, but you should take a look at it if won’t bother you too much. It’s truly remarkable.

This Slate article asserts that the old swear words based on sexuality or religious profanity are giving way to new ones based on sociological judgements. They therein muse that:

The shift in taboos away from sacrilege and gross-out topics toward more personal and, well, flat-out mean epithets appears to be a move in the right direction. The increasingly offensive nature of these words—and the visceral, emotional responses they trigger within us when spoken or heard—just might amount to a signifier of social progress.

The Economist asks similar questions, this time specifically about the :religious profanity of francophone Québec, in an article entitled Swearing in Quebec: If you profane something no one holds sacred, does it make a swear?. The author ponders:

The theory is that it was a form of rebelling against the Roman Catholic church, whose clergy were a dominant force in the lives of Quebeckers, providing health, social services and education, until they handed these powers over to the state following the social upheaval of the 1960s. To casually utter tabarnak, calisse, or the even more popular ostie (host) was a way to thumb your nose at the powers that be.

As theories go, it makes sense. Showing disrespect for something—a prerequisite for certain forms of swearing—only works if the expectation of respect is there to begin with. Quebeckers were highly religious. [. . .]

. . .

With the Roman Catholic church much less of a presence in the daily lives of Quebeckers, the religious words are losing their punch. Swear words disappear not through censorship, but when they no longer offend, according to the exhibit. The tamer ones—esprit (spirit), sacrament, and baptême (baptism)—have already disappeared from daily discourse, it notes, and the others may soon follow.

. . .

When profanity no longer serves, there is always obscenity to fall back on. My stepdaughter, who was born and raised in Montréal says her twenty-something friends increasingly use a mix of English and French, such as calisse de bitch.

Im summary, no, l’Anglophonie has nothing comparable to what la Francophonie has in the Quebecker religious swear words.

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    Wouaow, gleamming eyes reading your. This helps. Commented Dec 27, 2013 at 5:28
  • I picked the references from wikipedia (Freed, Josh 1983, Sanders, Carol 1993, Sinclair Robinson, Donald Smith 1984, Bauer, Olivier 2011) and will push my research further more after school break. Also, do you think l'Anglophonie is just not that much rebelled agains't religion ? Commented Dec 27, 2013 at 5:41
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    @MilchePatern I think it more the case that most anglophones simply don’t even notice religion all that much in the first place. You don’t rebel against something you don’t notice.
    – tchrist
    Commented Dec 27, 2013 at 5:46
  • You mean, it's just not that much religious ? Commented Dec 27, 2013 at 5:49
  • @MilchePatern Generally, yes, that’s correct.
    – tchrist
    Commented Dec 27, 2013 at 5:51

I'm English and in the UK; the practice of blasphemy as a form of cursing or swearing is now almost non existent, and if it takes place, it won't be noticed, though I suspect this may be restricted to Christian blasphemy in particular. Any practising Christians here, though, may well be dismayed by blasphemy, but profanity these days is usually sexual, and even that barely raises an eyebrow, given it's part of normal speech these days. This change has probably come about because Christianity has largely faded into the background, and we are more or less secular, although there are many other religions being practised here in which I'm sure religious swearing is neither permitted nor tolerated. The new, truly shocking profanity now would probably be anything race or gender connected.

  • Thanks bamboo. From what i know about swearing in the UK comes from Sex Pistols and is about the monarchy. Your input is helping, thanks Commented Dec 29, 2013 at 19:51
  • @MilchePatern: You may not be aware that, on British TV, guests from the States and probably Canada are always saying "really, I can say that on tv?" so I'm sure what's acceptable over here isn't over there! Good old Anglo Saxon, most of it...
    – bamboo
    Commented Dec 30, 2013 at 10:53
  • @MilchePatern. Well it's a point of view, if a little sweeping, but I'm certain it's not true of all entertainment industry members.
    – bamboo
    Commented Dec 31, 2013 at 10:44
  • @MilchePatern - I think you mean Scrooge;-)
    – bamboo
    Commented Jan 1, 2014 at 14:33

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