antedating "dirty word"

Jonathan Lighter wuxxmupp2000 at GMAIL.COM
Sun Mar 4 14:30:59 UTC 2012

A note from Geoff Nunberg got me looking into this.

OED: 1853, but nothing more till 1925.  (The 1853 ex. is "popery," from the
point of view of an RC.)

1678 John Ray _A Collection of English Proverbs_ (Cambridge: W. Morden)
[iv]: But though I doe condemn the mention of any thing obscene, yet I
cannot think all use of slovenly and dirty words to be such a violation of
modesty, as to exact the discarding all *Pro|verbs.*
And that's it for EEBO. (though cf. OED's "dirty" 2a., 1599 etc.,  'Morally
unclean or impure; 'smutty'.")
The phrase is very rare too in the 18th C. In the sole ECCO  ex., a husband
and wife argue about whether a bird is a thrush or a starling:

1764 R. Lloyd, in _St. James's Magazine_ IV 133:  I know a thrush and
starling too. /Who was it shot them, you or I? /They're starlings thrushes
- zounds, you lie. /Pray, Sir, take back your dirty word,/ I scorn your
language as your bird.

"Dirty" here must mean 'abominable' (OED 3, a1616 etc.)  rather than
obscene; same goes for OED's 1853.

Takeaway: Though "dirty word" in the current sense would have been
effectively understandable in the 17th C., the usual nuance might have been
a little different; as a lexical item, however, "dirty word" seems to be a
20th C. innovation.


"If the truth is half as bad as I think it is, you can't handle the truth."

The American Dialect Society -

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