[Ads-l] swear(ing) box, swear(ing) jar

Ben Zimmer bgzimmer at GMAIL.COM
Wed Jan 6 20:10:04 UTC 2021

Dennis Baron asks about the history of the "swear jar" and its precursor
the "swear box." Neither is in OED or other dictionaries I checked (though
there's a Wikipedia entry -- see below).

Here are the earliest cites I've found so far for the different variants.

* "swearing box" (1878)
The Weekly Observer (Raleigh, NC), Apr. 30, 1878, p. 1, col. 4
New York, April 22, 1878 -- A queer character died here a few days ago --
George W. Blunt, aged 77, for many years Commissioner of Pilots. He
abhorred profanity, and kept in his office a tin box in which he required
every man who swore in his presence to deposit a dime, the proceeds being
applied to some charitable purpose. It is related that he himself was the
largest contributor, giving from two to five dimes every day for an equal
number of "damns." His box was crammed for a while, but the pilots learned
to take their luxuries in cheaper regions and of late a dime, except it was
from Mr. Blunt's pocket, had rarely dropped therein. It is related that a
prominent yacht-owner entered Mr. Blunt's office one day, and while
conversing with him swore. Mr. Blunt demanded his 10 cents. An explanation
followed and the yacht-owner retired, apparently very indignant, but
without paying the fine. Mr. Blunt was surprised next morning at receiving
a check for $1000 as a "swearer's contribution" to the charities to which
the swearing box was devoted, the "Pilots' Charitable Fund" and the "Pilots
Benevolent Association."

* "swear box" (1883)
The Boston Globe, Mar. 20, 1883, p. 6, col. 3
$100 a Week for the "Swear-Box." (Pittsburg Dispatch.)
In the office of the pilot commissioners in New York is a strong iron box
constructed on the plan of a toy savings bank. It is known among the pilots
as the "swear-box," and every person swearing in that room has to pay ten
cents for each oath, or three for a quarter, the money going into the box.
One pilot is known to have paid over $1000. It was not unusual to collect
$100 a week for the first few months after it was put up, but of late years
the contributions have fallen off heavily. The rule is rigidly enforced and
no one ever objects to paying the penalty, even if the oath was purely
accidental. Old Commodore Vanderbilt was once a heavy contributor, and so
were other large ship and boat owners.

* "swearing jar" (1947)
The Desert Sun (Palm Springs, CA), Apr. 4, 1947, p. 1, col. 1
It says that John Gray and Budd Sarkis at the Rolly Room have filled their
third "swearing jar" and it's going to a little girl in the Village ...
seems they have a glass jar down there and when anybody says the bad word,
he has to chunk it in the jar for charity ... the hospital has benefited
twice because of breach of tempers ... now this little girl is going to
profit. ... So, if you have to swear, do it at the Rolly Room and be
prepared to pay.

* "swear jar" (1953)
The World (Coos Bay, OR), June 30, 1953, p. 2, col. 2 (photo caption)
A "swear jar" at the Blue Moon tavern has raised approximately $100 for the
North Lake Crippled Children's Camp and has started a movement expected to
spread to other taverns in Coos County. Mrs. Joe Rennaker, bartender,
thought up the plan and the owner, Robert Downer, has asked all 47 other
taverns in the county to do the same. Mrs. Rennaker, center, is holding her
swear jar, while Mrs. Clea Farr and Robert (Scotty) Agnew demonstrate how
fines are collected.

Wikipedia has an entry that dates "swear box" to the 1890s. It also claims
"swear jar" dates to the 1910s, but that appears to be based on false
positives from Google Ngrams and not actual cites.


The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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