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English English language Etymology Expression Language Word origin Writing

A fortuitous  etymology?

Q: The editor of The Bridge World is more of a stickler than I, but the magazine recently used “fortuitous” in the sense of  “fortunate,” a usage that I consider unfortunate: “Levine’s initial pass had the fortuitous effect of putting him on lead against three notrump.” Do you condone this?

A: The adjective “fortuitous” meant “accidental,” not “fortunate,” when it entered English more than 350 years ago, but it has evolved over the last century to describe a fortunate accident as well as a mere accident.

As Pat explains in Woe Is I (4th ed., 2019), her grammar and usage book, “those notions of good fortune and chance have blended so much that dictionaries also accept a hybrid definition—something fortuitous is  a lucky accident.”

All ten standard dictionaries that we regularly consult—five American and five British—accept that new sense of the word. In fact, three of the dictionaries list it as the only sense. And that’s the meaning of “fortuitous” in that passage from The Bridge World.

We’d add that this serendipitous sense is now so common that we generally avoid using “fortuitous.” If we use it for something that’s just accidental, we’re likely to be misunderstood. And if we use it for a happy accident, we’ll stir up the sticklers. It’s now in what a reader of the blog has described as a never-never land.

As for the etymology, English adopted “fortuitous” in the 17th century from the Latin fortuitus (accidental, casual). The Oxford English Dictionary’s entry, which hasn’t been fully updated since 1897, has only one definition: “That happens or is produced by fortune or chance; accidental, casual.”

The dictionary’s earliest example is found in a treatise opposing atheism: “This Argument against the fortuitous concourse of Atoms.”  From An Antidote Against Atheism, or an Appeal to the Natural Faculties of the Minde of Man, Whether There Be Not a God (1653), by the English philosopher Henry More.

The hybrid sense of “fortuitous” to describe a happy accident began appearing in the early 20th century, according to a usage note in Merriam-Webster online. The dictionary says, “the fact that ‘fortuitous’ sounds like a blend of ‘fortunate’ and ‘felicitous’ (meaning ‘happily suited to an occasion’) may have been what ultimately led to a second meaning.”

“That use has been disparaged by critics, but it is now well established,” M-W adds. “Perhaps the seeds of the newer sense were planted by earlier writers applying overtones of good fortune to something that is a chance occurrence. In fact, today we quite often apply ‘fortuitous’ to something that is a chance occurrence but has a favorable result.”

The earliest example we’ve seen for the hybrid sense showed up in a usage manual at the turn of the 20th century. In a list of questionable citations “from New York newspapers for the most part,” the book includes this passage: “The change of system is considered fortuitous [fortunate] at this time.” From Word and Phrase: True and False Use in English (1901), by Joseph Fitzgerald.

But as you know, this sense of “fortuitous” has been used by many respected writers since the mid-20th century. Here are a few from Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage:

“We have a great and fortuitous advantage, for if there is nothing the Kremlin wants more than to rule the world, there is nothing the United States wants less than to rule the world” (Call to Greatness, 1954, by Adlai Stevenson).

“The circumstance was a fortuitous one for Abraham Lockwood” (The Lockwood Concern, 1965, by John O’Hara).

“She panted into the underground, snatched a ticket from the machine, belted down the stairs, and there was a fortuitous train” (The Good Terrorist, 1985, by Doris Lessing).

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Cut to the chase

Q: What’s the origin of “cut to the chase”? Keystone Cops? Hounds on a fox scent? Or other?

A: The expression “cut to the chase,” which was first recorded in the early 20th century, is derived from the use of the verb “cut” in filmmaking to mean move rapidly from one scene to another.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines this sense of “cut” as “to make a quick transition from one shot to the next.” The earliest example that we’ve seen for the usage is from an early 20th-century book on motion-picture technique:

“Perhaps we can cut to Sam wondering what effect the marriage will have on his chances” (from Technique of the Photoplay, 2d ed., 1913, by Epes Winthrop Sargent). Oxford cites as its first example a different passage from the 1916 third edition of the book.

The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, says the expression “cut to the chase” was originally a film usage meaning “to cut to a chase scene; (hence) to cut to an interesting or fast-paced part of a film.”

The usage appeared in writing for the first time in J. P. McEvoy’s Hollywood Girl (1929), a novel about a Broadway showgirl who finds success in the Hollywood talkies. These three passages in the novel are from script directions in a fictional screenplay (the OED cites an abbreviated version of the third passage):

(1) “Chaney in plaster cast, chewing orchids. Cut to chase”; (2) “with a custard pie klunk that’s a laugh isn’t that a wow now we cut to the chase”; (3) “Quick flashes, breasts, hips, legs. Jannings escapes―I’ll figure it out later … Cut to chase.” (The ellipsis is in the novel.)

As far as we can tell, the expression didn’t appear in print again until 15 years later. In this example from a Canadian newspaper, it’s one of several slogans that Helen Deutch, an MGM screenwriter, has on a wall of her Hollywood office:

“Miss Deutsch has another motto, which had to do with the writing of cinematic drama. It also is on the wall where she can’t miss seeing it, and it says: ‘When in doubt, cut to the chase’ ” (Winnipeg Free Press, March 10, 1944).

In a few years, the usage took on its usual current sense, which the OED defines as “to get to the point, to get on with it; to concentrate on the essential elements of an issue, etc.” The earliest example we’ve found is from a Massachusetts newspaper:

“Let’s cut to the chase. There will be no tax relief this year. No $300 to $400 tax credit for middle-class families. No $5,000 credit for first-time home buyers” (The Berkshire Evening Eagle, Feb. 24, 1947).

The OED’s earliest citation for this sense is from Cross My Heart (1955), an autobiography by the American writer and humorist Frank Scully: “I am the sort who wants to ‘cut to the chase.’ As far as I’m concerned, we can read the instructions later.”

Interestingly, Scully used the expression in the filmmaking sense in an earlier book: “That I suspect does not conflict with the Hollywood saying, ‘Let’s drop the romancing and cut to the chase’ ” (from Behind the Flying Saucers, 1950).

[Note: A reader of the blog offered this comment later the same day. “As someone who used to inhabit cutting rooms, I think there’s another little element to this one. Why ‘cut’? That’s because in the earlier days of filmmaking, in order to edit a film you literally ‘cut’ the piece you wanted out of the main roll with scissors, and then glued those selected scenes together.

“Later, ‘splicers’ turned up―clever little guillotine devices that made far more accurate and consistent cuts to be made, and joins to be made with clear specialist tape to create the ’cutting copy,’ the first edited version of the film.]

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The twisted history of ‘bent’

Q: Colson Whitehead uses the adjective “bent” in this passage from Harlem Shuffle, his latest novel: “Ray Carney was only slightly bent when it came to being crooked.” One can read many meanings into “bent” and I began wondering about its derivation and use over time. What can you tell us?

A: Yes, the adjective “bent” has a variety of meanings. You might say it bends in all directions, every way but straight. A piece of wire can be bent, an angry person can be bent out of shape, a speculator can be bent on making a killing in options, someone on a bender can be bent, and a crook, as well as his illicit gains, can be bent.

Appropriately, the adjective “bent” has a winding history, dating from the Middle English of the 14th century when it was derived from the verb “bend.” And as we’ve written in a 2012 post, “bend” itself has a romantic origin, evoking the graceful curve of a medieval archer’s bow.

But the story begins even farther into the past, when “bend,” both noun and verb, had menacing meanings. In Old English, a “bend” was originally a fetter or a shackle—anything used to restrain or tie someone up—and to “bend” was to fetter them.

The noun was first recorded (as bęnd) around the year 890, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Here’s the OED’s earliest example, which uses the Anglo-Saxon plural benda:

“Þa benda sumes gehæftes” (“the ties were loosed”). From An Ecclesiastical History of the English People, an Old English translation from Bede’s Latin chronicle of the 700s.

The noun was used in that sense until it was eventually superseded by “band” and “bond,” two competing nouns adopted later from Old Norse in the 12th and 13th centuries. “Band” and “bond” were originally variants of each other and meant the same thing as “bend,” the OED says: “a shackle, chain, fetter, manacle,” and so on.

That sense of “bend” is now obsolete except in nautical usage (it means a knot), but for a time during the Middle English period all three nouns—“bend,” “band,” and “bond”—were used interchangeably in that early sense of something for restraining a person.

Not surprisingly, all those words have been traced to the same prehistoric Indo-European source. The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots says a verb stem reconstructed as ‌‌bhendh- (to bind) is the ultimate origin, not only of  “bend,” “band,” and “bond” but also of “bind,” “bandana,” and “ribbon.”

Meanwhile, the verb “bend” had come into the language soon after the noun. In Old English, it meant “to fasten or constrain with a ‘bend’ or bond; to confine, fetter,” the OED says.

When first recorded around 1000 (as bęndan), it specifically meant “to constrain or bring into tension by a string,” as an archer would draw a bow. The dictionary’s earliest use in writing is quoted from an illuminated manuscript, The Paris Psalter: “He bende his bogan, se is nu gearo to sceotanne” (“He bent his bow, that is now ready to shoot”).

Later on, in the first half of the 14th century, the verb began to take on its modern meanings. That early sense, “to constrain a bow with the string,” became associated “with the curved shape into which the bow is brought,” the dictionary says, and the verb acquired a new meaning—to arch or curve.

Oxford’s earliest citation for that sense of the verb is from an anonymous poem that uses a participle. The poet’s beloved is described as having eyebrows that arch: “Heo haþ browes bend an heh” (“She hath brows bent on high”). From “The Fair Maid of Ribblesdale,” written sometime before 1350 and collected in The Harley Lyrics, edited by George Leslie Brook in 1968.

[A historical aside, from The Middle English Ideal of Personal Beauty (1916), by Walter Clyde Curry: “The word which seems to express most forcibly and clearly for Middle English poets their ideal of beautiful eyebrows, is the adjective ‘bent.’ It describes the eyebrows arched or curved in the form of a strung bow.”]

Because of its association with arches and archery, the verb “bend” developed two different groups of meanings in the 14th through 16th centuries, Oxford explains: (1) “to bow or curve, deflect, inflect, bow oneself, stoop, submit, yield”; and (2) “to direct or level a weapon, to aim, bring to bear, bring one’s force or energies to bear.”

And those senses in turn blended into a third set of meanings, recorded from the early 15th century onward: “to direct or turn one’s steps, oneself, one’s mind, eyes, ears, in any specified direction.” All this, from a verb that once meant to tie somebody up!

Meanwhile, as the verb “bend” was taking on all those meanings, its participle “bent” emerged as an adjective with corresponding senses: arched, curved, bowed, stooped, directed, determined, and so on. Here are some of those adjectival meanings, along with dates of the first OED sightings:

Braced for action, ready to spring, leveled or aimed like a weapon (c. 1330); forced into a curve, curved, crooked (c. 1374); arched (1380, when “bent brows” meant sharply curved eyebrows); determined or resolute (1548); furrowed (1647, when a “bent brow” was a frowning or wrinkled forehead); bound for or directed at (1697, as in “homeward bent travelers”).

Now we arrive at the figurative slang uses of “bent” that came along in the 19th century. The most prolific of these have to do with being drunk or stoned, and the OED’s earliest example, from American fiction, describes an inebriated doctor:

“He was seldom downright drunk; but was often … confoundedly bent.” From Asa Greene’s 1833 satire of medical quackery, The Life and Adventures of Dr. Dodimus Duckworth, A.N.Q.

This may have come into American use from Scots dialect, Jonathan E. Lighter suggests in the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang. In mid-18th-century Scots slang, as recorded in poetry, to “bend” was to drink hard.

Scots dialect may also have influenced the use of the noun “bender” for a drunken binge, which dates back to the early 1840s in American writing. The earliest example we’ve found is in a Vermont newspaper’s account of a man arrested after drunkenly (and violently) defending the memory of Ethan Allen:

“When brought before the Recorder in the morning, he had forgotten all about old Ethan, said he had been on a bit of a bender, and was let off by paying for his lodging at Harper’s Hotel.” (The Spirit of the Age, Woodstock, Dec. 10, 1841.)

In the 20th century, the drinking sense of “bent” was applied more widely (like the term “wasted”) to narcotics use. This is the OED’s earliest example: “He was bent, barely able, it seemed, to keep his head up” (Nathan C. Heard’s novel Howard Street, 1968).

And around that same time, according to Random House, the expression “bent out of shape” could mean drunk, high on drugs (especially on LSD), or angry, while  the phrase “get bent” could mean either “get stoned” or “go to hell!”

Another sense of “bent,” penniless (that is, almost “broke”), came along in the early 20th century. The first known example is from a feature story in The Evening Sun, New York, fall 1909:

“ ‘What’s the matter, old man?’ asked a man near him. ‘Broke?’ ‘Not yet, friend,’ replied the sorrowful one, ‘but I’m—well, bent.’ ” From an article by Quincy Sharpe Mills cited in a book about him, One Who Gave His Life (1923), by James Luby.

The use of “bent” that you spotted in Colson Whitehead’s novel—corrupt or “crooked”—also appeared in the early 20th century. The OED’s first example, which we’ve expanded here, is from a glossary of underworld terms:

“BENT, Adjective. General usage. Crooked; larcenous. See ‘TWISTED.’ Example: ‘His kisser shows that he’s bent.’ ” From A Vocabulary of Criminal Slang (1914), by Louis E. Jackson with C. R. Hellyer, a police detective in Portland, OR.

In an associated usage, the adjective also came to mean illegal or stolen, as in “bent car” or “bent goods” (dating from 1930 in the OED). The dictionary also has these senses of “bent”: ruined or out of order (1930); eccentric or insane (both 1942); homosexual (1959); and altered in pitch or tone (1950, used in music to describe a sliding or “blue” note).

Standard dictionaries describe the criminal sense of “bent” as chiefly British, but slang dictionaries and the OED, an etymological dictionary, don’t make that distinction. Colson Whitehead, an American writer, set Harlem Shuffle in the New York of the early 1960s.

In case you’re interested, we wrote in 2008 about  the expression “hell-bent for leather.” And we wrote a post a few years later about verbs, like “bend,” that have two possible endings for the past tense and past participle: either “-d” or “-t.” Today, the past tense “bended” survives only in the expression “on bended knee.”

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Greenwashing and pinkwashing

[Note: This post was updated on Jan. 8, 2022.]

Q: I’m curious about the use of “washing” in terms like “greenwashing” and “pinkwashing.” Has “washing” here lost its original meaning, like the “gate” of “Pizzagate,” “Russiagate,” and “Irangate”?

A: No, the use of “washing” as a terminal element here reflects its original source in Anglo-Saxon times: wæscan, Old English for to wash away dirt with water. The “gate” of “Pizzagate” comes from the Watergate scandal, not its original sense of an opening in a wall.

A: The word “wash” or “washing” began showing up in the 1980s in various compound terms for the use of superficial, insincere, or misleading information about the environment, feminism, race, and so on, intended to improve the image of a business, organization, country, etc.

The two most common of the terms are “greenwashing” and “pinkwashing.” Others include “rainbow washing,” “purplewashing,” “sportswashing,” “redwashing,” “humanewashing,” “straightwashing,” and “hetwashing.”

(These recent formations are brand-new in comparison with the centuries-old “whitewashing.” And later we’ll discuss “brainwashing,” a term inspired by mid-20th-century totalitarianism and traceable to Chinese in the era of Mao Zedong.)

Nine of the ten standard dictionaries we regularly consult have entries for “greenwashing” or “greenwash” used in this sense.

American Heritage defines “greenwashing” as “the dissemination of misleading information that conceals abuse of the environment in order to present a positive public image.” Merriam-Webster defines it as “expressions of environmentalist concerns especially as a cover for products, policies, or activities.”

Two of the standard dictionaries also have entries for “pinkwashing.” It’s defined in Collins as “a superficial or insincere display of concern for the homosexual community” and in Macmillan as “the use of support for LGBT rights and issues by a state or business to boost its own image.”

The collaborative online dictionary Wiktionary adds that a “breast cancer-related sense refers to the pink ribbon, an international symbol of breast cancer awareness.” Though the standard dictionaries don’t include that sense, our database searches suggest that it may be the more common use of the term.

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, has entries for the nouns “greenwash” and “greenwashing” as well as the verb “greenwash.”

The dictionary says the noun “greenwash,” derived from the adjective “green” and the noun “wash,” is modeled after the noun “whitewash,” which dates from the 16th century. The verb “greenwash” is derived from that noun, and the noun “greenwashing” is derived from the verb.

The OED’s definition of “greenwashing” is similar to the ones above from American Heritage and Merriam-Webster. It defines the noun “greenwash” as “misleading publicity or propaganda disseminated by an organization, etc., so as to present an environmentally responsible public image; a public image of environmental responsibility promulgated by or for an organization, etc., regarded as being unfounded or intentionally misleading.”

And the verb, Oxford says, has these two senses: “(a) to mislead (the public) or counter (public or media concerns) by falsely representing a person, company, product, etc., as being environmentally responsible; (b) to misrepresent (a company, its operations, etc.) as environmentally responsible.”

In the earliest recorded example we’ve seen, the noun “greenwash” refers to a plan for an open-space buffer between the cities of Louisville and Lafayette in Colorado:

“It’s a great game, this open space whitewash which should be renamed the ‘political greenwash’ or, better yet, ‘open space hogwash’ because that’s all it is—a salve for all the guilty consciences who now have awakened to see the two cities grown together” (an Aug. 10, 1983, editorial in The Louisville Times).

(We’ve seen earlier examples of “greenwash” or “greenwashing” used in the sense of money laundering or applying a thin wash of color.)

The OED’s first citation for the noun “greenwash” appeared four years later: “They create a lot of environmental ‘greenwash,’ and thank god for it, because they create some very good nature reserves. But they’re also commissioning uneconomic nuclear power stations.” (From the September 1987 issue of Sanity, journal of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, London.)

Oxford’s earliest example of the verb “greenwash” is from another London periodical: “Continuing to ‘greenwash the public’ would be foolish” (Daily Telegraph, Oct. 14, 1989).

And its earliest citation for “greenwashing” appeared in a California newspaper: “The activists will keep a booth outside the fair and continue to fight what the group calls ‘greenwashing’ by large corporations who tell the public they are working for the environment while continuing to pollute” (The Orange County Register, April 5, 1990).

(The environmental activist Jay Westerveld has been credited by some sources with coining the term “greenwashing” in a 1986 essay about the hotel industry’s practice of promoting the reuse of towels to save the environment. However, we haven’t been able to find the essay in a search of book, newspaper, and scholarly databases.)

As for “pinkwashing,” the earliest example we’ve found uses the term in its breast-cancer sense: “Jeanne Rizzo, executive director of the Breast Cancer Fund in San Francisco, which is co-sponsoring the hearing, says companies have co-opted breast cancer awareness and are engaged in a ‘pinkwashing’ of the problem.” (From a report of the California legislature on a joint Senate-Assembly hearing on breast cancer and the environment held on Oct. 23, 2002.) Earlier examples use “pinkwashing” in its literal, coloring sense.

The use of “pinkwashing” for the promotion of gender or sexual-identity issues showed up a decade later. The first example we’ve seen uses the term to describe an Israeli campaign comparing its treatment of gays and lesbians with their treatment in the Arab world: “Israel and ‘Pinkwashing’ ” (the headline on an opinion article by Sarah Schulman in The New York Times, Nov. 22, 2011).

“Greenwashing” is a much more common term than “pinkwashing,” according to a search with Google’s Ngram Viewer, which compares words and phrases in digitized books. The other terms mentioned earlier didn’t register:

“rainbow washing” (promoting gender issues), “purplewashing” (feminism), “sportswashing” (sports), “redwashing” (rightist promotion of leftist issues), “humanewashing” (claims of humane treatment on meat and dairy labeling), “straightwashing” and “hetwashing” (making gay, lesbian, and bisexual characters in fiction act like heterosexuals).

Now on to the more sinister “brainwashing,” which makes those other compounds seem like mere marketing strategies.

This is defined in the OED as “the systematic and often forcible elimination from a person’s mind of all established ideas, esp. political ones, so that another set of ideas may take their place.” It also means “this process regarded as the kind of coercive conversion practised by certain totalitarian states on political dissidents.”

But in a “weakened sense,” the dictionary adds, it can also mean  “the action of pressurizing or persuading a person into a belief considered undesirable.”

The noun came into English in the early 1950s, the OED says,  and was “probably” modeled after the Chinese term xǐ nǎo, from “ to wash, cleanse + nǎo brain.”

The term has become associated with Edward Hunter, an American journalist who reported from Asia and who’s been identified as a clandestine American intelligence agent. His book Brain-washing in Red China: The Calculated Destruction of Men’s Minds was completed in 1950 and published on Jan. 1, 1951.

On Sept. 24, 1950, The Miami News published an article by Hunter entitled “ ‘Brain-Washing’ Tactics Force Chinese into Ranks of Communist Party.”

However, the term appeared in print earlier in 1950. The OED has this as the term’s earliest published use: “China under Red flag…. ‘Brain-washing’—a new version of the mental purge” (a heading in The Times of India, Mumbai, Jan. 23, 1950). We haven’t been able to determine whether Hunter wrote this article or not.

The OED also has entries for the noun “brainwash” (1950), the verb “brainwash” (1951), the adjective “brainwashed” (1951), and the noun “brainwasher” (1952), all in reference to China.

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Swear like a sailor

[Note: We inadvertently sent this post to some readers last Friday. We’re publishing it today so that all our readers can see it.]

Q: Why do we say someone who cusses a lot “swears (or curses) like a sailor (or trooper, soldier, marine)”? Do people in the military cuss more than others? Is it simply a question of quantity or is something else at work?

A: Yes, many of the “swear like a …” and “curse like a …” usages refer to a sailor, trooper, soldier, or marine, but not all of them. We’ve seen versions of the expression applied to a docker, drunken monk, fishwife, mule-skinner, pirate, porter, preacher’s son, stevedore, termagant, and more.

The two most common versions are “swear like a sailor” and “swear like a trooper,” according to a search with Google’s Ngram Viewer, which compares the use of words and phrases in digitized books. (The “soldier” usage barely registers and the “marine” one doesn’t register at all in the books searched, though they appear in old newspaper databases.)

Why are the “trooper” and “sailor” variants so common? Probably because troopers and sailors had reputations for boorish language and behavior when the two phrases showed up (the “trooper” one in the 18th century and the “sailor” in the 19th).

As Christine Ammer explains in The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, “The troopers in this term were the cavalry, who were singled out for their foul language from the early 1700s on.”

The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, edited by Elizabeth Knowles, says, “A trooper was originally (mid 17th century) a private soldier in a cavalry unit, and from the mid 18th century was proverbial for coarse behaviour and bad language.”

In fact, many soldiers still speak an expletive-ridden language that the author Tom Wolfe referred to as “Army Creole.” In The Right Stuff, his 1979 book about the test pilots and astronauts of the space program, he cites this conversation as an example of Army Creole:

“I tol’im iffie tried to fuck me over, I was gonna kick’is fuckin’ ass, iddnat right?”

“Fuckin’ A.”

“Soey kep’on fuckin’ me over and I kicked ’is fuckin’ ass in fo’im, iddnat right?”

“Fuckin’ A.”

“An’ so now they tellin’ me they gon’ th’ow my fuckin’ ass inna fuckin’ stoc-kade! You know what? They some kinda fuckin’ me over!”

“Fuckin’ A well tol’, Bubba.”

Sailors on civilian or military vessels have had a similar reputation, according to the historian Paul A. Gilje.

In his 2016 book Swear Like a Sailor: Maritime Culture in America, 1750 to 1850, he cites 18th-century reports of the “wicked conversation,” “carnal songs,” “ill language,” and “profane language” of sailors, especially their rampant use of the expression “damn son of a bitch.”

“Others might curse and swear, but the liberty of the waterfront enjoyed by sailors and their own maritime culture gave the phrase ‘to swear like a sailor’ a resonance that rebounded throughout society,” Gilje writes. “Other members of the working class understood that going to sea offered a special license to resort to bad language.”

The earliest written example of the expression we’ve seen is from a religious treatise that uses the “trooper” version in describing one of the Apostles:

Peter seems to have been the boldest. He cou’d curse and swear like a Trooper. And his denying Jesus thrice, shows that he was capable of any thing” (A Conference Upon the Miracles of Our Blessed Saviour, 1730, by William Stevenson).

The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest example of the “trooper” variant, which we’ve expanded, appeared a decade later: “Bless me! she curses and storms at me like a Trooper, and can hardly keep her Hands off me” (from Samuel Richardson’s 1740 novel Pamela).

As far as we can tell, the “sailor” variant didn’t appear in writing until a century later. The earliest written example we’ve seen is in a book by a traveler who found surprisingly little swearing aboard a ship sailing from New York to Liverpool:

To swear like a sailor, is a common mode of characterising excessive profanity. And yet I was on board this ship ten days before I heard an oath from one of the crew” (Memoranda of Foreign Travel: Containing Notices of a Pilgrimage Through Some of the Principal States of Western Europe, 1845, by Robert J. Breckinridge). The crew may have watched their language around Breckinridge because he was a Presbyterian minister.

And here’s an example that appeared a dozen years later: “he did swear like a sailor, from mere habit and forgetfulness, for no man not professedly religious had a diviner instinct of reverence and worship than he” (from “Uncle Josh,” a short story by Rose Terry Cooke, Putnam’s Monthly, September 1857).

The only OED citation for the “sailor” variant is from the 20th century: “Della was a pretty little thing. Tough as nails—on the surface. She could—and did—swear like a sailor” (The Rose Petal Murders, 1935, by Charles G. Givens).

We’ll end with a poem, “The Sailor’s Folly,” cited in Swear Like a Sailor. It was written on Feb. 13, 1801, in Charleston, SC, by Simeon Crowell, a reformed seaman who had once prided himself on his cursing and carnal songs.

When first the sailor comes on Board
He dams all hands at every word
He thinks to make himself a man
At Every word he gives a dam

But O how Shameful must it be
To Sin at Such a great Degree
When he is out of Harbour gone
He swears by god from night to morn. 

But when the Heavy gale doth Blow
The Ship is tosled to and froe
He crys for Mercy Mercy Lord
Help me now O help me God

But when the storm is gone and past
He swears again in heavy Blast
And still goes on from Sin to Sin
Now owns the god that Rescued him. 

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