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