Susie Dent’s Top Tens: 10 brilliant swears and exclamations from the past

Are you tired of using the same repertoire of swears as everyone else? Susie Dent is at your service.

Susie Dent Top Ten

Are you tired of using the same repertoire of swears as everyone else? Susie Dent is at your service.

Perhaps you’d like to add a touch of originality to your exclamations, to help you stand out from the potty-mouthed crowd? If so, and you feel the need for some more esoteric exclamations to get you over feelings of pain, frustration, stress, surprise, or even joy, then look no further than a historical dictionary and the tireless research of Susie Dent.


Today’s top swears were not considered particularly taboo in the Middle Ages, when the big no-no was religious profanity. This was when exclamations such as ‘Zounds!’ (‘God’s wounds!’) and Strewth! (‘God’s truth!’) were born, along with the less familiar ‘Gadsbudlikins!’, a figleaf for ‘God’s body’.

by cock’s bones!

Among slangmeister Jonathon Green’s wonderful Timelines of Slang is a chronology of oaths, in which one of the earliest, from the 1300s, is ‘by cock’s bones!’, followed by similar riffs such as ‘by cock and pie!’. ‘Cock’ here is a euphemism for ‘God’ rather than the penis, although Shakespeare made full use of the punning potential in Hamlet: ‘Young men will do’t if they come to’t; By Cock they are to blame’.

damn my diaphragm!

It’s hard to imagine a less offensive part of the body than the diaphragm. Nonetheless, in the 1700s it became an object of damnation, perhaps simply because of its alliteration, which makes this oath extremely satisfying to say.

Trouser buttons

Dash my wig and trouser buttons!

hot beef!

Had you lived in 17th century London you might have heard shouts of ‘hot beef!’ being relayed around the city. This was the hue and cry raised by anyone who had just been pickpocketed, and was simply rhyming slang for ‘stop thief!’ It is probably down to this that we talk about having a ‘beef’ with someone today.

strike me good looking!

If you’re looking for an alternative to such formulations as ‘well I’m blowed!’, look no further than a cluster of exclamations that appeared in the 18th century and which set a trend that has lasted ever since. As well as hoping to be struck good-looking, you might also ask to be rendered ‘sunburnt’, ‘ugly’, ‘comical’, or ‘bandy’.

douse my toplights!

In the 18th century, your toplights (and your daylights) were your eyes. Expressions involving them included both ‘bless your toplights!’ and ‘blast your toplights!’, as well as the more curious ‘douse’ version. Then again, not much can beat another example from a novel of 1894, in which a character exclaims ‘Dash my tarry toplights and topgallant eyebrows!’.

bust my gizzard!

Then again you can always ask for your gizzard to be busted, as some did in the 1800s. The gizzard is variously defined in the dictionary as the stomach, solar plexus, and the heart. In this case, the reference is probably to your guts, bursting out over some shock to the system.


Dog bite my onions!

dash my wig and trouser buttons!

Whilst most of us are unlikely to use this as any kind of real catharsis, it does provide a nice and dainty note to a sudden discovery, such as the piece of Lego you lost ten years ago and suddenly discover in the squinch of the sofa.


Surely one of the best shoulder-shrugging retorts to a puzzling question or remark, ‘damfino’ came to us from Victorian times when it provides a handy if easily decoded ‘Damned if I know’.

dog bite my onions!

This inexplicable exclamation from the 1950s nonetheless has a certain flair to it. One for the brave (or eccentric).

Want to hear more from Susie about the infinitely bizarre and fascinating world of language? She’s speaking to the top brass of British comedy and entertainment about just that, and it’s all free to listen to here on whynow.


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