I’m astonished that in close to a decade of LH posts I’ve never written about the titular topic, but such appears to be the case. I’m guessing that many of you know that the Québécois use religious terms in their profanity; if you’re not au courant, Wikipedia will catch you up. Some of the best-known sacres are câlice (calice, literally “chalice”), crisse (Christ), ostie (hostie, “host”), and tabarnac (tabernacle, “tabernacle”). At any rate, Jordan of Macvaysia sent me a link to If you profane something no one holds sacred, does it make a swear?, from The Economist‘s “Johnson” language blog, and it makes some interesting points, discussing “an exhibition at the Musée des religions du monde (Museum of World Religions) in Nicolet near Montreal called Tabarnak: l’expo qui jure (Tabernacle: The exposition that curses)” and pointing out that this fine old tradition is in decline:
With the Roman Catholic church much less of a presence in the daily lives of Quebeckers, the religious words are losing their punch. Swear words disappear not through censorship, but when they no longer offend, according to the exhibit. The tamer ones—esprit (spirit), sacrament and baptême (baptism)—have already disappeared from daily discourse, it notes, and the others may soon follow. Olivier Bauer, a professor in Université de Montréal’s faculty of theology and author of “L’hostie, une passion québécoise”, believes even the impact of ostie, once the most popular swear word in Quebec, is weakening.
I disagree, though, with the cited theory that such swearing “was a form of rebelling against the Roman Catholic church”; though that may have been a factor for some people, it’s simply inevitable that swearing will draw from the most powerful psychological forces, and “hostie!” need not be a revolt against the church any more than “shit!” is a revolt against digestion.