What We Swear Like.

Stan Carey investigates an international phenomenon:

The expressions swear like a trooper and swear like a sailor are so common as to be cliché. But why do we swear ‘like a trooper’ or ‘like a sailor’? And what else do we swear like, idiomatically, in English and other languages?

He explains that swearing has long been identified with the military, especially sailors (and includes the famous Ashley Montagu quote about “Get your ––––ing rifles!”), then says that “dozens of variants also occur, and even the more clichéd forms are often modified to make things more interesting”:

I used wild-card searches to look up the phrases swear like a, swears like a, swearing like a, and swore like a, and the equivalents with curse and cuss, in Mark Davies’s language corpora.

I disregarded examples like swears like a Christian, …French Canadian, …gentleman, …girl twice her age, and …kid that are descriptive rather than emphatic and idiomatic. Swears like an [X] results were sparse and also generally fell into this category. […]

The table shows a clear top three: sailor, trooper, and trucker. But in the historical corpus COHA (1820–2019), trooper has a slight edge and pirate jumps into third place.

There follow lots of graphs, one-off quotes (“a chef who has just burnt his fingers in the soufflé,” “a schooner full of drunken navvies”), and analysis, e.g.:

The predominance of men in the data reflects both perceptions and norms of recent centuries. Women were excluded from many of the sweary jobs. Even so, Ruth Wajnryb writes that historically ‘there is ample evidence that men swore more than women’. The social mores that produced that imbalance have progressed a bit, at least when it comes to women saying fuck in British English.

Which brings us to fishwife, easily the most popular female variant in the expression. Traditionally it often collocated with Billingsgate, a fish market in London. Writes Jonathon Green in Sounds and Furies: ‘The eponymy of the place name and the alleged foulness of the language used by those who worked there is first recorded in 1676 and flourished as a stereotype for three centuries.’

And (saving the best for the last) he ends with analogous expressions in other languages; a couple of samples:

Czech: swear like a sailor, tiler/paver, pagan (klít jako pohan), starling (nadává jak špaček)

German (Germany): swear like a brewer’s drayman (fluchen wie ein Bierkutscher), tinker (Kesselflicker), sailor (Seemann), broom-maker (Bürstenbinder), mercenary (Landsknecht), coach driver (Kutscher), reed bunting (schimpfen wie ein Rohrspatz) [not an occupation, granted, but there’s no way I was going to omit the reed bunting]

Another triumph for that sweary blog Strong Language!


  1. Swear like a starling I understand, they are noisy bastards. But I checked the wiki page for reed bunting and it says nothing about them being loud or uncouth.

    Bonus: Now I know the meaning of Sissy Spacek’s and Ashton Kutcher’s last names.

  2. I don’t think the linked piece addresses the question “why trooper?” As I understand it, trooper was traditionally, esp. in BrEng, a generic word for an enlisted man (maybe just a low-level one – excluding NCO’s) in, and only in, cavalry regiments. It was never a generic word for “soldier,” and cavalrymen were never more numerous than infantrymen, so it’s not like the trooper would obviously be the modal or prototypical Army private. Did troopers somehow have a reputation for swearing more than infantrymen did? Where do artillerymen fit into the hierarchy of swearing?

  3. David Marjanović says

    Landsknecht doesn’t mean “mercenary”, it means “16th/17th-century pikeman” (even though many of them were Wallenstein’s mercenaries), and I haven’t seen it outside of historical contexts.

  4. David Eddyshaw says

    Where do artillerymen fit into the hierarchy of swearing?

    Same words, but LOUDER.

  5. In Russian, it is “shoemaker” and “coachman”. German collection put me in mind of “Tinker, taylor…”

  6. Same words, but LOUDER.

    “What? No, I am not a melon farmer, why would you say that?”

    The comedy writes itself.

  7. David L, you’re omitting the possibility that Ashton Kutcher’s ancestor was Welsh and a hugger (cwtsiwr).

  8. i think “trooper” as low-ranking cavalry (historically often semi-autonomous within an army) and “Landsknecht” as non-aristocratic-professional-soldier* are basically the same version of the idiom: soldiers, but able to be even freer in their language because they aren’t tightly bound into military discipline, being less replaceable if not fully self-regulated.

    * there’s no contradiction between “mercenary” and “pikeman” – polearms were mercenaries’ weapons, whether on the scale of the small unit or the mercenary state (the ventican’s swiss guards, who’re the last remnant of the most successful such force, still ritually carry them), since they’re good for dealing with armed aristocrats on horses.

  9. Landsknechts also pioneered the use of firearms alongside the pikemen. During the Italian Wars, they were equipped in essentially the same way as the other cornerstone of Charles V’s armies, the Spanish tercio. They represented one of the first effective modern uses of combined arms. The French forces also had pikemen and arquebusiers, as well as lots of cavalry, which the Habsburg forces often largely lacked. However, the Valois armies did not deploy their units in an effectively complementary fashion, preferring to continue having charging knights leading their attacks. At the Battle of Pavia, mounted gendarmes were almost 15% of the French manpower; the fraction for the Habsburg forces was less than 10%. When the Habsburg army arrived to lift the siege of Pavia, Francis I tried to drive them off with a medieval cavalry charge. The French gendarmes were impaled and raked with fire, and many of the cavalry, including the king, were captured.

    Over time, the tercios increased the ratio of arquebusiers to pikemen, as the firearms became more accurate and cheaper to produce. I don’t know to what extent that also happened with the landsknecht units. The much greater power and riches of the Spanish Habsburgs may have enabled them to upgrade their infantry formations in ways that their Austrian cousins could not. Moreover, even from a relatively early date, the landsknecht units garnered a reputation for being hard to control and quick to mutiny. The tercio sometimes mutinied as well, during the Eighty Years War against the Dutch, but they were generally more loyal to the Spanish crown (members of a professional national army, rather than pure mercenaries) and never got the same reputation for factiousness that the landsknechts had. Most famously, the landsknechts are blamed for sacking Rome in 1527, against the wishes of the emperor. However, it is unclear how much of that assignment of blame is deserved, versus how much may be due to historical happenstance (which ethnic units happened to be encamped around Rome) and selective memory, based on the bad reputation of later landsknecht units in the Wars of Religion.

  10. I thought that teamsters (the old-fashioned kind with ox-teams), or in Australian parlance “bullockies”, were renowned for the quantity and variety of their swearing.

  11. David Marjanović says

    there’s no contradiction between “mercenary” and “pikeman” –

    Of course not! I’m just saying that if you want to be understood as saying “mercenary” in German, the word to use is Söldner. “Private military company” is Söldnerfirma these days.

  12. teamsters

    From Isaac Babel:
    — Беня, — сказал папаша Крик, старый биндюжник, слывший между биндюжниками грубияном […]

    “Benya”, said papa Krik, an old binduzhnik known among binduzhniks as a rude man

    The joke is lost on most Russian readers though, the level of politness among
    binduzhniks didn’t become proverbial.

  13. focal an tsaighdiúra “the soldier’s word” is occasionally used by Irish-language schoolteachers as code for the [English] f-word, when cautioning pupils not to say it. This term existed in the 80s but I would guess not much earlier. I can’t say which army the soldier in question was enlisted in.

  14. Is the start of focal an tsaighdiúra supposed to evoke the unmentionable?

  15. teamsters

    in yiddish, balegole-loshn [teamsters’ cant] is a whole register, like klezmer-loshn [musicians] and ganovim-loshn [thieves], but i don’t think i’ve heard it described as particularly sweary.

    though i suppose part of why the Tevye stories were so popular originally was the push-pull between the balegole as the quintessential job of men with little torah/talmud education and tevye’s constant attempts at using the massively intertexual register of halakhic discourse (paging bakhtin!).

  16. Christopher Culver says

    Also in Romanian horsecart drivers are the go-to metaphor for swearing: a înjura ca un birjar ‘to swear like a hansom-cab driver’. Amusing that the expression hangs on in everyday speech even if the profession – unlike other languages’ troopers or sailors – is long obsolete.

  17. Is the start of focal an tsaighdiúra supposed to evoke the unmentionable?

    I doubt it, though I never heard the phrase in my schooldays so I am open to correction. I would think focal (“word”) is too common a word in an all-Irish school environment; English kids don’t snigger at “country”. The first of Richie Kavanagh’s series of execrable single-entendre novelty songs was Aon Focal Eile, the joke being the repetition of /fʌk/. When I first heard the song, I had enough Irish to genuinely fail to get the “joke”.

  18. “she swears like a cunt at the bazaar!” – an insult with sexist overtones that once offended my ear.

  19. D.O. I immediately thoguht abut shoemaker too, but… I think shoemaker comes from another idiom.

    Mostly shoemakers drink, not swear.

    Also whistling and shouting “shoemaker!” is how people in cinema theatres inform (or rather informed in the early days of Russian cinema) the projectionist that something went wrong…

  20. How did shoemakers become a byword in Russian for people not capable of skilled work?

    (The idea came from Russia to Israel, too, as sandlar, which also means a shoe repairer.)

  21. Don’t know exactly. People need shoes, especially in a city. But good shoes are hard to make and they were not cheap. So there were a lot of badly made cheap shoes and that’s probably why shoemakers got low reputation. There should be something in Gilyarovsky. If I have time tomorrow, I’ll look it up.

  22. “What We Swear Like” is such a simple, elegant title compared to the bloated monstrosity I used (having left my title till the end, by which time my brain was frazzled). Anyway. Thank you for sharing the piece here, Hat.

    I may raid the comments for examples to add to the other-languages list. And I must look into focal an tsaighdiúra – thank you, mollymooly; I don’t think I ever heard it my in own 1980s–1990s schooling in Mayo/Galway.

    I don’t think the linked piece addresses the question “why trooper?”

    Not directly, because I link to Grammarphobia’s post, which has a couple of notes on this from 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”) and The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (“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”). Maybe those notes beg the question, though.

  23. PlasticPaddy says

    Re грубия́н
    From Vasmer:

    гру́бый, груб, груба́, гру́бо, укр. гру́бий, ст.-слав. грѫбъ ἄγροικος, ἰδιώτης, сербохорв. гру̂б, словен. grǫ́b, чеш., слвц. hrubý, польск. gręby, в.-луж. hruby. || Возм., родственно лит. grumbù, grubaũ, grùpti «притупляться, делаться неровным, покрываться ухабами», лтш. grumbt «покрываться морщинами», лит. grubùs «грубый, нечувствительный, неровный, шероховатый», лтш. grumbul̨i мн. «неровности», grum̃ba «морщина», gram̃ba «выбоина, колея», д.-в.-н. krampf, krampfo «судорога», krimfan «съеживаться, сморщиваться»; см. Бернекер 1, 355; Хольтхаузен, Ае. Wb. 61 и сл. С другой стороны, слав. слова сравниваются с д.-в.-н. grob «толстый, крепкий»

    грубия́н, может быть русским производным от гру́бый (Зеленин, РФВ 54, 144; Преобр. 1, 161) или заимств. (Шахматов, Очерк 262; Грот, AfslPh 7, 135) из нем. Grobian (впервые у С. Бранта в книге «Narrenschiff», 1494 г.), которое представляет собой шуточное новообразование эпохи гуманизма: grobianus от grob «грубый»;

    For grob DWDS says the etymology is “nicht gesichert” and gives several possibilities (but not borrowing from (Balto-)Slavic).

  24. Foras na Gaeilge, of all people, are using a version of the focal joke in their ad campaign for the new Concise English-Irish Dictionary: “Give a foclóir this Christmas”. (The fact that a dictionary is getting a national ad campaign is remarkable in itself.)

  25. Spanish also has teamsters/carters/coach drivers as the canonical foulmouth: jurar como un carretero is the most common simile in CREA/CORDE. I posted at SL a nice quote by Pérez Galdós showing that it was already canonical by his time.

    I’m not surprised that many of the usual similes involve people who work with draught or pack animals. Having had some experience with such, I feel that anyone in those professions will have ample opportunity to develop excellence in swearing — especially if mules are involved, but horses, donkeys and even oxen can be irritatingly stubborn as well.

  26. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    Czech: swear like a sailor

    I was surprised at that one. Living as they do in a land-locked country, do Czechs have much contact with sailors?

  27. J.W. Brewer says

    @Athel: the sort of shipwreck so violent as to leave you beached on the coasts of Bohemia would no doubt put you in a foul-tongued frame of mind? Separately, in English “sailor” feels like not quite the right word for the crew of boats/barges that ply the Danube and suchlike rivers, but I can imagine other languages where the “sailor” word’s scope covers that uncontroversially.

  28. J.W. Brewer says

    I appreciate Stan Carey’s comment – I did try to be responsible enough to read the linked piece before commenting, but I didn’t go the extra mile to follow links from that piece … But yeah, simply asserting that cavalrymen were at a certain point in history stereotyped as swearier than other types of military folk doesn’t explain how or why that came to be …

    I was poking around in the google books corpus for 18th-century uses of “trooper” and the authors of such works as “Pax in Crumena, or, the Trooper Turn’d Poet” and “The Trooper’s Merry Miscellany, or Poems on Several Occasions” are identified on the title pages as affiliated with specific cavalry regiments. On the other hand, I got a ways into “A True Dialogue between THOMAS JONES, a TROOPER lately return’d from GERMANY, and JOHN SMITH, a SERJEANT in the First Regiment of FOOT-GUARDS” without seeing any explicit statement that Jones had served in the cavalry.

    The “True Dialogue” does have another tidbit for historians of sweary language, however. It is a Jacobite polemic attacking George II for inter alia (allegedly) favoring the welfare and safety of his Hanoverian troops over that of his British troops at the Battle of Dettingen. It uses the blanked-out euphemisms “H_____r” and “H________n,” as if to suggest that “Hanover” and “Hanoverian” are such foul words that they should not be spelled out in full in a respectable publication.

  29. The OED has under freshwater 2b ‘esp. of a sailor: unaccustomed to seafaring; inexperienced at sea, new to the sea. In later use more literally: accustomed to lakes or rivers rather than the sea’. That implies that barge-, boat- and ferry-workers should count as sailors, even if not prototypical ones.

    Spanish marinero can certainly (if unetymologically) be used that way.

  30. David Marjanović says

    sandlar, which also means a shoe repairer

    Oh, that’s interesting. In eastern Austria, Sandler means “homeless man”, and I’ve always wondered what that’s supposed to have to do with “sand”…

    Living as they do in a land-locked country, do Czechs have much contact with sailors?

    I suspect the whole expression is calqued from German.

    the sort of shipwreck so violent as to leave you beached on the coasts of Bohemia would no doubt put you in a foul-tongued frame of mind?

    …or that. 🙂

  31. Kate Bunting says

    As a sidelight on this: Royalists in the ‘English’ Civil War were insultingly called ‘Cavaliers’ with reference to ‘caballeros’ – brutal Spanish Catholic troopers in the Thirty Years’ War – the derogatory sense surviving in the adjectival meaning ‘careless, offhand’.
    Later the term took on its more romantic connotations. Charles I said “The valour of Cavaliers hath honoured that name… it signifying no more than a gentleman serving his King on horseback.” (quoted in Wedgwood’s ‘The King’s War’).

  32. Fascinating, thanks for that!

  33. (Sandlar is cognate with sandal, of course.)

  34. I found a fragment from Moscow and Muscovites that I thought explains why an inept worker is called “shoemaker” and it doesn’t seem to cut it. But in the process, I put the fragment into DeepL and got an interesting result. The Russian text has 3 instances of the word “зазывалы”, people who asked, very persistently, passers-by to come into a shop. These days the word applies mostly to inflatable figures. Anyway, DeepL translated all 3 cases differently, “beggars”, “barkers” (like in “carnival barkers”, I guess), and “hustlers”.

  35. Very interesting! I wonder how that happens?

  36. None of those are quite right. Tout is more accurate, but almost archaic at this point, partly because few shops do that anymore.

    There’s another word, also archaic, that’s lost at the tip of my tongue, the sort of term you’d have found in a newspaper about coming to the 1892 Chicago World’s Fair.

  37. J.W. Brewer says

    Within living memory there was a stretch of 14th St. in lower Manhattan where a lot of stores had touts/barkers/whatever-you-call-them stationed outside (sometimes maybe seated atop stepladders, or is my memory unreliable here?) to encourage pedestrians to step inside and check out the amazingly low prices blah blah blah. I think that had faded due to gentrification even before the pandemic. Don’t know what word those in that role would have used to describe their occupation/function.

  38. @AC-B:

    though river-sailors seems more likely, a saltwater explanation could have to do with austro-hungarian sailors making a name for themselves in the inland parts of the empire. i can’t say i can imagine Fregattenleutnant Ritter von trapp swearing a blue streak, but i assume that particular prig would be a “never use a big big D” exception.


    my circus/sideshow friends would, i think, call them “outside talkers” (the endonym, in that world, which might not be what’s used in retail). and yes, stepladders!

  39. Coachmen and horsemen have an extra reason to swear at pedestrians and other people (known to drivers).

    Also the latter can be arrogant.

  40. David Marjanović says

    Austro-Hungarian sailors would have sworn mainly in Venetian, unless they were imported from Low German places like Admiral Tegetthoff.

    Maybe that actually is how we got strunzdumm “stupid through and through”, Standard Italian stronzo.

  41. Most of the sailors in the k.k. navy were Croatians. The officers were a mixed bag from all over the place – as evidenced in the ‘Schematismus’ yearbooks.

    The freshwater folk are referred to as boatmen…… at least on the Volga…

    In the Hungarian half of the Dual Monarchy, the military river boats were called šajke (pl. Croatian; the German name is something like Tschaike, and the Hungarian name i know not), the crews were called šajkaši, and the cap they wore was called a šajkača. Šajkača eventually became the national headdress of Serbia, after it supplanted the traditional lambswool cap some time at the end of the 19th or start of the 20th century.

    (Hopefully the last paragraph covers off on the language and the hat requirements of this blog 😉 )

  42. Hopefully the last paragraph covers off on the language and the hat requirements of this blog

    Good hat content is always appreciated!

  43. PlasticPaddy says

    re strunzdumm, stronzo, the latter seems to be ex, e.g., Lombard *strunz
    For Dutch stront, etymologie.nl has a derivation from PIE *(s)ter = be or become stiff.

  44. Most of the sailors in the k.k. navy were Croatians.

    Which explains why they swore so much, and more importantly why Czechs could understand that they were swearing.

  45. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    FWIW, Swedish uses gatupratare (‘street talkers’) for sandwich boards placed on the sidewalk. I assumed the name was metaphorical, but maybe they actually had people filling that role in the past. (The Dictionary of the Academy has gatskrikare but not gatupratare). There are laws against making noise in the street now, and you need a permit for sandwich boards — with the result that a few restaurants employ people to stand (silently) at the nearest street crossing with advertisements strapped to their fronts and backs. You also see decrepit cars/tractors/mobile homes standing close to highways with large billboards mounted on the side — the highway department is very stingy with permits for fixed signage, but there are no rules for what you can write on a vehicle that’s standing in a field).

    (The word gata is from the former femine declension that has -u or -o in all oblique cases, like in till salu or kyrkoherde. I used to know something about syllable balancing and -u vs -o, but I’m not sure anymore. However, gata seems to be special because it’s gat- in ‘colloquial’ compounds and gatu- in official registers).

  46. tout in Ireland is either [ticket] scalper or [police] informer

  47. “swear like a mule-driver” garners 174 google hits. it was a favorite cliche of the authors of “Battles and Leaders of the Civil War.”

  48. there was a stretch of 14th St. in lower Manhattan

    Likewise Orchard St. in even lower-er Manhattan, known for its discount shopping and the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, which is (quite economically) a converted tenement. Ongoing gentrification of the uptown (Manhattanese for ‘northern’) end has made the shopping there rather less deeply discounted.

    “swear like a mule-driver”

    I’m sure that has to do with the independence of mind (stubbornness) of mules, which is proverbial in every language where they are known. A lifetime battering one’s will against mulishness would give anybody a propensity to curse.

  49. David Eddyshaw says

    “like a mule-driver”


    He does seem to have had a way with rude words, as you’d expect of any self-respecting Roman general. I’m sure he would have found being memorialised in the vespasienne very funny. Vae, puto deus fio!

  50. Titus: Really, Father, don’t you think this new tax on, errrr, urine is rather undignified for the Imperium Romanum?

    Vespasian (waving coin under Titus’s nose): Does it stink, my son?

    Titus: Wellll, noooo…..

    Vespasian: Funny, it comes straight from the urinal!

    (Urinal, errrr, output, was collected and sold to cloth-makers: it served as a fixative for dyes.)

  51. Lars Mathiesen: Pre-pandemic we used to have people here riding bicycles or tricycles repetitively around an intersection, carrying signs with them. I presume this was to get around some law about posting signs in a fixed location. Obviously walking up to a main road junction and sticking a sign up on a pole would not be allowed. But you might get away with paying someone to ride a tricycle back and forth.

    Since the pandemic these people are no more to be seen. Perhaps it is just the general contraction of spending caused by a reduced economy.

  52. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    @maidhc, in Denmark and Sweden it seems to be fine as long as long as someone is holding the stick the sign is on, even standing still. Maybe they have to move once in a while, like to the other side of the street and back again — I assume they do so anyway, to maintain circulation in their legs if nothing else, but I don’t know if it’s a legal requirement.

    I don’t think I’ve seen anybody doing it since the pandemic either — there were times where it would have been illegal and the restaurants were closed anyway; there are no extraordinary restrictions now but as you intimate, those particular places may not have survived.

  53. Another reason may be that a lot of people have left the service sector since the pandemic and many places have difficulties finding service staff, so applicants for that kind of low-paid work may simply not be available (or if you find them, your priority is to fill up the staff shortage in your shop or restaurant, not to have them hang around on the streets.)

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