Swearing on or by

It occurred to me the other day that I'm not really clear on the origin of the idea of swearing on something. It seems reasonably clear that swearing on or by a deity is akin to saying "May God strike me dead if I'm lying"; and I suppose "I swear on my soul" means "my soul is forfeit if I'm lying." But what about "I swear on my honor" or "I swear on my mother's grave"? I guess giving one's "word of honor" is an indication that one should be considered dishonorable by everyone if one is lying—but that seems a little tautological somehow, because wouldn't everyone consider you dishonorable for lying regardless of whether you swore?

And I'm really unclear on the "mother's grave" business. Is it that lying would then bring dishonor to your mother's grave?

The web and Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable are both unable to help me in this matter. Ideas welcome.

Meanwhile, while looking for that info, I happened across a modernized paraphrase of Romeo and Juliet (or at least the balcony scene). I rather like this bit:

Jeff: I want to be your lovesick puppy.

Jacy: That's sweet, but it's late and tomorrow can't come if you never leave. Goodbye!

I mean, it's no "parting is such sweet sorrow," but it has a certain charm.

The page title includes the phrase "Fan Fiction," which immediately made me wonder: Why isn't there any Shakespeare fanfic? There's lots of modernizations and retellings and so forth, but I haven't heard of any fanfic per se. And then I realized that I do know of one such item: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. So never mind.

(I have a vague notion there's also Shakespearean fanfic mentioned in The Eyre Affair, but I haven't read that yet, nor—at the current rate at which I'm acquiring books—am I like to.)

fanfiction.net has a whole bunch of Cats fanfic and a fair bit of Rent fanfic, and even a couple of JCS fics, but—aha! Two brief R&J fics. Not really what I had in mind, though. . . . Oh, okay, that's better: Shakespeare is filed under Books, not Plays. Okay, so there appear to be hundreds of them. Never mind, then. (Hey, I just noticed one of the other search results was a blog entry from eBear talking about Shakespearean fanfic. You folks are way ahead of me, clearly.)

But I'll just say this as I go: in the R&J production we did in high school, as I may've mentioned, we cross-cast Benvolio as Benvolia. She was a great tomboy character, and was clearly way better for Romeo than that wimpy Juliet. So enough with the Mercutio/Benvolio; I'd rather see Romeo/Benvolio.

But I wouldn't rather it enough to search through the fanfiction.net archives for it when I ought to be editing.

7 Responses to “Swearing on or by”

  1. Shmuel

    You’re on the right track, I think. As I’ve always understood it, the idea behind “word of honor” and “on my mother’s grave” are that one is raising the stakes. Without such clauses, if somebody lies… well, he’s a liar, which may not be such a terrible thing, especially if the lie is of no real consequence. By swearing on one’s honor, one is saying that no matter how trifling (or not) the statement may be, one is staking one’s honor on its truth; if she’s lying, she’s not just a liar, but has no honor at all. Similarly, somebody who swears on his mother’s grave who then turns out to be lying has at the least shown deep disrespect for his mother, and has probably called her honor into doubt… which has generally been considered far more dishonorable to the person himself than he’d have for being a mere liar.

    As for “by God,” it could mean “may God strike me down otherwise,” but it seems more likely to mean “I call upon God to witness that I’m telling the truth.” The significance being, again, that if one is lying, the stakes have been raised about as high as they can go, even more so than the “mother’s grave” bit; not only is one a liar, but — far worse, in a religious society — one’s shown a complete disrespect for God.

  2. Elizabeth Bear

    Swearing on something, as I understand it, does traditionally set it up as a forfeit (“By my right hand”) but I imagine at some point it got enlarged to include things that were of value or could kick the shit out of you if you blew it.

    If you want Shakespearean slashfic, you need to read some Marlowe biographies. If he–and Mary, Countess of Pembroke–actually slept with half the people they’re supposed to have, it’s amazing they had time to do anything else.

    P.S. On an unrelated topic, the prodigal Clarionites made it here safely. *g*

  3. Jay Lake

    I find swearing at to be more effective, usually…

  4. Celia

    I’ve always found it interesting how many of my friends (and myself, for that matter) will use “swear to god” and other similar Christian structures, despite being not christian, being atheistic, and (in my case) being religiously prohibited from swearing. It also really amuses me when people try and paganize them (By gods)because it’s so artificial sounding. but that may just be me. And it’s not at all what you’re talking about.

    I would guess that swearing on your mother’s grave is like saying, “And if I lie, may rabid elk descreate her body.” Okay, probably not the elk part, but just the idea that you believe in this so strongly that you’ll risk not only your own soul but even your mom’s.

    When I was taking a course on the nature of language, we noticed that the ways you insult someone are to attack his sexuality (either orientation or equipment), or to insult his mother.

  5. Vardibidian

    Well, and I checked our old friend the OED, and here we go again…

    I. 1. intr. To make a solemn declaration or statement with an appeal to God or a superhuman being, or to some sacred object, in confirmation of what is said; to take an oath. (first usage c. 900)
    Const. by, on, or upon that to which appeal is made (see 13, 16).

    Hmmm. Let’s see 13:

    13. swear by —. a. To appeal to, or use a formula of appeal to (a divine being or sacred object, or something affectedly or trivially substituted therefor) in swearing; to say ‘by…’ as a form of oath (first usage c. 1220)

    In other words, one swears by Gd or by golly, one swears by one’s hope of Heaven, or by one’s fear of Hell, one swears by the rood, or by the cross, or by all one holds dear.

    And 16?

    16. swear on (or upon)—. To take an oath, symbolically touching or placing the hand on (a sacred object); formerly also, to swear by (a deity, etc.) = 13a (first listed usage c. 950)

    So one swears on a Bible, or on a stack of Bibles, or (in the Bayeaux Tapestry) on a pair of reliquaries. One might take a mighty journey to swear a mighty vow on an object of particular reverence. One could swear on the True Cross, or on the bones of saints, or even on the bones of one’s sainted aunt. Or, one might go down to the cemetery and swear on one’s mother’s grave. Or, I suppose, you could just say you were doing it, and not actually do it at all, but where’s the fun in that?

    Redintegro Iraq,

    ps. For fans of litotes, I’ll add the phrase swear by no bugs, also swear by no beggars, no bugs.

  6. Hannah

    This is why I just curse people with a thousand snails. Much easier. For me, though probably not for the snails.

  7. Ana Santiago

    Interesting to find this topic of discussion. I’m a law student in Brazil currently preparing my final paper. The theme of my paper is “proof in civil procedure”, and I decided to present some historic notions about the proof in processes from the early civilization in which law and religion were intermingled to the present days. I learned that swearing to God was one of the “judgments of God”, along with the ordeals, from ancient civilizations through the middle ages. As I was reading about the subject, I realized that we, speakers of Portuguese, still do this kind of swearing in our daily lives, although not before a court, and not believing God will strike us dead if we lie, but just to emphasize that what we’re saying is true. I wondered if speakers of other languages would do the same, so I decided to check the expressions in English and came across this discussion. Funny to find out that although Portuguese and English are languages so far apart, speakers of both languages use the same way to emphasize the truth of a statement, rooted in the “judgments of God”. I wonder if this also happens with eastern languages, such as Japanese, Chinese or Korean. Unfortunately, I can’t speak or read either of them.


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