In his journal for 1824, John Quincy Adams records an incident where he was informed that a William King was telling people that he [Adams] should be nominated for vice-president under Crawford, one of his [Adams'] opponents. He "applied an epithet to King" that he refuses to commit to paper.

The full quote (emphasis mine):

Dr. Watkins told me that William King had assured him that my friends had agreed that I should be nominated in caucus as Vice-President, with a nomination of Crawford as President. I applied an epithet to King for saying this, which I will not commit to paper-- adding that it was impossible any friends of mine should have undertaken thus to dispose of me without consulting me first.

In 1824, what epithet would it be likely for Adams to have used?

  • Unless someone who was in earshot of his use of this epithet wrote it down, we'll never know for sure. Presumably it was rather vulgar or profane, which is why he wouldn't commit it to paper.
    – Steve Bird
    Commented Sep 26, 2018 at 19:07
  • @SteveBird Yes, this is why I have phrased the question as what would he likely use, rather than what he did use. One of these can be known, as the answer below shows.
    – ale10ander
    Commented Sep 26, 2018 at 20:25

1 Answer 1


Very astute question. One of the amusing bits I read about the old HBO western series Deadwood was that its copious cursing was purposely not period, but translated. Their researchers reported that cursing in the 19th Century was largely profane (religious in nature), and they made the decision to translate it into modern sexual cursing so it would have the same impact on the audience as it would have to listeners at the time.

According to John Spurr, professor of history at Swansea University, this was in fact the case from the 15th-18th centuries as well, but even moreso. My favorite quote from in there

It was said that Thames bargemen had only ever heard the name of their saviour as part of a profane oath.

Jesse Shiedlower, author of The F-Word, was quite insistent that this went for most of 19th Century America as well.

the evidence that we have is that they were using more religious blasphemy than the sexual insults which are popular today

So most likely what was uttered was some form of suggestion that God should damn the person in question (or perhaps that he should take the initiative and go there on his own). However, the Deadwood writers would argue that this should probably be "translated" into modern English using something sexual* to have the same reaction out of a modern audience.

* - Likely using the F-word, but perhaps instead suggesting some inclination out of heterosexuality or into incest. Watch an episode of Deadwood, or go drive slow in New Jersey if you need inspiration.

  • Clever note about driving slowly in NJ! :) Commented Jul 25, 2019 at 23:08

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