In "In the Midst of Alarms" (1894) by Robert Barr, Renmark was a typical quiet and respectful professor, but something made so crazy to swear, saying "Damn!"

His use of the word given above is not to be defended; still, as it was spoken by him, it seemed to lose all relationship with swearing. He said it quietly, mildly, and, in a certain sense, innocently. He was astonished at himself for using it, but there had been moments during the past few days when the ordinary expletives used in the learned volumes of higher mathematics did not fit the occasion.

How could the volumes of higher mathematics contain expletives?

  • 2
    They don't. Maybe this is an exaggeration, to show that Renmark was so polite and unsweary that the strongest words he'd normally use would still be acceptable for maths books?
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Jan 21, 2021 at 22:44

1 Answer 1


The word "expletive" is commonly understood to mean a swear word, but that is not, in fact, its oldest meaning. Merriam-Webster defines expletive as follows:

1 a : a syllable, word, or phrase inserted to fill a vacancy (as in a sentence or a metrical line) without adding to the sense

especially : a word (such as it in "make it clear which you prefer") that occupies the position of the subject or object of a verb in normal English word order and anticipates a subsequent word or phrase that supplies the needed meaningful content

    b : an exclamatory word or phrase

especially : one that is obscene or profane

2 : one that serves to fill out or as a filling

Expletive in the sense of a swear word has been common since at least the 1930s. The quotation from In the Midst of Alarms demonstrates that it was definitely prevalent even before then, but the primary meaning would be "filler". Since swear words are fillers that don't add to the literal meaning of the phrase, using expletive for swear word is appropriate.

This latter sense of the term became the most recognized one after the Watergate scandal. When the Nixon White House tapes were released in 1973 and 1974, transcripts substituted expletive deleted for every obscenity on the recordings. Since then, we tend to assume that expletive must mean swear word. But in 1874, when Barr was writing, expletive would have had the primary meaning of filler.

The narrator is making a kind of pun. On the one hand, damn is an expletive in the sense of a swear word. On the other hand, mathematics books would not contain swear words. It's a subtle, deadpan joke that relies on increasingly shifting attributions of meaning: the narrator is equating the ordinary words with which maths books are filled with filler and then, with a pun on the dual meaning of expletive, with swear words.

  • @GarethRees or anybody else who has access to the OED, can you check the history of expletive? Sadly, I can't. Please feel free to revise this answer or furnish your own; I'll delete this answer if checking the OED yields a better one.
    – verbose
    Commented Jan 22, 2021 at 4:58
  • E.g., "there is a prime between n and 2n", the word there is an expletive, and one that occurs often in mathematical texts.
    – user14111
    Commented Jan 22, 2021 at 5:08
  • @muru The answer specifically says the author is punning on two senses of expletive. But I'll look forward to your alternative answer.
    – verbose
    Commented Jan 22, 2021 at 7:47
  • @verbose, I think this answer would be improved by moving what is currently the last paragraph ("The narrator is making a kind of pun....") to be the first paragraph.
    – shoover
    Commented Jan 22, 2021 at 16:08
  • Mathematical journals contain lots of filler. If a mathematical journal said (equations simplified): Suppose that 4x + 22 = 6. Then, we have 4x = -16, so x = -4. I think that the words we have and so would qualify as expletives (although maybe more of them also qualify).
    – Peter Shor
    Commented Jan 22, 2021 at 20:00

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