Gadzooks! Split me! and Stap me vitals!
I have always had a fondness for Restoration oaths. These days, alas, nobody apart from pantomime pirates and members of the Royal Family (Prince Phillip, apparently exclaimed “Gadzooks!” upon viewing a portrait of himself) uses them.
I have no idea why the these fine exclamations flourished with such vigour in the Restoration. They appear with great frequency and in great variety in the works of Restoration dramatists such as Vanbrugh, Congreve, Etherege and Farquhar. A great many of these oaths end with the word ‘me’ as in: Split me! Stap me! or (as Captain Brazen says in Farquhar’s Recruiting Officer and Lord Foppington says in Vanbrugh’s The Relapse) Rat me!
Split me!, I suppose, might be taken literally (Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang gives “Split my windpipe!” as a variant); Stap me! is sometimes given as an affected pronunciation of “Stop me!” though I can’t help wondering if “Stap me vitals!” (a favourite expression of Vanbrugh’s Lord Foppington) suggests ‘stab’ rather than ‘stop’? (I’ve just discovered that at least one actor who has played Lord Foppington agrees). But as for ‘Rat me!’ – I am at a loss to account for its meaning. Cassell' s Dictionary compares the expression with the simple Rat! which is given as an alternative to Drat! which is said to be a euphemism for “God rot it!” - though why anyone should have wanted to say “God rot it!” in the first place I cannot imagine.
This brings me to some of the best known oaths: Zounds! and Gadzooks! These generally derive from blasphemous expressions such as “God’s wounds” and “God’s hooks” (the ‘hooks’ in question often explained as being the nails used in the crucifixion, though I am not aware of any conclusive evidence for this). At any rate, there is a whole bunch of similar oaths: 'Sbody, (God’s body), 'Snails (God’s nails), 'Sblud or 'Splood (God’s blood!) Od’s bodkins (God’s body) and so on.
There are even a few oaths of this sort which survive to this day as in, for example, Struth! or Strewth! (God’s truth) and “Gawd, Stone The Crows” which I have always assumed to be an elaboration upon "God’s stones" (testicles) though this is merely surmise.
What is clear is that fashionable oaths go out of fashion rather quickly (in more recent times, we’ve seen this with once-trendy exclamations such as “Groovy!” and “Fab!”). In Farquhar’s Love and a Bottle, there is a lovely scene in which Mockmode (‘a young Squire, newly come from the University, and setting up for a Beau’) tries to learn how to “swear the most modish oaths”.
“Pray,” he asks, “What are the most fashionable oaths in town? Zoons, I take it, is a very becoming one.”
Rigadoon (a dancing master who, presumably, keeps up with fashion) replies: “Zoons is only used by the disbanded officers and bullies: but zauns is the beaux’ pronunciation....
"Yes, sir, we swear as we dance; smooth, and with a cadence. – Zauns! - ‘Tis harmonious, and pleases the ladies, because ‘tis soft. – Zauns, madam! – is the only compliment our great beaux pass on a lady.”
A few moments later, after taking snuff, Mockmode tries out the fashionable pronunciation: “Zauns, I must sneeze!” But, having sneezed, he makes the error of exclaiming “Bless me!”
Rigadoon at once corrects him – “Bless me!”, it seems, is distinctly not à la mode: “O fy, Mr. Mockmode! what a rustical expression that is! – Bless me! – You should on all such occasions cry Dem me! You would be as nauseous to the ladies as one of the old patriarchs, if you used that obsolete expression.”