Olivier Bauer, a Swiss-born researcher at Université de Montréal’s faculty of theology and religious studies, has taken an interest in the more unorthodox side of Quebec society. After having explored the devotion of Quebeckers to their beloved Montreal Canadiens hockey team in his book Une théologie du Canadien de Montréal, this time he is examining their preferred swear word in his book L’hostie, une passion québécoise, recently published by Liber.
“Hostie” (the “host” received by Catholics during communion) is the most commonly used swear word in Quebec, and is often accompanied by other terms associated with the celebration of communion, such as “calice,” “ciboire” or “tabernacle,” a distinctively “Québécois” feature that struck Dr. Bauer when he first arrived. “I have done a fair amount of travelling in French-speaking countries and this Eucharist-centred profanity is unique to Quebec,” he noted. “You can’t help but notice it right away.” The Swiss protestant was also surprised to see host wafers sold in Quebec convenience stores and consumed as a lowly snack.
Dr. Bauer thus chronicles the relationship between Quebeckers and the communion wafer. From mystic nuns eating little but this substitute for the body of Christ to legends about processions of the host having the ability to extinguish fires, the book depicts the powerful sway of this symbol in New France up until the 18th century.
While records show a man brought to trial for blaspheming the word as early as 1880, in Trois-Rivières, it wasn’t until the beginning of the 20th century that the term “hostie” emerged as the king of curses. “Before the 20th century, Quebec Catholics did not celebrate communion at every mass,” explained Dr. Bauer. “It was a sacred ritual performed only once or twice a year.”
This sacred aspect may explain the emergence of the term as a swear word. “This form of profanity is a desecration. But we can only desecrate what we venerate,” emphasized the researcher. “The curse word derives its power from the depth of its meaning.” Today, while a large number of Quebeckers have moved away from the Catholic religion, the continued popularity of this swear word clearly indicates that Catholic symbols remain imbedded in Quebec culture, even though their original meaning is sometimes forgotten.