You Don’t Say

While English is the only language I speak, I have done a lot of study of other languages where words or phrases have entered ours.  English is, at the same time, a complex language, and yet dead simple.  I prize it for the fact that, with some study and understanding, it is capable of producing subtly nuanced meanings.

An American politician in the late 1800s stated that there should be no dictionaries, because no two words in the language mean exactly the same thing.  I have heard and read people who ask, Why are there so many synonyms in English?  The answer is that there are a range of words which allow the user to choose the exactly desired meaning.  The right word, and the almost-right word are not the same thing.  As Mark Twain explained, “There’s a mighty difference between lightning, and a lightning-bug.”

Interestingly, (to me) the language also has a whole range of words which allow the timid to not say exactly what they mean.  Many Muslims will not write the name Allah, because they then have to respectfully get rid of the paper it was written on.  Burning it while praying is the accepted practice.  So too, many Jews will not write the Hebrew word for Yahweh, or even the English word God, for the same reason.  Many people, non-Jews included, write only G*d, thus escaping the ritual.

While respect for God, and the name of God, is admirable, it is a man-directed mental state.  The Biblical commandment is to “Not take the name of God in vain.”  This actually means not to bug God with trivial stuff, or ask for things you don’t really deserve….in other words, most prayer.

Reticent speakers/writers use a wide range of euphemisms, expressions which state clearly what is intended, while pussyfooting around actually saying something which often isn’t really offensive.  The first time I ran into it was in a “Tammy” movie, in the late 50s.  Sandra Dee, playing Tammy, had something go poorly, and firmly stated *Amsterdam!*  Amsterdam? queried her rooming house hostess.  “Yes, and Rotterdam, and all them other damns!”   So she’d clearly pronounced the word, and everyone knew what she meant, but she hadn’t really said it.

Many of the strange Britishisms that you may have run into, center on not saying God.  Egad refers to (the) God.  Gadzooks were God’s hooks, which he used to create the Universe.  Od’s bodkin was God’s bodkin, a spike-like fabricating tool, used to create….  By Jove is just the use of the name of a god believed not to exist, in place of the name of the one believed to exist.

The Australian, strooth, is a reference to “His truth.”  Bleeding and bloody both refer to Christ, on the cross.  The Cockney, cor blimey, started as the expression, “God blind me, for I am not worthy of seeing Your glory.”

Since it is God who would have to do it, many folks also have trouble with the word, Damn.  Dash it all, darn it, and dang, often fill in.  It’s a little dated, but even dagnabit is still uttered occasionally.  Gosh, taken from the Bible, Land of Goshen, often takes the place of the name of God, gosh-durn, gosh-darn and gosh-dang.  The prefix –gol produces the same I-didn’t-say-it effect, with gol-durn, gol-darn and gol-dang.

Dr. Spooner had a speech defect which had him inverting the initial sounds of following words.  For him, a shining wit was actually a whining shit.  Doc Spooner’s inversions are used to bring us Yosemite Sam’s “Dag-gummed”.  Reversing that reversal quickly shows what the Hays Commission wouldn’t let our little cartoon character say.

You can shoot the shit, unless you can’t face saying it.  Then you just leave out the s**t, and say, Oh shoot, or shucks.  My father described the verbally repressed by, “Wouldn’t say shit, if he had a mouthful.”  The first words you learn in another language are often the profanities.  When I was in the Adult Education, with accent on Adult, one of the English-speaking men came out with “scheisse”, German for shit.  A younger, German-speaking female shockedly asked, “Does he know what that means?”  I would imagine he does, although, in an English-speaking class, that’s another euphemism.

The concept of sexual intercourse is another whose solid, Anglo-Saxon descriptor is often replaced, in *polite* conversation.  You’re big kids.  You know what I’m talking about.  Because of a bureaucratic mix-up, a local single mother and her five-year-old son spent a cold weekend when their delivery of fuel-oil didn’t arrive till Monday.  She managed to get some warmth from the stove and an electrical heater, but was quoted in the newspaper as saying, “It was frigging cold.”

Some blue-nosed Bible-thumper complained that the paper had printed that word, especially on the front page, “Because we all know what that word really means”.  You damned, strait-laced fool, that’s what euphemisms are for.  Frigging actually has a dictionary value of, “meaningless intensifier”, unlike similar words like fricking, freaking and fracking.

So, to those of you without the intestinal fortitude to call a spade a spade, or who are surrounded by audiences full of sensitive ears and feelings, you can be happy that you have a language which allows you to use speech so tactful, that you can tell some asshole to go to hell in such a nice way that he’ll welcome the trip and enjoy the stay when he gets there.

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