Almost Before We Spoke, We Swore

Nowadays, the phrase, “Oh, golly!” may be considered almost comically wholesome, but it was not always so. “Golly” is a compaction of “God’s body” and, thus, was once a profanity.

Yet neither biblical commandment nor the most zealous Victorian censor can elide from the human mind its hand-wringing over the unruly human body, its chronic, embarrassing demands and its sad decay. Discomfort over body functions never sleeps, Dr. Burridge said, and the need for an ever-fresh selection of euphemisms about dirty subjects has long served as an impressive engine of linguistic invention.

Once a word becomes too closely associated with a specific body function, she said, once it becomes too evocative of what should not be evoked, it starts to enter the realm of the taboo and must be replaced by a new, gauzier euphemism.

For example, the word “toilet” stems from the French word for “little towel” and was originally a pleasantly indirect way of referring to the place where the chamber pot or its equivalent resides. But toilet has since come to mean the porcelain fixture itself, and so sounds too blunt to use in polite company. —Almost Before We Spoke, We Swore (NY Times)

I don’t curse much, except at my computer. The next time I do, maybe I think I’ll stop and appreciate the aesthetic qualities of a good taboo word.

Just today I was thinking of my sophomore high shool religion teacher, the very buttoned-down and sensible Mr. McShirley, who told us one day that curse words are verboten because they they disrespect God or the gift of human sexuality.

Then, in the final seconds before the dismissal bell rang, he said, “But there’s one word that’s simply vulgar. And that word is ‘shit’.”

A roomful of fifteen-year-old polyester-uniformed Catholics erupted with glee. We remembered that lesson.

At the time, I was reading Larry Niven books. He invented the curse word “tanj” for “there ain’t no justice.” I like the way that word starts with the plosive consonant, and the “a” sound echoes a reconizable curse, but the ending is muddled.

I like a curse word with a great initial fricative consonant, where you can really work up that angry spittle. Then after a tense, short vowel there’s the final explosive consonant. Front of the mouth, like “t”… back of the mouth, like “ck”. It’s all good.

You just can’t put anger in to a final “j” sound. Look at yourself in a mirror and just try shouting “orange!” or “hedge!”

No cracking consontants. No spittle on the mirror. Nothing.