Author’s note: For a long time, this essay was lost to the ages. Somehow, I lost it from the directories and folders that I migrated from PC to PC, from application to application, in the last decade and some. However, I was noodling around and found an old directory from my America Online Web page ca 1998 and found it in Web HTML form. Just so you know, except for the occasional lost item, I’m also a digital pack rat: somewhere, I have the raw hard drive copy of my old 286 and 486 hard drives as well as a couple of others. Not the hard drives. Copies of them. In case I forgot to properly migrate data.
I use four-letter words far too often. After all, I have an English degree from a respected private Midwestern university (Marquette, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin). I should have a collection of words to choose from that will convey a proper nuance for my varied daily experiences. Yet, when a crisis moment strikes, a flashpoint of frustration or sudden stress triggers a certain misnomered acronym to explode fricatively from my lips. A piece of pop culture verbal regurgitation gurgles out. But, as suddenly as it comes, it is gone, along with a small serving of stress that brought it on.
Swearing and cursing, then, are brief catharses peppered throughout the various scenes of the day. A small taste of the prohibited to drive demons, and perhaps ill luck, away. Once I have rationalized usage of the disdained speech, I am struck by something else: the cliched nature of curses. So instead of calling to an end of all swearing and cursing, the crux of this essay is a plea for new, different, and exciting curses and oaths.
Before one (or more) can search for new curses and oaths, swear words and epithets, he/she (or they) should know the origin and meaning of cursing and swearing. Typically, the original meaning of the words and the meanings (or lack thereof) today differ.
The only common curse I run across, over, and sometimes through during the course of everyday conversation (and a shame, that it appears in everyday conversation) is damn. To curse is to wish ill upon, and damnation is a pretty hefty hunk o’ ill to wish upon someone. Of course, this curse appears quite often with the indefinite pronoun it, really cursing nobody. The evil in cursing goes way, way back to the time when superstitious people believed in the power of the curse and the evil eye. It was evil witchery to put a real, and often times original, curse on someone. Odd (or perhaps mathematically sound) that damn remains a four-letter word today, and other favorites, such as “A plague o’ both your houses” (Mercutio’s favorite) or “A pox on you all” (One of Loki’s repeated lines in old Marvel comic books) are okay, albeit bound to draw attention and raised eyebrows. Or not, for the Church and later the churches would point out that damnation was God’s work, and poxes and plagues available to everyone, even lowly Middle Eastern dictators at wholesale.
Swearing, on the other hand, broke the commandment about bearing false witness many times. By the time the English Renaissance washed over the isles, Ben Jonson was mocking fifteenth and sixteenth century fops who swore by making his characters swear upon such absurdities as the foot of an unnamed pharaoh. Again, swearing took an a particularly naughty coloring (or colouring, as they had in the English Renaissance) when the common folk began carving up the body of Christ into pieces and relics upon which they could swear. “‘Slid” and “‘sblood” and “‘sbody” all derive from “His” (capital H) appendages, as any student of the Elizabethan or Jacobean era can tell you, in six hundred words or more of scholarly extract. Why, even the archetypal English adjective-and-adverb combo, “bloody,” is a true swear word, whether its origin is in swearing upon the blood of Christ or as a contraction of “by our lady.”
Of course, the majority of what we call swear words or cursing these days are not either–well, not without some twisting and stretching and bending of the imagination. Scatological references and musings about one’s lineage are foul, offensive, and often insulting, but not true swearing or cursing. And the dread f-word–how can that be a curse? Who would curse someone to sexual intercourse? Although some people, especially in the nineties, swear by sex as a means of self-expression, I doubt that they mean to do this literally. If they do, I’d hate to see them in court.
Bearing those words in mind (and the images that accompany them as little as possible), I set out like a conquistador for a new set of words that could replace the old has-been standbys. With a little ingenuity and the plethora of free thinking time that accompanies an underachieving McJob or, in my case, McTrade, I have created a set of curses, oaths, and exclamation points to express exactly what one feels. Besides, curses relying on things like eternal damnation are a bit too abstract to carry any weight with modern curse recipients. We need to give the object of our disaffection something tangible and concrete to loath forward to. The following, then, are a few of my suggestions.
1. The Swedish Chef
When trying to avoid the f-word, people fudge and frig and fling off other f-based conglomerations to prevent saying The Word. The tired old f-word, available to English speakers since 1502. A taste of the forbidden fricative, a low vowel, and a dramatic terminal stop. The word starts slowly, gains volume, and is cut off as the back of the tongue closes against the palate. Half of the fun of the word is the sound of it. The other half, of course, is that it is verboten in polite society.
My personal remedy: “The Swedish Chef.” On the old Muppet Show, the Swedish Chef would introduce his segment of the program with a theme song. He terminated the song with a hearty “Mmm bork bork bork!” For those younger readers of this column: What are you doing reading about curse words? Read something of more substance, like a biography of the royal family of England. Barring that, to get the allusion, watch cable late at night or early in the morning. Wedged somewhere between infomercials and direct-to-cable D-plus movies, you might find the variety show featuring the Jim Henson’s singing socks.
The beauty of the “Swedish Chef” lies in the similar vocalization. It starts with a little vocalized bilabial stop action sliding into a higher, but still lower, vowel and climaxing in a combined apico-alveolar trill and dorso-velor stop. Simply put, it explodes much greater than a weak f-word–BORK! Espoused with the initial “Mmm,” signifying the momentary reflection upon the adverse circumstances, the “BORK BORK BORK!” will release tension as no derivative of the f-word can. I am driven to wonder if that was not the Swedish Chef’s original intent; after all, whenever I am in the kitchen barking a mono-syllabular word several times in rapid succession, you can bet that my spaghetti noodles have caught fire somehow or the cookie sheet is HOT!
Of course, BORK! is not a true swear word or curse. An Icelandic version exists, however, to make the utterance conform more with the crux of the essay–BJORK. Named after the former lead singer of the Sugarcubes and a recognized recording artist in her own right. The love of my life hates Bjork and has forbidden music containing those high, gurgling vocals from ever polluting her home. Thus, to BJORK! someone is a fate worse than death.
2. Doogie Howser
Another, lesser curse than Bjork, lies in the “Doogie Howser you!” This growling expresses your desire that the recipient (or, in today’s marketing-oriented climate, the client) of your curse finds some modicum of success with a badly premised network series about a sixteen-year-old medical doctor and the combined teen angst and medical drama he suffers from (not the least withstanding a name like Douglas and a nickname like Doogie) and that, upon completion of the show, the actor ages and receives more mature and more serious roles, but knows in his essence, that even if he is a start in a highly successful science-fiction action blockbuster like Starship Troopers, some one person in each theater will greet the curse recipient’s first appearance on screen with a hearty shout of “Doogie!” (or at least I will, and I hope that I am in the live audience should he ever win an Oscar). I actually use this one myself; the other day, when I was having difficulty at work, I checked the machinery I run to locate the problem, exclaiming, “What the Doogie?”
3. Sabalam Glitz
Sabalam Glitz sounds right, as an epithet more than a curse or an oath. Sabalam Glitz was a character on the old British television series Doctor Who, introduced in the epic “Trial of a Time Lord” episode. Glitz was a sociopathic criminal, but was presented as somewhat cowardly and mostly harmless as a sort of humorous counter point to the Doctor’s other, more villainous, enemies. Glitz even allies himself with the Doctor at the end of the episodes. Thus, a Sabalam Glitz is a scoundrel, animate or not, something loveable and at the same time exasperating. When the Didde-Glaser printing press that I run begins printing too darkly or too lightly for no reason known to mortal man or the nearest representative (me), I can only mutter, “Sabalam Glitz.”
The “Sabalam Glitz” even sounds as though you are worldly; the pronunciation mirrors another Americanism about parental lineage enough that people will recognize its intent (as if it were not apparent when one shouts it only when one has his camcorder batteries die when his baby begins to walk). But Sabalam Glitz is not that particular set of syllables. As a matter of fact, it does not even sound English. Perhaps a little Yiddish, or Central European gibberish, or at least something in the Cyrillic alphabet. Not only will people tremble when this thunderbolt tumbles from your lips, but they will also respect you for being smarter, at least in the ways of cursing, than they are. Hopefully next time they will not do it again, whatever they did to warrant a “Sabalam Glitz.”
These are but three of many curses and utterances that I have discovered to replace those that polite company proscribe. You are, of course, encouraged to create your own. Don’t swear upon Christ’s body, your mother’s grave, or your honor–we have heard plenty of that already. Even if your mother isn’t dead yet–we have heard that, too. Swear upon the three rings of the second planet around Betelgeuse. Don’t curse someone to an eternity in Hell; that will happen when and if the mean old beeswax dies. Curse him, creatively, to a version of Tourette’s syndrome where the afflicted is compelled, uncontrollably and at odd times, to list ice cream flavors (imagine that guy’s conversations gleefully–“So I was pumping gas into the Dodge when this–tutti frutti!–blonde comes up in a little Daytona and she–rocky road!…..”)
At the very least, the process of introspection and self-discovery that leads to better oaths will get the new creative blood pounding in directions that it hadn’t before, and any creativity is good practice for when it is really needed, like making excuses. At best, creative cursing will do everything that contemporary swearing will not–it will relieve the stress of the moment and replace the furrow of the brow with a smile as the inherent frustrations of life are momentary and often absurd. Not to mention it will draw attention of people around us to our implicit creativity and possible insanity. And they will fear us appropriately.