Wednesday, March 12, 2008

How would Jesus curse?

Skepchick has a funny piece on whether non-theists should invoke the name of God or his ilk when cursing:
My hubby was on a message board the other day where someone was telling him that when an atheist says “Goddammit,” it implies at least some vague belief in God.
I find that notion somewhat nutty, and perhaps a bit self-contradictory. Truth is, though, that a good hearty G/D is sometimes the most effective way, on the spur of the moment, to express one's true feelings. She offers some alternatives to the old standards, of which the following are my favorites:
“Holy Curie’s Isotopes!”

“Mother of Galileo!”

“Great Merciful Hawking!”
One commenter recommends dropping into another language (vaffanculo!), which can be both effective and amusingly confusing to your listener. I will admit to dropping some ordinary German and Russian exclamations (Scheisse! Жаль.), but my favorite came from a Spanish-speaking friend back in college. Just try saying it:
¡Hijo de la fregada!
Babelfish translates it as "Son of the mopped one," but I've also been told it means "Son of that which bothers me." What it shows, though, is that in this crazy, technological, postmodern world, there are more than enough cursewords to go around, in just about any language. Try using a completely innocuous, yet reasonably uncommon, foreign word as a swear, and see how soon it starts to sound a little inappropriate in polite company. Imagine you just swung a hammer straight into your thumb, and then recite the following words:
Shishkebab

Portobello

Melange

Ensalada

Lieblingsfarber

Humuhumunukunukuapua'a
See what I mean?

In closing, I have to note that the Wikipedia entry on the cumbersomely-named Hawaiian fish above states that its name is one of the longest words in the English language. Do I really need to point out that it's not in the English language?

4 comments:

Todd Stadler said...

I don't think your scientific curses would ever gain acceptance, mainly because they're too long to say, and don't really work as curse words. I suppose they might stand in in place of the ornate interjection, a la "Great Caesar's ghost!" or "Jumpin' Jehoshaphat!", the latter also being of a Biblical (and therefore theistic) nature, while the former suggests at least a belief in the spiritual realm.

But I don't think anyone would ever utter them (or your largely food-related options below) as an expression of surprise or pain, because it lacks those phonetic qualities that endear such curse words to us. The best ones are short, and thus easily exclaimed in moments of shock or sudden pain. They almost always end in a stop of some sort, so as to really punctuate the shout. I mean, try shouting out "Holy Curie's isotopes!" -- you naturally emphasize the I in "isotopes", but you have to mumble out two more syllables afterwards, lessening the effect (never mind that "holy" is a concept unknown to non-theists). And the best swear words start with a fricative, so they can be drawn out to any length with a menacing hiss.

On this last point, at least your German and Old Church Slavonic (?) examples work. The Italian curse word you mention is not uttered in surprise so much as at somebody, so it's in a different class (that's why it can be longer and have more semantic meaning).

And yes, fregar can literally mean to scrub, but figuratively (and, as my Spanish teacher pointed out, profanely) can mean to annoy. You can sort of see the connection.

As for the Hawaiian word, I suppose next you'll tell me these words aren't English either: rodeo, banana, mosquito, etc. English has been known to borrow words, yes? Merriam-Webster lists that fish's name in its dictionary (along with other words loaned from Hawaiian: aloha, aa, and so on).

cryptic_philosopher said...

I will grant that English, and just about every other human language, contains many loan words. There's a more formal linguistic term for it, but it eludes me. Now tell me, please, when you last heard humuhumunukunukuapua'a used in casual conversation? Even Wikipedia titled the entry "reef triggerfish" or something like that.

Maybe I'm just too attached to antidisestablishmentarianism to allow for the possibility of a longer English word.

Todd Stadler said...

As it happens, the last time I heard "humuhumunukunukuapua'a" in casual conversation was when Julia and I got back from Hawaii and talked to our friend, who was raised there. Probably the last time I used "aloha" and "aa" in conversation, as well.

Just to continue my contrarian advocacy, when was the last time you heard "antidisestablishmentarianism" used in a conversation? Or, for that matter, most of the words in the dictionary, which go unused in any given day or year?

cryptic_philosopher said...

Ah, but I believe you missed my point, good sir. Antidisestablishme...you get the idea is a word derived from various roots, prefixes, suffixes, and whatnot already well-established in the English language. It's not so much a question of how often it is used as where it came from--it is an English word, no doubt (and I mean really English. The definition of the word pretty much requires an extensive knowledge of the history of England.) Loan words, on the other hand, tend to become officially "English" words through repeated and common usage, e.g. souffle, croissant, and a whole host of non-French non-food-related words that will surely occur to me at a time when I am not so hungry. Aloha really isn't used in casual conversation outside of Hawaii, but it is certainly more commonly used than humuhumunuku...you get the idea. So I still feel okay in saying humu...et al is not an "English" word based on the expected rarity of it being used in casual conversation (aside from the following exchange: "Did you know that there is a fish in Hawaii called...") "Aloha" is in a foggy zone between being a foreign word and an English loan word.

The amateur linguist shall say no more.