Donna Tavano: Let’s Hear It For Grawlixes

Recently I spent time with a friend whose colorful language peppered the conversation. I commented, somewhat sarcastically, about her potty mouth. Another friend then piped up about her own recent language indiscretion. After a very bad, no good, frustrating day, she ended up at a big box store where she couldn’t get anyone to help her. She fired off a “Where are the %$#*x*@ gift cards!” to one of the employees, who countered with a more constrained, “You can’t talk to me like that.” She promptly recovered her own normal, more polite self, and abjectly apologized. Had she been in a different environment, those may have been considered fightin’ words, leaving her face to face with a fist, knife or a gun. Words do matter…

Swearing and cursing have been with us since the first cave guy stubbed his toe on a boulder and screamed out an unintelligible (cause everything was unintelligible then) grunt. It probably made him feel better and warned his cave mates to keep clear, ‘cause he was dangblasted mad! Time marched on, and though we knew swear words were used in anger and fear for all these centuries past (the F-bomb first noted in 1568), it did not officially appear in a dictionary until 1965, when Penguin Books printed it. When swears were depicted in dialogue print, or cartoon thought bubbles, they were shown as random characters known as grawlixes.

Most of the common swears and curses in the 15th and 16th century involved oaths by God, Christ and His Body and Blood. Shakespeare’s Zounds! meant God’s wounds, and Marry! was an oath by the Virgin Mary. There were swears and curses left and right, language and decency committees were formed, and regulations proceeded from 1603 to 1820 criminalizing swearing. They differentiated between oaths and curses. A sailor, the poor loose tongued Robert Allen, was fined over a pound for six oaths by God and six curses of “dam your blood.”

There are words which are not really curse words, but slightly socially inappropriate, like “damn,” now considered a lightweight in the cursing arena. It comes from the Latin damage or to condemn. The word was so horrible it was not used during the 1700s. During Victorian times, the word “leg” was scandalous, and when needed, the word “limb” sufficed. There are milder but insulting words, like ass or arse, obviously legitimately a donkey, but shouted at a foolish or stupid person. The nonspecific catch all word “crap” originated from 15th century Middle Dutch, and meant pluck off or cut, but it was also the grain trod underfoot on a barn floor, something worthless. The ubiquitous “S” word is 1,000 years old. It began life as scitte, then scittan and was used to describe cattle diarrhea. It then became “shite” until the 1700s.

Every culture has its favorite “wash your mouth out with soap” words. The Philippine Bikan language has a special anger vocabulary. Japan reserves an inappropriate form of “you” as a huge insult. A number of cultures, especially the Latin ones, delight in including mothers and extended family in their curses. Mandarin Chinese will include all relatives through the 18th generation in their curse. Although Scandinavia has some of the same bad offensive words we do, their most devastating revolve around religion: Saatann (Satan), Perkele(devil), and Helvetti(hell). In Quebec, the strongest anti-social language involves hostie, the consecrated wafer, tabernacle, where they keep it, ciboire, how it’s carried and calice, the wine chalice. The Dutch and older Poles use health as a curse, like shouting cholera or even calling someone a cancer sufferer.

Mark Twain said, “There ought to be a room in the house to swear in—it’s dangerous to have to repress emotion like that.” Yes, Samuel, there is a use for venting, but maybe not in public. Kids don’t have the emotional intelligence to discern where and when they can let one fly, so we owe it to them to exhibit a little self restraint. When they grow up, they can decide for themselves, with full knowledge of any repercussions, whether to be swearers or non swearers. In self interest, and my futile attempts to preserve what I can of civility, here are some suggestions for creative self expression toward the bloomin’ idiot who just cut you off.

Consider going old school: Dang it, knucklehead, son of a biscuit, shiitake mushrooms, dipstick, or oh my-lanta. Try swearing in a foreign language (as long as no one around can understand), in German, sscheisse …sh--, Spanish, culu…a--. But if you prefer the intellectual approach, you can go high brow: pediculous…lice infested, ructabunde…gas bag, fopdoodle…dim person, quisquilian…totally worthless, morosoph…brainy, no common sense.

We’ve come a long way from the days when Rhett Butler issued his final words to Scarlett, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn,” and the film was fined $5,000 for the use of such a bad word. Me, I’ll take grawlixes and the high language road any day over guttural incendiary insults and utterances.