Friday, November 30, 2012

Heaven, Arse, and Thread

Let’s round out November with a German saying, Himmel, Arsch, und Zwirn. All depending on how it’s said, it can be a curse (as in “Hell and damnation!”), a reaction to bad news (as in “God Almighty!”), or merely an exclamation of surprise (as in “Oh my God!”). It’s certainly colorful. It also strikes me as a little too long to issue spontaneously. It requires just a nanosecond’s worth of pause before it tumbles out. Not surprisingly, therefore, it has variants that make it even longer by substituting a longer word for Zwirn or thread. The most popular, at least among the scholars who attempt to explain this saying, is Wolkenbruch, cloudburst. And those who make this claim also think the phrase comes from farming dialects. Another is Heaven, Arse, and Chimneysweep! (Himmel, Arsch, und Schornsteinfeger), which hints at an originator with poetic gifts.

I found a great many attempts trying to explain the phrase in various sophisticated ways on German websites. The typical approach is to take each word in turn and then to list every conceivable meaning and connotation that it carries and then weaving something from selected meanings (e.g., heaven is the highest, arse the lowest, thread the finest). Some have discovered that in criminal contexts Zwirn means money (hereabouts we use “bread”); others have it that in old German usage Zwirn carried the meaning of “semen”— and the activity that makes it flow. And so on. Yet others opt, perhaps intuitively, for a single meaning hidden in all three: strength. The strength here is meant to refer to the strength of the emotion that rises and causes that exclamation to be made. That explanation fits both heaven and thread—Zwirn being a particularly strong, twisted filament. The Germans use the word Draht, which has the same rooting as thread, to mean wire, as in metallic. The explanation is difficult to apply to arse—except to say that it must be strong to have us sitting on it all the time. But the intention of this explanation is persuasive to an extent. Big emotion—and a wild grab for big, contrasty words.

Regarding arse, I stumbled on the reason why we use ass instead across the Atlantic. The R got eroded—as it has in cuss for curse, bust for burst, and hoss for horse. Online Etymology Dictionary (endless source of delights) also informs me that the German for our perch, the fish, is Barsch. In Old English we used to call it bærs. Now we call it bass. Oh, the complexity!

*    *    *

After reading this much to Brigitte, she seemed to remember another version. She screwed up her face and said: “Himmel, Kreuz, und…” She could remember no more. But I had another clue—and went to work. It struck me that the combination of “heaven” and “cross” might prove  productive.

Right. It was. I discovered that an older form of this saying—but, to be sure, also associated with disasters—was Himmel, Kreuz, und Wolkenbruch (Heaven, Cross, and Cloudburst) or Himmel, Kreuz, und Donnerbaum (Heaven, Cross, and Thunder Tree). Digging even deeper, I discovered an even older version: Himmel, Kreuz, und Sakrament!

At this point I knew I had arrived. It happens that in Bavaria Sakrament! was the most common curse word; indeed it seemed to be the only word ever used by our choleric landlord. All the cursing in Bavaria was exclusively blasphemous. The longer version in this case was Herrgott, Kruzifix, und Sakrament (Lord God, Crucifix, and Sacrament). Now I knew the pattern from which the “secular” versions have descended. One Austrian site suggests that in very early Christianity, when something dreadful happened, people thought that the End Times had arrived, that the heavens would now open, the clouds would burst, and Judgement would descend—for which no one was quite ready yet.
†Robert Laude, Hinterpommersches Wörterbhuch: des Persantengebiets, p. 164 (link).


  1. That's some pretty good detective work!

    The difference between cultures that tend towards blasphemy-cursing and cultures that tend towards cursing that focuses on bodily functions (religious and secular cursing, I suppose) is an interesting one. In Quebec one of the more vehement swear-words is Tabernacle!, which has much the same rationale as the Bavarian Sakrament! -- the tabernacle, of course, being where the Sacrament, i.e., the Eucharist, is kept.

    English used to be similar; zounds and bloody being examples of this sort of sacramental swearing that haven't completely died out. But it's not so much anymore; and I wonder a bit about the reason for the secularization.

  2. Glad to see in your comment that someone else has also awarely noted that cursing tends in two directions. I was keenly aware of that, getting to Bavaria, because in Hungary cursing is exclusively sexual or scatological, although it does sometimes involve God and holy persons in such acts as well.

    Regarding secularization, my guess is that the holy and transcending have lost their effective grip on people, are not linked to emotional life, hence are not spontaneously evoked by shocks.