Monday, January 28, 2013


Son of a biscuit! It took me more than 75 years to discover the formal name for a practice that initially puzzled me when first I arrived in the United States at fifteen. Arrived in Kansas City. There I heard people say “Gal Dang it” and “Jeepers Creepers”—not having the slightest, you might say. I was then still concerned with elementary etymology, thus working on gunna, as in that splendid “She’s gunna git got.” An old lady, whom I actually asked to explain it to me, was baffled by my question and responded by repetition. “You know,” she said, “like in we gunna do that, we gunna finish.” I suppose she meant mowing the lawn, which is what I was then doing for her for a quarter. Yes. Those were the day. You could get a gallon of gas for that then.

Well, today I learned, in the course of tracing another wonderful word, that Gal-Dang-it belongs to a category called “minced oaths.” Minced? Well, oaths made ever so small, cut into little harmless sounds, thus euphemized, if that’s a verb. The root of this mincing is the third of the Ten Commandments: “Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain; for the LORD will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.” Exodus 20:7. Mincing is the art of retaining the emotional energy of an oath but changing the sound enough so that the speaker is not literally violating the commandment. With advancing secularization, the practice came to be applied to ordinary obscene words as well, and really fine mincing is provided in print, as in the phrase, which might be applied to my posts: “What in the            are you talking about?”

My last report on minced oaths was on a German phrase (link). I still did not know the name of the category then. I will add one today from the French—although it also has a German equivalent. The word is sapristi, usually rendered as Sapristi! It means, to translate it into another minced oath, Oh my gosh! The German version of that, derived from the French, is sapperlotti—in its shorter version sapperlot.

The Internet, thickly populated as it is by sites that enable the ignorant to instruct the challenged, at first would not yield anything, but eventually I found the family lineage of sapristi. It comes from an early pre-mincing, used in the same way, sacristi. That one is a contraction of Sacrum Corpus Christi from the Latin. Now German sites are not all in agreement. Some want to derive sapperlot from Sacré Nom de Dieu. Okay, the nom provides an O, absent is sapristi, but the sapperlotti suggests, to me, that the German form is just more mincing of the French.

Another way of mincing oaths is by the simple elimination of the holy name or names. In French Sacre nom, by itself, produces less scandal (as Catholics might say) than adding de Dieu. And the French also use, with exactly the same shocked surprise, the word Sacrebleu! Some call that a Marian oath in that The Lady wore a blue mantle; others go deeper and discover that bleu is a nicely minced substitute for dieu, and they hark back to such curses as morbleu (death of), corbleu (body of) and others.

Gee-whiz! What an ocean language is —and the fish in it are without number.

1 comment:

  1. This reminds me of some of my favorite substitute curses that I've adopted when I felt I was getting out of hand with the real thing. "Fudge!" is always a good one, as are "Shoot!" and "Frogs and fishes!"

    And thanks to Major Frank Burns of M*A*S*H fame, I have "Nertz!" always at the handy, for those times it's desperately needed.