I admire the economy of a quick, loud “Fuck!”, but there is also the languid beauty of a long, drawn-out expletive. I spent part of my childhood in Yorkshire and in other parts of England, and there resides a rich source of creative curses. I learned to swear beautifully as a child in England.
Well, it’s beautiful in retrospect and to a word-loving bibliophile such as myself. I once bought a friend a package of Shakespearean insult gum: each little gumball came wrapped in its own, wee box made to look like a volume of a set of books. And inside is printed an unlikely insult, like, “Thy breath stinks with eating toasted cheese.” It may not roll off the tongue, but it sure conjures an image. In The Tempest, Caliban mutters, “You taught me language; and my profit on’t
Is, I know how to curse.” Shakespeare’s full of curses, as well as a good many dirty bits. I never could quite make out why the Shakespearean “swounds” (a minced oath, short for God’s wounds) was in the least bit offensive, but that’s where swearing comes from, isn’t it? Taking the Lord’s name, and the names of things associated with him, in vain. There are all kinds of useful phrases to avoid swearing, a form of blasphemy that I imagine caused more offense in years gone by than today. The Quebecois have their “Tabarnac,” and “câlice”, named for the tabernacle and chalice of churches, transformed to “tabarnouche,” and “câline.” But I marvel at the transformation of “bloody” (referring to the blood of Christ’s wounds) to “blooming.” “Bloody hell” becomes “Bloomin’ heck” or “Bloomin’ umma.” (This simply must be uttered with a Yorkshire accent or it just doesn’t work.)
“Flippin’ ‘eck” (a much milder version of “Fucking hell”) was one of my grandmother’s favourites, most often uttered when she was losing at cards, which we played for money. Blasphemy and gambling. I was raised well.
But I was raised with imaginative language, damn it! Why call someone the S word (“Stupid,” according to my youngest), when you can say that he is “As thick as two short planks.” Or even, “Doolally”?
And if you are angry with someone, why not express your intended revenge with the bloodiest image possible? My mother used to threaten us with disembowelment, as in, “If you walk on my clean floors with those muddy boots, I’ll have your guts for garters!”
Even for mild exclamations, there are such wonderful phrases. To express surprise, one would say, “Oh, my giddy aunt.” It’s a thing of beauty, that phrase. As is, “Well, I’ll go to the foot of our stairs!” Both are much more interesting than a mere, “Wow!”, my bloodless default expression with my kids. Yawn.
I speak with a North American accent now, so I can’t pull it off anymore, but these words rattle around in my head like ghosts from the past. My kids won’t have this richness available to them when they reach for an insult, and are, I’m afraid, poorer for it.