lalita larking

An obsession with cryptic crosswords. Everything else falls in place.

Location: Kolkata, India

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

My Experiments with Strewth!

There are some incidents in our lives that shape our thinking and how we act; they change the way we see things, and turn us into the people we are.

I grew up in a family that didn't swear. As with discovering tea and coffee, I discovered slang and swearing in college. At college, I learnt the stock words and phrases that comprise the vocabulary of collegiate speech, and took to using them myself, if not at home, among my circle of friends.

But I was pulled up short and stopped to think about it once. In those days, I used to be a member of a lending library called Pastime. I used to share cups of tea and chat with the owner. Once, I'd advanced an argument about some book and added the cool phrase, dash it. He took his jeweller's loupe out of his eye (repairing timepieces was his hobby), and looked at me curiously. Why say dash it, Lali, he inquired mildly. Why not say what the dash was about?

I floundered. I had no idea what the dash was about. I was just speaking the language of my peers. He then elucidated that 'dash' was a substituted expletive. (Bleep! I didn't know that.) Saying 'dash it' wasn't any better than saying the curseword or profanity itself, was it, he asked.

Taking recourse to swear words to express irritation or annoyance is something we all do, after all. We swear to shock, we swear for emphasis, too. Our speech is usually peppered with interjections, exclamations and the current cool phrases.

Words that would never be uttered in polite society once are now so common that we don't remember the original taboo on them. Time and mores weaken the sting of some words and phrases, and some fall into disuse and fade from our collective consciousness. There was a time saying 'Od's Blood' was blaspheming, who but readers of medieval literature know the phrase or its meaning now? There was a time when publishers would cut a 'damn' whereas books these days are full of profanities. Words that used to be bleeped out in broadcasts feature as titles of song albums now.

Writers of fantasy novels give authenticity and character to their created worlds by inventing a set of exclamations and expletives for them. Asimov's Elijah Bailey exclaims "Jehoshaphat!" Foundation series characters say "Galaxy!"

Robert Jordan's Nynaeve mutters "Light!" or Mat Cauthon swears "Blood and bloody Ashes!" In that world, 'flaming' is a common expletive.

Anne McCaffrey's dragonriders swear by the First Egg and exclaim "Shards!"

In Watership Down, Fiver effectively grabs the attention of his friends with what to them is a shocking impiety, "Embleer Frith!"

Larry Niven's characters in Integral Trees say 'Treefodder!' and 'Feed it to the tree'. Niven uses the phenomenon of acronyms becoming words and his characters in Known Space novels say 'tanj' (There Ain't No Justice) as an expletive. Also, he speculates that as religion stops being a major force, that there might be a church of Finagle, whose prophet is Murphy.

But after that conversation, I couldn't bring myself to utter casual expletives. So my speech turned mild. But speech needs some interjections, so I developed my own. I say 'good grief' a lot.

From my husband, I picked up saying 'strewth', but not exclaiming 'good Lord'. For an atheist to say 'good Lord' is a bit silly, anyhow. Why bring theoretical places of afterlife into conversation? So I don't say 'hell' or 'good heavens' either. And cured of euphemisms, I don't even say 'heck' and the only time I'd say 'flipping' is when I am talking of omelettes or dosas. As for that good old Anglo-Saxon word which ought to be paid extra every time it is used as an exclamation, interjection and adjective, I think the only time it should be used is between two consenting adults.

Even so, sometimes there arises a need to express oneself forcefully. So I borrow Nanny Ogg's expression and say, "I'll be mogadored!" and it is truth too, as cats do seem to like me.



Anonymous Non Sequitur Man said...

'Tis truth, what a struthious attitude you adopt about swearing!

8:09 pm  
Blogger Anand said...

Egad Lali!

9:22 pm  
Anonymous Ash said...

Flabberghasted, I am. What the dooce? Are you saying you don't swear at all? That's a bit far-fetched, Lali. And your word verification is rather irksome, if I may say so.

11:29 pm  
Anonymous dipali said...

My father's worst abuse was calling someone a 'gadhey ka bachcha'(offspring of a donkey).
Was so thrilled to discover the word 'shit', probably in class VII, in school. Favourite joke from that era was about the constipated Red Indian chief and the medicine man (Big Chief no shit etc). But smutty language is tedious, unimaginative and irritating, especially the word which deserves but doesn't get paid overtime!

5:32 am  
Blogger Lalita said...

NSM- That was a very 'sequitur' remark, actually. Yes I am struthious, so what?

Anand- My dear sir! Such language! Tut tut.

Ash- Far-fetched it may sound, I can't help it. What's with the dooce, by the way? And yes, I find it irksome too, but it stays.

Dipali- Discovering swearing is a rite of passage, perhaps. But if we paid words like Humpty Dumpty, that poor word needs to be paid overtime wages.

1:09 pm  
Blogger Priya said...

A thousand blistering barnacles! A post, what a post! ;-)

2:31 pm  
Blogger J. Alfred Prufrock said...

No swearing at all? Gadzooks! Such a terribly repressed outlook, ma'm. One day the pressure will blow the lid right off and then ...

Once read a Readers' Digest piece on swearing without profanity / obscenity. One example was "You are a miscegenation of the worst qualities of the ghetto and the stock exchange". Lacks a certain zing, wouldn't you say? (What, a stock exchange has a family tree?!)


3:39 pm  
Anonymous dipali said...

The stock exchange, post budget, deserves all the swear words it is sure to be getting!
Of course, once I actually saw the offspring of a donkey I found it incredibly charming, so no way could it be a term of abuse! Neither the other Hindi charmer- sooar ka baccha.

5:30 pm  
Anonymous Prophet of Doom said...

Nice one .. my fav. happens to be, "Kuttey, tera khoon pe jaaonga ..".. lol, dunno why !

7:17 pm  
Anonymous Tivi said...

I had posted a comment before but the word verification must have decided I am illiterate or blind!
My first boss would rant & rage but always went on about gray matter between the ears rather than call someone an idiot

8:13 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

And none of your commenters seem to have noticed the first para. Or the usage 'casual expletives'. Interesting post, lady. Go check your mail, by the way.

Secret admirer

9:30 pm  
Blogger Lalita said...

Priya- Billions of blistering blue barnacles, she commented. Frabjous day!

J.A.P.-The pressure cooker steam is released via 'Finagle!' and Murphy's Law, I say! nicely, thank you. And, thank you kindly sir, I didn't know you read pore ole moi. Much gratified, we is.

Dipali- Yo lady, let's leave animals out of this, shall we? Tee hee. Creative invective doesn't need to resort to comparisons with animals, they are blameless, after all.

Ram- Umm, it is casual obsceneties or profanities I was talking about, not specific oaths. But that is a good one I agree, with the hero screwing up his face in a paroxysm of rage and vengence and all that.

Tivi- Your first boss sounds like he read his Wodehouse and Christie, heh. Much joy in being nasty about intellectual capacity than making snide remarks about parentage, anyhow.

Anon- That doesn't signify, like Reverend Dodgson says. Get a name.

10:17 pm  
Blogger Nilu said...

Now I know. The French Revolution. Calcutta. T.Nagar.

3:49 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

it is vey difficult for today's generation to control using bad language. when you hear them saying sorry for uttering some words, i do feel evevn sorry is one of those words! thank God for those good old days! you know how to control your tongue if you have been teaching 4 year old for past 15 odd years! - kavita

5:39 pm  
Blogger Lalita said...

Nilu- Is it as a noun or adjective that the term you are evoking should be taken? The Marxist thought or the other definition?

Kavi- I know. Sorry is another word that needs overtime wages. It's strange that people think saying 'sorry, but' allows them to say offensive things. If they meant that 'sorry' they wouldn't say it at all, right? And when I hear a twenty-something say 'shut up' to a person some thirty years senior, I just despair for the younger generation. It is not about manners, it is about restraint. Words once said can't be taken back, after all.

7:54 pm  
Blogger Revealed said...

I say My Goodness :). And then someone asked me what it meant and I have to confess I was baffled. What does it mean?

2:38 am  
Blogger Lalita said...

Revealed- I am tempted to reply, 'damned if I know' but I am refraining, since as I was saying, I don't swear. :-)

5:59 pm  
Blogger Revealed said...

*meekly suggests Strewthed if I Know as an alternative*

3:23 am  
Blogger Lalita said...

Revealed- Touche. I will adopt that from now on. :-)

9:47 am  
Blogger Alien said...

I can only wish that I had as much a way with words as you do... a bit of prolificacy if nothing else....

As regards the swear words... I do distinctly remember the times when the choicest Hindi expletives had become punctuations, courtesy punju and other Hindi speaking natives that I was surrounded with then... twas only later that I realised they were just an inability to express myself and I was quite glad when I was able to leave such words behind. Now they seem more of a distant memory and when I hear people repeat the same mistakes, I silently smile... been there, done that? Probably....

7:17 pm  
Blogger Lalita said...

Alien- ET, being nasty creatively requires some proficiency with words, I agree. It is easy to refer to parentage and call names, but it requires artistry to be cutting while being polite. Tee hee.

10:46 pm  

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