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Excuse my Finnish!

When Clark Gable’s character delivered the line “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn” to Scarlett O’Hara in the movie version of Gone with the Wind in 1939, his use of the word damn created quite a scandal at the time.

Now we hardly blink at the word. It has lost most of its taboo power. And as the informal use of English enlarges its social territory, two things are happening: curse or taboo words are used more frequently and the older ones are losing their shock value and being semantically reinforced or replaced with new ones.

Curse words tend to provoke two different reactions in our culture: disgust and dismay on the part of some or an almost meaningless overuse by others.

These two reactions are captured in comments I heard about the book “Julie & Julia.” One reaction was that the author, Julie Powell, overused the f-word, turning off a few readers in the process. She, herself acknowledged a tendency to fully employ the word in its multiple grammatical iterations although she found out that her hero, Julia Child, refused to take her work seriously, in part because of her inappropriate language.

Many people don’t realize that there is a pattern to the formation and function of taboo words. A taboo word is created when a previously protected or sacred category is subverted or turned upside down. This is the reason why body parts and irreverent references to sex and religion are major contributors to the category. We normally cover up and hide the parts of the body referenced by taboo words.

For centuries sex in western culture was a protected category, reserved for marriage. And casual references to sacred ritual or names for God produce at least in the initial years of use a jolt of surprise and defiance as the sacred is turned upside down and mocked.

It is the subversion or turning upside down of the protected or sacred that creates the taboo. Euphemisms follow taboo just as naturally as spring follows winter. Euphemisms are verbal round-abouts that we create to refer to practices, words or ideas that we consider unpleasant or not fit for polite company. Euphemisms for cursing are both prevalent and intriguing. We refer to “colorful language” and “four letter words” or we say “excuse my French.” We talk about “cursing a blue streak,” “dropping the f-bomb” or “cursing like a sailor.”

It is also common for people to create a more acceptable version of the original taboo word or phrase, which is why we have golly, gee, darnit and daggonit. From a phonetic or sound perspective they suggest the taboo word without actually going all the way and articulating it. Although when I was growing up, my parents considered these just as bad as the real thing.

Now to disabuse a few of you readers from at least one common language myth. The f-word is not an acronym with the words “fornication” or “consent of the king.” According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word was most likely borrowed into English from Dutch and appeared in print in English as early as 1528. You may not realize that the word feisty originally meant “farting” and that English gets quite a few of its taboo words from either domestic animals or animals found in and around a farm.

Another fact about English is that there are far more offensive words for women than there are for men and that some of the most offensive words for men make use of the feminine in order to create their taboo. Other languages often find taboo in categories that we consider harmless. In Hispanic culture mothers hold an elevated, almost sacred place in society. This is what makes the Mexican Spanish vale madre (literally ‘it’s worth mother’) an offensive way to say that it’s not worth anything. Some dialects of Spanish make use of corriéndose madre (literally ‘running oneself mother”) which best translates to “cursing someone.”

While most cultures in the world have swear words, there are actually a few languages in the world with no native curse words. The Japanese, most Polynesians and Malayans can claim this feature uncommon to most languages. Finally, in the book “The Mother Tongue: English & How It Got That Way,” author Bill Bryson notes that the Finns use the word ravintolassa as an expletive, just as we might be tempted to use an English expletive upon tripping over the dog and spilling a fresh cup of coffee all over the kitchen floor. What makes the Finnish expletive comical to us is that it means “in the restaurant” making “Excuse my Finnish” a lot tamer than “Excuse my French.”

JULIA PALMER is an associate professor of modern languages at Hampden- Sydney College. Her email address is jpalmer@hsc.edu.