or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Friday, March 14, 2008

I Swear

Every time I so much as mention the Globe and Mail, it's to complain about it. Well, who am I to break a winning streak? The headline for this bloodless piece about a television miniseries on U.S. president John Adams has the following headline:

The unkown American

See? Right there in a headline. A mistake even the most cursory spell-check or copy-edit would have caught. They're not even fucking trying any more.


Yesterday when I was talking about the word "damn", I said the word just popped into my head, but it turns out that's not quite true. I was doing the dishes, and lying on the kitchen table--yeah, I read when I eat--was the latest issue of Harper's magazine, open to a piece called "Mississippi Drift". As soon as I saw that, I quite naturally thought of the Nina Simone song "Mississippi Goddam", and after that was off and running.


If I ever had a thought to run for public office--and that would be about the worst idea anyone ever had, by the way--then this next assertion would be unearthed and used to prove that I hate French people, or something. And I don't, but I have to tell you: French-Canadian swearing is hilarious.

Canadian French has a few of the usual bodily-function swear words, such as "merde" ("shit") and "foutre" ("fuck"), but most of the really big guns are religious in nature. I thought it was a joke, but Jim, who works closely with quite a few Francophones, assures me that "tabernac", which is a phonetic form of "tabernacle", with the same meaning in English, is a huge, offensive oath, the kind of thing you only say when you really mean it. And there are others: "calice", which means "chalice"; "ostie", again phonetic "hostie", which means "host"; "sacrement", with the obvious meaning; and others besides. (More here.) Basically, if it's a word that can be said with reverence, it's a word that can be turned around and said with malice or fury. And it strikes me as, if not actually ludicrous, then at least funny.

Without a doubt, someone somewhere thinks that English-language swearing is ludicrous, and of course they're right. (And of course English has its religious swear words, too: "Jesus Christ" and "God-damned", among a very few others.) I guess when you're steeped in a particular culture, its ways and traditions come to seem like the way things are, rather than a way things might be. But still: "calice" as a big-deal, ladies-fainting cuss word? Too funny!

I would like to append that religious swearing doesn't have to be amusing. There is a Catalan curse that Maledicta editor Reinhold Aman (I think it was he who wrote the article in which I read this) rightly calls "a hair-raising blasphemy": I believe it's written as "mecagum les cinc llagues de Crist", and it means “I shit on the five wounds of Christ.” Absolutely guaranteed to make any pious Catholic within earshot cross himself fervently.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry for the time delay (from March until now) but I just found your blog while researching words for my English column in the Shenzhen Daily. I was looking at your post on "recalcitrant"; the English expression "digging in one's heels" comes to mind.

Two things come to mind regarding the swearing post:

1. Shakespeare had some interesting religious curses. No time to research now, but "'sblood" (God's blood) and "'swounds" (or the more familiar "zounds" meaning "God's wounds") come to mind.

2. About "someone somewhere thinks that English-language swearing is ludicrous": A Japanese friend told me that calling each other various body parts would be nonsensical in Japanese. True, she said, you COULD call someone, say, an asshole, but it would have the force of calling someone an elbow in English!

I look forward to reading more of your stuff, by proxy: Blogspot is blocked in China.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009 3:45:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

PS the above anonymous post was by me, James Baquet (jamesbaquet [at] gmail [dot] com, www.jamesbaquet.com)

Tuesday, January 06, 2009 3:46:00 AM  

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