Monday, August 25, 2014

Sacred, Profane, and Everything In Between

Guest post by Jeremy, as you'll probably figure out quickly. If you're not up for a frank discussion on profanity, come back Wednesday and there will be more pictures of the kids.

"...when you hit your thumb with an eight-pound hammer it's nice to be able to blaspheme. It takes a very special and strong-minded kind of atheist to jump up and down with their hand clasped under their other armpit and shout, "Oh, random-fluctuations-in-the-space-time-continuum!" or "Aaargh, primitive-and-outmoded-concept on a crutch!” - Terry Pratchett, Men at Arms

Our attempt to rid our home of works that take the Lord's name in vain has made me much more conscious of minced oaths. For those unfamiliar, a minced oath is a euphemism for something more offensive, and in this case I'm referring to modifications to blaspheming or other divine invocations. Much as I experienced when we first started paying more attention to taking the Lord's name in vain, I had been dimly aware of how commonplace minced oaths are in our society, but I hadn't processed their near-ubiquity, especially if you give the ones that are just used as general exclamations any thought.

The etymology of some was obvious; as the old joke says, heck is where you go when you don't believe in gosh. What I didn't realize until recently is that a large number of these "light curse" exclamations have an origin in the sacred. "Gee whiz" is derived from "Jesus' wisdom" - and all of the "gee" or "jeez" expressions seem to trace back to God and/or Jesus. "For crying out loud" developed from "for Christ's sake". "Bejeezes" hardly even qualifies as minced, but I'm embarrassed to say I never really gave it any consideration. "Good grief" refers to Christ's suffering, as does "suffering succotash", if there are any Looney Tunes fans out there. Even if you want to get cute and use antiquated and/or ones from other English speaking cultures, many of those have problematic origins; "bloody" started as a contraction of "by Our Lady", egad was "oh God", zounds used to be pronounced differently as a shortening of "God's wounds", gadzooks was "God's hooks" in reference to the nails on the cross, jeepers creepers...

And then there's this guy. Conscience, indeed.

All that is just a partial list, but thinking along those lines has also made me realize there are probably others. Some sources have "great Scott" as a derivation of "good God"; this makes me wonder about, for instance, "oh, man" (though a cursory search didn't bring me anything conclusive on that one). When it comes down to it, almost all the minced oaths I hear commonly (and many that, by consequence, I say myself) can be traced back to God. Even "oh my" when it stands alone - what's the implied ending there?

What does that actually mean as far as taking action? It's a grey area; I certainly wouldn't be the first religious person to reject minced oaths in their entirety, yet there are entire faiths (at least Judaism) that thrive on minced oaths even in sacred settings. I'm not thrilled with the concept, but I'm also not ready to say I think they're out-and-out wrong. Even if I was, that brings me back to the quote at the start of this post - what should I say when I hit my thumb with a hammer? Blaspheming at gods I don't believe in isn't a great option; I suppose the Marvel movies have made "by Odin's beard!" more socially acceptable, but it would've been hard for it to be much less. Some of you are probably thinking that it would be easier to say nothing, but I haven't really found that viable either. There's some scientific suggestion that swearing is part of a deep-rooted emotional response to stress for some people, and my personal experience has suggested that people who have sheltered themselves from "harder" profanity tend to use the "softer" stuff with the same zeal and connotation.

To that end, I do think I'm personally at the point where I find "shit" less offensive than "gosh", as the former is an arbitrarily profane name for a biological function and the latter is a just-barely veiled slight against the creator of the universe. However, I am very well aware that practically no one, including the usual author of this blog, agrees with me on this point, and I don't wish to cause discord, especially not over something I'm not even confident is an issue of any significance.

Liana has no problem with these minced oaths; she believes their use, even when conscious of the origin, represents a desire to avoid the offense and therefore is acceptable. I'm not so sure, but either way I'm willing to go with that for the time being, if only for social convenience. Even if I'm "right", I don't suspect it's a battle worth fighting with anyone; there are much more important things about being a Christian, and perhaps even few things less important. If nothing else, having examined this aspect of my life has made me even more conscious of my word choices - and that alone has, I think, made the exercise worthwhile.

Jeremy is aware that "bloody" is considered vulgar in the UK, but in the US it's essentially used as a minced oath, so it seemed to warrant inclusion.

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