10 Old-Fashioned Swears to Spice up Your Cussin'

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People just don't swear like they used to. As long ago as 1944, H.L. Mencken, the great observer of American language, sadly noted that cursing had been on the decline since the Civil War, and that while there was still obscenity, "it is all based upon one or two four-letter words and their derivatives, and there is little true profanity in it."

Taboos against what we would today consider pretty mild exclamations like "damn!" "hell!" and "Jesus Christ!" led the swearers of years past to come up with creative substitutions that gave them some measure of emotional release while keeping within the bounds of propriety. These substitutions are called "minced oaths," and they've left their mark on our vocabulary. Gosh, gee, golly, dagnamit, darn, drat, gadzooks, zounds, heck, and cripes are all minced oaths that are still around to charm us with their innocent old-timey ring. But there are others you may not have heard of. They could come in handy when you get tired of ho-hum obscenity and want something with a little more profane zing.

1. Bejabbers!

A substitute for "by Jesus!" that is similar to "bejesus!" but jabbier. An Irish import, along the lines of "faith and begorrah!" Especially good for toe-stubbing.

2. Consarn!

A substitute for "goddamn." From an 1854 Dictionary of Northamptonshire words: "Consarn you! If you don't mind what you're about I'll give it to you!" Slow down and hit both syllables equally hard, and it's like squeezing a stress ball.

3. Dad-Sizzle!

Another "goddamn" form. "Well, dad-sizzle it!" was one way to show you meant business. There were a whole range of "dad" forms, from "dadgum" to dad-blast, dad-seize, dad-rat, dad-swamp, and many more. This one sounds surprisingly modern, like something Snoop Dogg (Snoop Lion?) might come up with.

4. Thunderation!

A substitute for "damnation," similar to "tarnation" and "botheration." WTF is so tired. Try "What in thunderation?" instead.

5. Great Horn Spoon!

Something you can swear by, used in a way similar to "by God!" It seems to have come from seafaring slang, and might refer to the Big Dipper. But you don't need to know the origin to find it useful. Today the strange randomness of the words makes it feel mystically satisfying to shout.

6. 'Snails!

A shortening of "by God's nails!" This kind of shortening also gave us "zounds!" (God's wounds), "Gadzooks!" (God's hooks), "strewth!" (God's truth), and "ods bodikins!" (God's little body). If you yell it thinking of actual snails instead, it's less profane, but more adorable.

7. Gosh-all-Potomac!

This one goes along with the rest of the "gosh all" family: goshamighty, gosh-all-hemlock, gosh all fish-hooks, etc. "Gosh all Potomac" is the earliest one attested in the Dictionary of American English on Historical Principles, and it's about time we brought it back.

8. G. Rover Cripes!

One of the minced oaths that approximate the sounds in "Jesus Christ!" it uses all the strategies found elsewhere: the "gee" sound (Gee! Jeepers! Jeez!), the middle name (Jesus H. Particular Christ!), and the "cr" sound (Crikey! Criminy! Cracky! Christmas!).

9. By St. Boogar and all the saints at the backside door of purgatory!

There is no St. Boogar. This is a line from Sterne's Tristram Shandy, considered by scholars to have a homoerotic subtext. Let it fly with pride!

10. By the double-barrelled jumping jiminetty!

It's too bad the tradition of productive, long "by the" swears has fallen out of fashion. You could load enough crazy-sounding nonsense on there to really scare your kids into cleaning their rooms.

Why 'Run' Is The Most Complex Word in the English Language

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iStock.com/VectorStory

English can be hard for other language speakers to learn. To use just one example, there are at least eight different ways of expressing events in the future, and conditional tenses are another matter entirely. For evidence of the many nuances and inconsistencies of the English tongue, look no further than this tricky poem penned in 1920. (For a sample: “Hiccough has the sound of cup. My advice is to give up!”)

As author Simon Winchester wrote for The New York Times, there’s one English word in particular that’s deceptively simple: run. As a verb, it boasts a record-setting 645 definitions. Peter Gilliver, a lexicographer and associate editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, spent nine months sussing out its many shades of meaning.

“You might think this word simply means ‘to go with quick steps on alternate feet, never having both or (in the case of many animals) all feet on the ground at the same time,’” Winchester writes. “But no such luck: that is merely sense I.1a, and there are miles to go before the reader of this particular entry may sleep.”

This wasn’t always the case, though. When the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary was published in 1928, the word with the most definitions was set. However, the word put later outpaced it, and run eventually overtook them both as the English language's most complex word. Winchester thinks this evolution is partly due to advancements in technology (for instance, “a train runs on tracks” and “an iPad runs apps”).

He believes the widespread use of run—and its intricate web of meanings—is also a reflection of our times. “It is a feature of our more sort of energetic and frantic times that set and put seem, in a peculiar way, sort of rather stodgy, rather conservative,” Gilliver told NPR in an interview.

So the next time you tell your boss you "want to run an idea" by them, know that you’re unconsciously expressing your enthusiasm—as well as all the other subtleties wrapped up in run that previous words like set failed to capture.

[h/t The New York Times]

11 Little-Known Words for Specific Family Members

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iStock.com/kali9

The words we use for family members in English are specific about some things, and vague about others. Our vocabulary marks a distinction between our mother and her sisters (some languages use one word for mother and maternal aunts), but doesn't say whether siblings are older or younger (some languages have different words for brother and sister depending on their age relative to you). We lack words that pick out particular family members (we have cousin, but what about child-of-my-father's-brother?) as well as certain general terms (we have siblings for brothers-and-sisters, but what about nieces-and-nephews?)

If you look hard enough, you can find some words to help fill in the gaps. Here are 11 unusual English kinship words for family members.

1. Patruel

This one means "child of your paternal uncle." Also, a child of your own brother. It hasn't gotten a lot of use in the past few centuries, but it was once convenient to have a term for this relationship because it factored into royal succession considerations. The first citation for it in the OED, from 1538, reads, "Efter his patruell deid withoutin contradictioun he wes king."

2. Avuncle

Your mother's brother. Latin distinguished between patruus, father's brother, and avunculus, mother's brother. (There was also amita, father's sister, and matertera, mother's sister.) It's the root of the word avuncular, meaning "having to do with uncles" or "uncle-like" (i.e., kind and friendly, like an uncle). You won't find the word avuncle in the dictionary, but it has been used in anthropology texts and in papers concerning royal matters.

3. Niblings

Your nieces and nephews. You won't find this in the dictionary either, but use of this term seems to be growing among favorite aunts and uncles who want an easy way to refer to their little bundles of sibling-provided joy in a collective or gender-neutral way.

4. Fadu

Your father's sister. Latin amita covers this relationship, but we don't have to reach that far back to find an English equivalent. Old English made a distinction between aunts and uncles depending on whether they were maternal or paternal. We lost all that when we borrowed the more general aunt and uncle from French.

5. Modrige

"Your mother's sister," from Old English.

6. Fœdra

"Your father's brother," from Old English.

7. Eam

Your mother's brother. It survived in some dialects as eme, with a more general meaning of uncle or friend, into the 19th century.

8. Brother-uterine

Your half-brother from the same mother. This is a term used in old legal documents or other discussions of inheritance and succession. Half-siblings of the same mother are uterine and of the same father are consanguine.

9. Brother-german

Full brother, sharing both parents. Nothing to do with Germany. The german here is related to germane, which originally meant "of the same parents" and later came to mean just related or relevant.

10. Double cousin

Full first cousin, sharing all four grandparents. This comes about when a pair of sisters marries a pair of brothers, among other circumstances.

11. Machetonim

The parents of your child's spouse. Your child's in-laws. Ok, this is a Yiddish word, but one that, like a lot of Yiddish words, has poked its way into English because it fills a gap. When it comes to marriage, this can be a very important relationship, so it’s good to have a word for it. If your parents get along with their machetonim, the family—the whole mishpocheh—will be happier.

This story was republished in 2019.

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