The Disappearance of “Damn”

January 26, 2005 | 26 comments
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Should I have written that? Christine Hurt, my co-blogger at Conglomerate has begun to chronicle the disappearance of the word “damn” from several commercial ventures. See here and here. Apparently, it is a naughty word.

Aside from this post, I don’t use the word “damn” outside of a Gospel context. Same with “hell.” Maybe because I have the vague suspicion that they are gateway profanities. In any event, I don’t feel strongly about them being bad words. Indeed, I am much more put off by Mormon expletives, like “flip” and “fetch.” So I join Christine in wondering: “have these people ever watched network television? I once watched Everybody Loves Raymond with my parents and was frozen with shame at two words that we never would have said in our house! And now with Katie Couric exposing middle school sex, I think we have enough to worry about.”

P.S. Writing this post reminded me of another muddled missionary metaphor. While teaching a lesson in German, my recently arrived companion attempted to explain the concept of damnation by reference to a dam. Just as a “dam” stops the flow of water, so “damnation” stops the flow of eternal life. Or something. The key was the correspondence of “damn” and “dam” in English. Somehow, comparing Verdammt! and Stauanlage didn’t have the same effect.

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26 Responses to The Disappearance of “Damn”

  1. Kaimi on January 26, 2005 at 8:47 pm

    Well I’ll be damned — I had no idea, Gordon.

    Damn interesting post, in any case . . .

  2. Ivan Wolfe on January 26, 2005 at 8:56 pm

    I used “damn” and “hell” in my lecture today.

    (context is everything, of course).

  3. Justin on January 27, 2005 at 12:01 am

    I especially like your second point, GS, about what happens when one tries to take examples that “work” in English into another language. The ever-present “Atonement as at-one-ment” is probably the most common one I can think of. How do you get the concept of union from expiación?

    Someone once explained to me that scripture came from two root words: scrip (here confused with script) and ture, which is (clearly) an anagram for true. So scripture is “true writing.” How does that fly in German?

  4. Gordon Smith on January 27, 2005 at 1:17 am

    Justin, That is awesome! “Schrift” is scripture, and “wahr” is true. Hmm.

    Kaimi and Ivan, Thanks for making it clear that “damn” is not disappearing everywhere.

  5. Kaimi on January 27, 2005 at 2:09 am

    Justin,

    I’m mostly in accord — many of the little language tricks, like scripture as true writing, are garbage.

    However, it’s my understanding that atonement as at-one-ment is actually true. There was not, when Tyndale was translating, there was no adequate word in English for the Hebrew term for atonement. He created a word for it by adapting the verb “atone” (which is in turn derived from “at one”) to a new religious application. (My understanding is based on an article in the Prelude to the Restoration book — a printing of a Sperry Symposium — which I don’t have with me at the moment, so I can’t cite the exact article).

  6. Grasshopper on January 27, 2005 at 2:40 am

    The OED confirms that atonement does come from “at-on-ment”.

  7. Rosalynde Welch on January 27, 2005 at 8:37 am

    My daughter adores an edition of Aesop’s Fables, in which an “ass” figures prominently. It would be absurd to bowdlerize this usage, so I don’t, but I admit to just a bit of discomfort when it rolls off my tongue.

  8. Justin on January 27, 2005 at 9:22 am

    Wow, I guess English is the celestial language! Too bad for all those other tongues!

    (Seriously, though, thanks for actually checking the etymology.) :-)

  9. Mark B. on January 27, 2005 at 9:22 am

    The only solution for that, Rosalynde, is for us Yankees to adopt the British “arse” and leave “ass” to that humble beast of burden.

    Of course, it does sort of spoil the rhyme and the comic twist in that great old limerick “There once was a girl from Madras . . . “

  10. Jonathan Green on January 27, 2005 at 9:30 am

    Gordon, too bad your companion didn’t think of Staudamm and dämmen, which have the the same etymological and phonological relationship with Verdamnis as English damn and dam (that is, none and vague similarity, respectively).

    As for scrip-ture, who says that Isidore’s approach to etymology is dead?

  11. Nate Oman on January 27, 2005 at 10:41 am

    I use damn and hell quite regularlly as explicatives. I like them. Niether term is blasphemous, obscene, or disgusting. Nor do they partake of the ridiculous lusting after the obscene represented by flip, fetch, or the like. In short, damn and hell seem like the perfect Mormon profanities to me.

  12. greenfrog on January 27, 2005 at 10:44 am

    Rosalynde,

    If your daughter likes Aesop’s fables, she’d love the story of Balaam. I admit to stumbling a bit as I describe a talking ass.

  13. Kim Siever on January 27, 2005 at 11:05 am

    I don’t use damn or hell.

    My preference lies with bloody and crap. In moments of extreme frustration, I use “bloody crap”. In moments of extreme elation, I use “holy crap”.

  14. Rusty on January 27, 2005 at 11:16 am

    Baron of Deseret wrote a very interesting article here about (Mormon) swearing and language. Well worth the read.

  15. Mark B. on January 27, 2005 at 11:52 am

    Nate,

    I just wonder if you’ve backformed “explicative” from “explicate”. If so, I can think of only a few possible uses where “damn” and “hell” can perform that function.

    Such as:

    “Go to Hell!” he explained.

  16. James M on January 27, 2005 at 1:36 pm

    This bring backs funny memories from a scout camp years ago when our troop went to the Flaming Gorge Dam. After visiting the dam, we spent the rest of the summer talking about how great the “Dam Water” was. It was so great that we had to go to the “Dam Bathroom.” Then we bought a soda from the “Dam Pop Machine.” The fun continued as we thought of all the other “Dam Items” we found there.
    We were quite the rebels.

  17. John Mansfield on January 27, 2005 at 1:55 pm

    How would we damn something or proclaim it damned in a non-blasphemous way? One way may be to mean what we say and have the authority to say it. I’ll be careful not to cut off any sealers in the temple parking lot. Or maybe “damned” is used as an observation; it seems like a fit description of many things in this fallen world.

  18. gst on January 27, 2005 at 2:08 pm

    The kids in our ward are putting together a play (a roadshow, I guess we might call it, but I don’t think it’s going on the road anywhere). I stopped in on the rehearsal last night and told a couple of the budding actors an old joke about forgetting your lines:

    Jimmy was given a small part in the school play. He had only one line, but even so, he was quite nervous so he rehearsed constantly. All he had to do was upon hearing the off-stage cannon shot say “Hark! I hear the cannon roar!” So he repeated the line to him self over and over again–on the schoolbus, in the shower, doing his paper route–”Hark! I hear the cannon roar! Hark! I hear the cannon roar! Hark! I hear the cannon roar!”

    Finally, opening night, he’s on his mark, waiting to deliver his one line. The loud boom of the cannon sounds. Jimmy says, “WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT!?”

    I think the kids in the appreciated hearing a member of the bishopric say “Hell” as an exclamation. I now have it on good authority that “damn” and “hell” are “the perfect Mormon profanities.”

  19. Mike Parker on January 27, 2005 at 2:21 pm

    Reminds me of the early Simpson’s epsidode “Homer vs. Lisa and the 8th Commandment.” Coming home from church in the car:

    Marge: So, what did you children learn about today?
    Bart: Hell.
    Homer: Bart!
    Bart: But that’s what we learned about. I sure as HELL can’t tell you we learned about HELL unless I say HELL, can’t I?
    Homer: Well, the lad has a point.
    Bart: Hell, yes!
    Marge: Bart!
    Bart [singing]: Hell, Hell, Hell, Hell…
    Marge: Bart, you’re no longer in Sunday School. Don’t swear.

  20. annegb on January 27, 2005 at 3:59 pm

    I’m sort of the J. Golden Kimball of my ward. Bet that comes as a surprise.

    I asked God to remove that character defect, but He didn’t, so I figure it’s not that high up on His list of priorities.

    Joseph Smith said something like (or maybe exactly like, my memory is faulty):

    “I love that man better who swears a stream as long as my arm and deals justice to his neighbor, than the long-faced hypocrite.”

    Something for everybody here.

  21. The Mighty Richard on January 27, 2005 at 11:30 pm

    Count me in as a damn and hell guy. Ironically, I developed the habit in the mission field. Damn and hell are pretty innocuous expletives in South Africa; you hear them from the pulpit every so often. Many, many missionaries developed th habit. ‘Crap’ will draw gasps, however.

    I also adore a certain class of adjectives I like to call ‘assjectives.’ Basically, it’s a regular adjective up front with an ‘-ass’ tacked onto the, er, backside. Today was a rainy-ass day. That guy has some crazy-ass hair. That kind of thing. Don’t know why, but it makes me smile every time.

  22. annegb on January 28, 2005 at 12:38 am

    Richard,

    My daughter is writing to a missionary who is currently serving in South Africa, could be serious, who knows. I’m intrigued by your description. I think I will have to try it out and see if I ever meet anyone from there, just to see the look on their face. I won’t tell anyone where I heard it.

    This young man gets up at 4:30 am on Sunday mornings to walk to church with his companion and little flock, because they can’t afford to walk to church. They walk 4 hours. I don’t know if I could walk 15 minutes. Or would? We are so spoiled here in America.

    Is this a thread breaker? Not doing it on purpose, guys. The only thing I’m doing on purpose is try to remember the topic after reading the posts. This is harder than it may seem to you younger generation.

  23. The Mighty Richard on January 28, 2005 at 1:02 am

    Anne -

    I vividly recall a lunch appointment with a member family in one of my areas. The son, Simon, a recently returned missionary, was wandering around the house looking for something he had misplaced – I don’t remember what is was. “Where’s my ___? Mom, have you seen my ___?” Getting more worked up by the minute, much to the amusement of the rest of the family. “Oh, ha-ha, Simon has lost his ___.” Finally, he had had enough. “CRAP, MAN! WHERE’S MY ___?!”
    Awkward silence, followed by mom whispering, “SI-mon!”

    Funny stuff.

    Fanny was also considered a very rude word. It refers to, well, you know… One of the most mortifying experiences of my entire life (so far) was mistakenly uttering that word in the home of a member family that had three daughters. I was a greenie. Ugh, you could see the color drain from their faces.

    Out of curiousity, which mission is your daughter’s young man serving in? I was in Cape Town.

  24. annegb on January 28, 2005 at 1:12 am

    I don’t know. I think he was in Johannesburg, wherever it was, it was a wealthy area. I have a memory problem, long story.

    Very funny story. Note to everybody: My memory is pretty good for funny stories, my friends always tell me not to tell BEFORE they tell me, because if it’s funny, I will forget it’s a secret. It’s torture wondering what they might have told me, but it’s saved our friendships because of my blurting habit.

    I definitely hope I meet somebody from South Africa. Something to live for now. :)

  25. Sheri Lynn on January 28, 2005 at 9:54 am

    A good test of whether a word is “dirty” or not is whether or not you want to hear a 2-year-old saying it during church. So “fanny” would fail that test in South Africa? Hmm.

  26. Pheo on January 29, 2005 at 2:53 pm

    Maybe in order to understand mankind, we have to look at the word itself: Mankind. Basically, it’s made up of two separate words- “mank” and “ind”. What do these words mean? It’s a mystery, and that’s why so is mankind.

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