"When a gentleman is disposed to swear, it is not for any standers-by to curtail his oaths." ~~ William Shakespeare (Cymbaline)
I wonder often about the origin of colloquial words and phrases, especially certain ones used by my family. Today something aggravated me which caused me to make an exclamation that my Mother used to make. When she got irritated she used to exclaim loudly, "Aggravation Proclamation!"
Only it was more like this: Ag-ruh-VAY-SHUN PROC-luh-MAY-SHUN!
I have always loved that. It stated very simply but vehemently that she was aggravated, and it did it without using any swear words.
I don't recall either of my parents using any serious "bad" words. I heard d**n and s**t come out of their mouths once in a while, usually spoken before they took time to think, and coming after a thumb had been struck with a hammer or something like that. Euphemisms were often used, however. Today I got to thinking about some of the things they DID say and wondering about the origins.
My Mother's proclamation of her aggravation came from a school teacher known to all as Ms. Margie (Mrs. Margory Shrewsbury). She was a teacher at McQuady Elementary School, and I believe she had my sisters Dennice and Maxine as well as my brother Alton at one time or another (she might possibly have taught P.J., Lois, and Barbara for all I know -- I know I had her as a substitute when I was in high school). Apparently she used the exclamation in class, my sisters and brother brought it home, and my Mother adopted it as her own. I suppose that an expression of aggravation used by a teacher of hundreds of schoolchildren must have naturally appealed to an oft-harried mother of seven.
My favorite expression of aggravation that my father used was "Dad-blast the dad-blasted luck!" Only whenever he found it necessary to say it, the words were drawn out, and it came out like "Daaaadddd-Blaaaaasssttt the Daaaadddd-Blaaaaasssttteddd luck!" with "luck" coming out clipped and very final. I can remember hearing this one used when he couldn't find the right wrench or when coffee was spilled in his lap. It was a good universally-apt phrase, well-suited to many situations. Sometimes he would say "blast", "blasted", or "blamed" as well, but they didn't carry the disgust that "dad-blast the dad-blasted luck" carried, and I wish I knew where he got the expression.
According to The Random House Unabridged Dictionary "dad-blast" and "dad-blamed" were used in the 1830s or 1840s as euphemisms for damned or accursed. "Dad" has long been a euphemism for "God", so either of them would be the equivalent of g-d. And according to the Historical Dictionary of American Slang, there are many others that start with "dad" or something similar to "dad", like "dad-burned" and "dag-nabbit" and "dag-gone".
My father was a sailor (in the Navy during WWII), so it really is a wonder that he didn't "cuss like a sailor". Perhaps he had done so during the war, but he never did so at home. One of his favorite sayings when he was irritated was "well flitter ditter!" This was said with the double Ts being enunciated very clearly: "fliT-Tur, diT-Tur". I don't remember this, but Mom says he used to say it a lot. She has no idea where he got it, though. I do remember him saying "Fiddle!" which I suppose was short for "fiddlesticks", an expression of impatience.
One of Mom's favorite expressions was "I'll be switched!" The Urban Dictionary says this is a phrase indigenous to Appalachia and expresses wonder, amazement, or befuddlement. But I think Mom actually used it to say she was at the end of her rope.
"Well I swan" or "I swanny" is a form of "I swear" or "I declare" that I've heard used by different ones in my family, though not as often as other phrases. The Oxford English Dictionary says that "swan" as a verb is U.S. slang and was probably derived from Northern England dialectal "I s'wan" or "I s'wan ye" which literally meant "I shall warrant" or "I'll be bound" and was later taken as a substitute for "swear". The OED gives four instances of "I swan" in print dating from 1784 to 1841.
"I swear to my soul!" is another one that Mom used that would probably loosely translate as "AAARRRGGHHH!", and be the verbal equivalent of pulling out her hair. According to Kristy Lashbaugh "I swear" was a common oath in the mid-nineteenth century and wasn't necessarily considered cursing in and of itself. I'm not sure how "swear to my soul" came into being, but I would think that it was originally "swear on my soul". The writer on this website posits that "I swear on my soul" means "my soul is forfeit if I'm lying."
Well, Mom would take "I swear to my soul" (which she had heard her own mother say) and tag it with an extra "I swear" -- repetition for emphasis, you know. She would say "I swear to my soul, I swear!" and then you knew you'd stepped on her last nerve. But a family story illustrates the ultimate in nerve snapping, where my mother combined her own "swearing" with Dad's "blasting".
She was busy doing something one day, and two of the younger (at the time) kids kept getting right up in her face. She can't remember what it was she was doing or who was in her face, but my sister Dennice thinks it was P.J. and Lois who were in her way. She'd probably tried several times to tell them to move back, because finally, in total exasperation, she yelled, "I swear to my soul, I swear! Get back, dad-blasted, get back!"
And my 15-year-old brother laughed and asked, "Just who does she think she is, anyway, Shakespeare?"
I'm surprised he lived to see sixteen!