Sweet oaths – what happened to not so strong language?


Damn, you must be wondering about the future of sweet exclamation in these trying times.

Do we still have dear old grandmothers who could dismissively declare “fiddlesticks”?

Or elderly neighbors in cardigans who might look up, blushing their efforts at a lawn mower that won’t start on a Saturday, and announce to the neighborhood an exasperated, “Sugar! »?

Or any Anglican clergyman (specifying recollections here) who, after missing a series of putts on a particularly unreliable green, let off steam with a “poop!” poo! poo ! – and even then say it in the nicest way, so it rhymed with book.

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These soft words are now far less heard than the louder profanity they would once replace, convincingly or not.

Those baby boomers among us might have distant memories of the mouthful of soap — probably that flippy Lifebuoy brand — waiting if we were caught swearing too freely.

However, it was often fun to test things out by repeating what our beloved cartoon characters said when they were hard-pressed, because it was surely defensible.

At the time, television was a great source of alternatives to swearing. Many young people would declare, as Daffy Duck had trained us, to exclaim: “Suffering from succotash.” And if we include his talkative speech impediment, all the better. No one seemed to care.

Likewise, no one asked us what succotash was. A dish of sweet corn and lima beans was of no use to us.

Come to think of it, we had no idea why Jehoshaphat had jumped.

Some sweet oaths could still get a person in trouble if they deviate too late from the more familiar and rude version. Some parents would tolerate it, some wouldn’t, but either way, we weren’t fooling anyone by saying “Close the front door!”

These days, you can browse online and easily find a few well-meaning sites that offer phrases to use as alternatives to mean swear words.

They tend towards the American vernacular.

And they are not demanding. Apparently you don’t have to be a 19th century prospector to be prepared to say dagnabbit or dadgummit.

Although, the proposition that we declare “fudge nuggets!” still sounds a bit scatological.

Perhaps the greatest gift from the conservative nature of these sites is the suggestion we can satisfyingly express by declaring “Barbra Streisand!” Probably, because she’s such a hallowed liberal that she doesn’t deserve better.

Some phrases only had local currency. Did anyone outside of Southland adopt the mildly dismissive phrase ‘Woolly Woofter’ in the early 1980s?

It was popularized, at least in the south, by then Invercargill MP Norman Jones, and was only two-thirds of what he actually said when he was in full oratorical flight. The sentence reached its inevitable conclusion in fine alliterative style with a word that was not only abusive, but by some standards, self-abusive.

A local radio station even adopted the name of its Woolly Woofter Awards, for people who had been (looking for an acceptable alternative here…) idiots.

Jones was of course a parliamentarian and within the chamber MPs risked being reprimanded for using “unparliamentary language” towards each other.

Pardon my language.


Pardon my language.

What might trigger that reprimand has changed over the years. Since the 1930s, the list of intolerable phrases has included one member referring to another as “a wise old bird”. Or by suggesting that one of them was a skite, or had bumped into ducks, or had greasy hands.

Standards of acceptable language in Parliament are one thing, but it gets really serious if people like Shortland Street transgress. The tediously familiar F-word cannot air in that 7 p.m. time slot until the language is cleared to get grittier.

In 2018, a complainant to the Broadcasting Standards Authority detected this word – from a police character no less – in Shortland Street and complained. The network replied that he had heard wrong, and the cop said “damn.”

Members of the BSA have walked the stage time and time again. They certainly didn’t hear “freak out,” but they couldn’t be quite sure they heard that other word either. They therefore did not uphold the complaint, but issued a judgment emphasizing that broadcasters are responsible for ensuring that any sanitized versions of swear words were “aurally distinctly different”.

It would have been helpful if the actor’s diction had been better, the authority added.




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