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The Word

Phwoar!

When everyday expletives aren’t good enough

By Erin McKean
November 15, 2009

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Oxford University Press has just published the third edition of “The F-Word” - 270 pages investigating every possible combination, situation, and divagation in which the most notorious expletive in English can be found. For a word that can’t be printed in most newspapers, it’s certainly leading a rich, full life.

But it’s not the only interjection out there. Though the F-word and its handful of banned cousins get all the attention, the history of English presents us with a host of other great words that you can use if the F-word feels too obscene or too repetitive or just too last-year.

Expressive as the F-word is, its shock value can drown out other nuance. For instance, it doesn’t give you the pleasantly wide-eyed, gee-whiz Americana tone you get with interjections like heck, nerts, dagnabbit, hot diggety, (or for added zip, hot diggety dog or hot ziggety damn), jeepers, hully gee, and so on. If you want an even older-fashioned, apron-tossing flavor, the language offers gramercy, lawks, lovanenty, or lassy me (all of which express surprise).

If you want at least a bit of shock with your expressions of frustration and annoyance without the full-on slap of the F-word, borrow bollocks or bugger from the Brits, or buggeration or even murderation (that last possibly from the tendency to shout “murder” as an all-purpose attention-getter, like “help” and “fire”).

If you prefer blasphemy as your shock, you aren’t limited to various invocations of the Lord’s name - there’s also byrlady (a mishmash of “by our lady”), diable “devil,” depardieu (yes, like the actor, and which means “by god!”), or the mild-sounding but drastic jernie (from the French for “I renounce God”).

Although the F-word is found in every place English is spoken, other interjections maintain a regional flavor. Blimey is so British as to be nearly a parody of Britishness; ditto lovely jubbly (used to express a delight in good luck or good things), and the enthusiastic and appreciative phwoar, often used when encountering exceedingly attractive people. Dicken is used in Australia and New Zealand to express disbelief or disgust; on the other end of the spectrum (and in another part of the world, South Asia) there’s zindabad, used to express encouragement.

English has borrowed interjections from the French as well - the familiar merde; but also parbleu (expressing surprise), the truly evocative mille tonnerres (a thousand thunderclaps), and the more pedestrian morbleu (both expressing annoyance).

Now that most of us don’t rely on animals for our livelihood and transportation, we’re no longer using the interjections that apply to them - like the hooshtah that “encourages” camels; the hoy to drive hogs and the hyke that sends dogs off to the chase (as if they needed the encouragement). Gip expresses anger to a horse (or, when addressed to a person, is a Seinfeldian Elaine Benes-style “get out!”). Even the most unencouragable of animals, the donkey (think Eeyore) has one: proot, which supposedly makes a donkey move faster, or at least makes you feel as if you’re doing something.

Although Anglo-Saxon monosyllables can certainly be satisfying, there are other interjections that are more fun to say: try mackins or yowzer (both used for confirmation or approbation) or mafeesh and napoo, which both mean “done for” (and which were ushered into English by the British army). Or oh scrimmy (used by Edwardian-era children expressing astonishment, says the Oxford English Dictionary). Plus there are all the great reduplicative interjections, like hurry-durry (to express impatience), tilly-vally (nonsense), and tisty-tosty (expressing triumph). In fact, although F is a perfectly pleasant letter, it doesn’t have the zing of Z, the zing that livens up Z interjections like zoodikers, zoonters, zowie, zounds, and zookers (plus gadzooks and adzooks).

One major shortcoming of the F-word is that - even delivered slowly - it can be a bit too aggressive to express sadness and grief. Luckily we have welladay and wellaway; helas, the Irish mavrone, ullagone, and the Joycean ochone; and otototoi, from ancient Greek. If that outpouring of grief has moved you, even the longest-drawn-out F-word isn’t as good as poveretto, an expression of sympathy we swiped from Italian.

Even this long list doesn’t include all the truly odd interjections that lurk in the corners of the big dictionaries, like bedeen (which the Century Dictionary etymologizes as “often a mere expletive” and glosses as “Forthwith, straightaway”), hissa (in the OED as “a cry used on ship-board in hauling or hoisting), iggri (“hurry up”), and fludgs, which may (or may not) mean “quick!”

So the next time you hear someone utter an original exclamation, something other than the old four-letter standbys, you’ll know what to do: Clap them on the back and cry, as Kipling’s Kim would have done, “shabash!” - well done!

E-mail Erin McKean at erin@wordnik.com. For past columns, go to www.boston.com/ideas.