For once, Emily Fisher’s investigation of High Council member Stephen Nash’s murder is beginning to look straightforward. All she has to do is go to a place that doesn’t exist, by a transportation system that shouldn’t work, to talk to witnesses that can’t be found. That may seem reasonable, but it turns into the damnedest thing in “Beyond limits,” chapter nineteen of Prophecies and Penalties.
While my command of the English language is generally adequate to my purposes, every so often I have doubts and double-check my spelling or use of a word or phrase. Even so, I sometimes make mistakes, usually for E. J. to pick up after the chapter is published. Today, it was “damnedest,” which is usually pronounced as a two-syllable word with a silent “n” among the exalted crowd in which I run (namely, New England Yankees who do not drop their r’s — we are not all inbred Brahmins or pig-ignorant yokels, though there is that cousin marriage in my family tree back a few generations ago). Was it “damnedest,” which seemed correct on the principles of English word formation, or “damndest,” in accordance with actual pronunciation?
As it turns out, both forms are acceptable. I chose the more formal spelling, because it would elevate the literary tastes of my readers, though not so much that they’d stop reading my work. However, several “authorities” argued that neither form was acceptable, that I shouldn’t use the word at all. If I were using the term metaphorically, according to these authorities, I should use some euphemism, such as “dangdest,” which would be suitable in a Warner Brothers Looney Tunes cartoon. And if I meant it literally . . . well, I shouldn’t. Religious people would take offense. Clearly these “authorities” never saw the burial scene in the movie Breaking the Wave (1996), in which the Free Presbyterian elders are quite clear about the spiritual state of the deceased.
Back more than two centuries ago, the delightful Laurence Sterne (1713 – 1768) tackled this problem of offensive words with his usual wit. A gentleman in his novel Tristram Shandy has a hot chestnut roll into his open trouser fly. “Zounds!” he shouts. However, “zounds” was an offensive term back then, as it was considered a blasphemous oath, an informal contraction of “God’s wounds.” So after shouting, “Zounds!” the gentleman follows it up with greater propriety by shouting “Z_____!” demonstrating a self-restraint that would serve as a model for the British gentlemen thereafter.
Because Prophecies and Penalties is set in a religious commune in which most sexual behavior is publicly acknowledged, the terms considered offensive in the rest of the United States are rarely used, simply because they don’t have the same connotations. Notably, Elsie, who is not one of the Children, is the only person to have used the most forbidden four-letter word in normal American English. Which is not to say the Children don’t have their own forbidden words, and words which carry impolite connotations, even connotations the Children don’t like to acknowledge. There is more than one reason why the “quad” fell out of favor.