Chapter 19 of Prophecies and Penalties, and some niceties of language

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?

She's damned pretty, according to the Wee Frees in the movie

She’s damned pretty, according to the Wee Frees in the movie

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.

Despite the caption, this is an excommunication scene from the novel, not a damnation; let's not get as sloppy as Dr. Slop

Despite the caption, this is an excommunication scene from the novel, not a damnation; let’s not get as sloppy as Dr. Slop

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.

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About Brian Bixby

I enjoy history because it helps me understand people. I'm writing fiction for much the same reason.
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5 Responses to Chapter 19 of Prophecies and Penalties, and some niceties of language

  1. crimsonprose says:

    Forbidden words, now there’s a can to open. ‘Damned’ has only in the last 200 years been taken off the forbidden list. (By the way, my dictionary finds it acceptable, but gives only the full -ed- spelling.) Thackery, in Vanity Fair, has several instances of ‘D—-d’, and though I’ve not noticed it, so too have the Bronte’s. Meanwhile, back in Chaucer’s time, and even as late as Shakespeare, there was nothing wrong with using those two ultimate forbiddens, ‘F**k ‘ and ‘C***’. How things do change. Now even these two are bandied about on most TV programmes, in many films, and in many a novel too. Soon there will be no forbidden words. How then to separate adults from children.

    • Brian Bixby says:

      By how they use words, I suppose. Coincidentally or not, a blogger who follows my blog reposted his piece on “Why I Write Clean” just after I posted this. The historical element of the controversy was not part of his analysis.

      Thanks to the monolingual limitations of most Americans, one of the odd ways to circumvent this problem has been to resort to terms from a foreign language. Although she described homosexual relationships in her Darkover novels as far back as 1975, Marion Zimmer Bradley (1930-1999) used Spanish-derived terms to describe testicles and intercourse in that series of books right up to the end of her life.

      • crimsonprose says:

        Which reminds me of my mother reading a rather old (circa 1950s) Mills & Boon novella which used French for anything considered risky. Being at school at the time, and taking French, she asked me to translate. Not so risky by today’s standards. It translated to something like: “Will you come to my room tonight?”

        • Brian Bixby says:

          “Voulez-vous couche avec moi, ce soir?”

          A few years ago, I was teaching Western Civ. online, with “Lysistrata” as one of the texts. Many students naturally want to keep their expenses to a minimum, so they tried to find online texts. One student was using a translation she found via Google Books, and could not understand what the rest of us were talking about. It turned out she was using an edition from the early 1800s, with ALL the naughty bits left untranslated in footnotes!

          • crimsonprose says:

            Oops. And no, that wasn’t the phrase. That I would have remembered. It was far less blatant than that, which is why it sticks in my memory. Why play coy by putting it in French. So English readers, renowned for lack of 2nd language, would believe it was something spicy?

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