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From ‘gadzooks’ to ‘cowabunga’: some episodes in the life of the interjection

OMG, LOL!

When the Oxford English Dictionary decided to include the interjections LOL and OMG as new words in 2011, it seemed as though the apocalypse had finally come. From the tone of so many newspaper commentaries and angry blogs reacting to the news, I might have expected to have seen a few senior editors brought up on war crimes charges in relation to the ongoing battle between the bastions of Good English and the depraved, vulgar forces of Youth Culture. The reasons behind the (perfectly sensible) inclusion of these words have been discussed at length elsewhere, so I won’t use this as an opportunity to stand up for the beleaguered initialisms. But one thing that did strike me about the whole furore was that it was just another chapter in the slightly seedy and sordid life of the interjection.

Interjections are often the cause of consternation, offence, and irritation. From our commonest swear words and oaths, through to slang like okay, cool, and lol, interjections are not exactly the model citizens of Planet English. They are often silly, playful, or profane. Moreover, they often originate from fashions and trends that are designed to delight children and annoy adults. You would probably have guessed that cowabunga, for example, began life on a television show, though you might not have realised that the show was Howdy Doody, which ran on American TV from 1947 to 1960. The word was later adopted by surfers, by the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and by Bart Simpson. It’s an excellent pedigree, but not a refined one, and I remember the looks of disgust on the faces of our parents and teachers when we ran around shouting “Cowabunga!” during the Ninja Turtles craze of the late 1980s.

Interjections can be terribly anti-authoritarian, as anyone who lives with teenagers can attest (we recently had to ban ours from saying whatever! in response to anything they didn’t like) but they can also be great fun. It seems that we have always needed a word to express our delight and happiness when something good happens, for example, and where the early English might have used the religious alleluia, and the court of Charles the Second might have shouted huzzah!, one of today’s terms of choice is woot! (If you’re very nerdy you spell it w00t!, indicating its origin as a leet term.)

Oh wumme!

If you ever read bad historical fiction, or watch bad historical movies, you could be forgiven for thinking that Ye Olde People did very little other than interject. The air in such fictional worlds is thick with fie, zounds, egad, ‘gramercy’, prithee, and alack, the trappings of a lazy author seeking some easy historical colour. But while these words may not have been dropping from every tongue in the days of Good Queen Bess, they do all have a long history of use, and they illustrate some of the different ways in which interjections develop.

Fie was an early expression of disgust or indignation, used particularly to tell someone off for bad behaviour. It apparently comes from the Latin fi, a sound made on encountering a bad smell, similar to the modern yuck. There are a number of other early interjections that are similarly mild and originate in instinctive sounds. Lo, for example, is recorded in some of the very earliest English texts (originally in the form la), and is used to express surprise, or to draw attention to something. Its origin is simply a natural sound of surprise. The exclamation woe, too, seems to have started off as a spontaneous cry of distress, and it is found in many Indo-European languages. The noun woe, meaning sorrow or distress, is a later development based on the interjection. And from the longer woe is me, there developed an abbreviated form wumme, which appears to have died out in the thirteenth century. A shame, since it’s terribly satisfying when a cry of complete despair is needed.

Alongside these interjections based on emotional reactions, many of the earliest interjections found in English are religious in origin. Zounds, an exclamation expressing surprise or anger, is a good example. Its first recorded appearance is in the late-sixteenth century, and it is an abbreviation of the oath ‘by God’s wounds’. Gadzooks has a similar meaning and history, being an abbreviation of ‘by God’s hooks’ (i.e. the nails used to crucify Jesus). Words such as these have long been referred to as ‘minced oaths’, with minced having the same meaning as it does in phrases such as “to mince words” or “don’t mince matters”: these oaths are euphemistic, watered-down versions of something stronger and more offensive.

Holy Semantics, Batman!

A Canadian political scandal of the early 1970s showed that the need to use euphemisms and minced oaths had not disappeared in the centuries since gadzooks and zounds were in use. The Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau, was accused of using the F-word in Parliament, to which he responded that he might have said something like ‘fuddle-duddle’ under his breath. Fuddle-duddle never gained a particularly wide currency as an interjection in itself, but it was an excellent example of what people say when they want to swear without offending. Heck is a very common substitute for hell, as is cripes for Christ, and sugar for shit. These euphemistic versions are so well-established as substitutes that they have the ability to cause offence all by themselves: my cousin once exclaimed ‘sugar!’ after hitting her head on something, and received a stern reprimand from my grandmother on the basis that ‘we all know what you meant.’

The epitome of the minced oath, at least for people of my generation and younger, must be the 1960s television series Batman. Batman’s sidekick, Robin the Boy Wonder, had a fabulous selection of minced oaths, most of which were made up of the adjective holy and any of a range of absurd nouns. These were, of course, based on more common interjections such as holy smoke!, holy cow!, and holy mackerel!, which are themselves somewhat absurd when you think about them, and which are probably euphemisms for the more obvious religious oaths such as Holy Mary Mother of God and the like. Other modern examples of minced oaths include hully gee (from “Holy Jesus”) and a particular favourite of mine, Judas Priest, which is a euphemism for ‘Jesus Christ’. Presumably the heavy metal group of the same name thought that it wasn’t cool to swear.

Merde, alors!

Another way of avoiding the use of some of the more offensive English swear words is, it seems, to say them in another language. The Spanish mierda has been used by English speakers since at least the 1970s, while the French merde goes back to the 1920s. Interestingly enough, in the French theatre ‘Merde!’ is used to wish a performer good luck, rather like break a leg in the English-speaking theatre. Perhaps the idea is that wishing well to someone will tempt fate, bringing down the wrath of the gods upon the unhappy thespian. This is certainly the idea behind the Yiddish interjection kayn ahora (‘no evil eye’), which you must say after any example of good fortune or congratulation has been mentioned in order to ward off the evil that will be naturally attracted.

It is not only as euphemisms that foreign interjections have been adopted into English. From mazel tov to mea culpa, there seem to be plenty of non-English words and phrases that are just better, somehow, in their original languages. English again, for example, lacks the panache of the French encore!, and well done is anaemic when compared to Italian bravo! We are also short on battle cries, which may be why the Japanese banzai has found some favour. (My friend’s young son misheard this, and was found waving a plastic sword around whilst jumping off the furniture yelling ‘bonsai!’) On the other hand, English hasn’t done too badly in exporting its own interjections into other languages, as is evidenced by the fact that you can hear okay and cool used by speakers of so many of the world’s languages. Language contact is a funny thing, but the swapping of interjections is one of its more understandable aspects: these are words that are used at times of emotion, and the joy and frustration of conversing in languages which aren’t our own naturally leads us to crave the use of these little, expressive, exuberant words. And there you have it. Or, as my friend the Belgian would put it, voila!