Sunday, March 12, 2006

God Forbid!

My grandfather never uttered a curse word that I ever heard though I'm sure that he must have let some slip out when I wasn't around, for he was too articulate and too much of a wordsmith not to have recognized the proper moment for a well-honed oath. In my presence, however, he used only well-chosen substitutes.

My favorite was "thunderation."

This was a strong minced oath in my grandfather's repertoire, and I don't believe that I've ever heard it outside of the Ozarks -- though I suspect that it's common enough since it occurs in a cheer that we used in my high school to urge our team to victory:

Thunder, thunder, thunderation,
We're the Greyhound delegation,
When we fight with determination,
We create a sensation!

At baskeball games, we'd chant that, getting louder with each line as we stomped our feet on the wooden floor of the stands till the whole gym was vibrating with what sounded almost like actual thunder.

The word has a German cognate, Donnerwetter, which is also used as a minced oath (pronounced "Donnervetter"). The "Donner" part means "thunder" and the "Wetter" part "weather." You've probably heard "Donner" in English, for it occurs in Clement Clarke Moore's famous poem 'Twas the Night Before Christmas (1823) as Santa calls out to his reindeer:

"Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! now, Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! on Cupid! on, Donner and Blitzen!
To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!"

This is the one that I learned, but another version reads "Donder":

"Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! now, Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! on Cupid! on, Donder and Blitzen!
To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!"

Yet another version has "Dunder," which leads into a debate over the true author of this poem. Clement Clarke Moore (July 15, 1779–July 10, 1863) may have 'borrowed' the poem from Henry Livingston Jr. (1748–1828), according to some evidence that refers to the poem's Dutch connections, which you can read further about at Wikipedia's Visit from St. Nicholas webpage, which also provides useful links. But I'll leave that research up to you.

The earlier Dutch "Dunder," by the way, comes closer our English "thunder," which might have given my grandfather pause ... to think that he was swearing like a Dutchman despite his best intentions!

Besides, when my grandfather really wanted to express his extreme consternation, he'd exclaim "God forbid!" One such time stands vividly in my memory.

Grandfather had just finished crumbling his breakfast cornbread into a big, tall glass of milk to eat it with a spoon, exactly as he did every morning, and was reaching for something when his elbow hit the glass and sent its contents spilling out and flooding over the entire table. Each of us five boys grabbed the plastic tablecloth and pulled up to divert the flow from our laps, grandfather let rip a "God forbid!", and my older brother, Pat, whose French toast was now drenched in soggy cornbread, dryly observed, "It's a little bit late for that."

Which turns out to be good theology, as I've since learned. Even God in his omnipotence cannot alter the past ... though he can change the present for the better. He didn't choose to do so at that moment, though, for Pat's French toast remained utterly soaked in cornbread and milk.

There was no use crying over the spilt milk, however, and after a moment, grandfather chuckled at Pat's wit, all of the tension evaporated (alas, not the milk), the rest of us laughed, and grandmother did God's dirty work for Him, cleaning up the mess and miraculously producing more French toast...


At 11:50 AM, Blogger Kate Marie said...

What a great story, Jeffery.

I love "thunderation!", by the way. I'm going to try using that one.

At 1:40 PM, Blogger Jessica said...

I'm going to teach my little girl this word.

At 11:20 AM, Blogger Deeapaulitan said...

"Tarnation", "Fudgecilces", and "Fiddlesticks" Were some of my Grnadfather's altered explatives. One of my favorite terms he used was when us cousins had been in a bit of mischief... he'd come inside with one eyebrow raised turning every which way proclaiming, "Wait'll I get ma hands on them Igits!" I'd start giggling from my hiding place & Grama would say "Oh, pishaw Jack. Be off with you, now. They're just havin' a bit of a lark." - I miss them terribly sometimes.

At 12:45 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Deeapaulitan, some of my other relatives used "tarnation" and perhaps even "fiddlesticks." Others probably used still stronger terms.

Do I detect some Irish in your Grama's expressions? Or something else...?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 1:13 PM, Blogger jj mollo said...

We used the same fight song in my school in Pennsylvania. I've used the word myself, but I'm not sure it's completely harmless. I think it's a reference to Thor.

My favorite mild expletive was used by an old teacher from upstate who went back to college in his 50's, which is where I met him. He was always saying, "Well, Gollee Bill Matthews!", no matter who he was talking to.

At 1:31 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

JJ Mollo, I've wondered about the Thor angle but haven't seen this possibility in any material that I've read (but I haven't read much).

Jeffery Hodges

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At 2:16 PM, Blogger jj mollo said...

The oral culture is old, old, old. My grandfather talked about Bonny Prince Charlie and Drury Lane and the Evil Eye and iceskating on the Delaware and hobnail boots and getting run over by an ice wagon and the Spanish Flu and the Bolsheviks and 11-11-11. I have told my children about those things, except for the Evil Eye, and I expect they'll tell their children. We copy the words, but we don't really know what they mean.

At 3:47 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jeff, I do recall this particular breakfast. I hadn't thought of "thunderation" in some time but I'm certainly considering reviving it for my vocabulary as the pronounciation of the word, properly emoted and with emphasis. accurately expresses the speaker's intent.

Ann and I saw 'Walk the Line' the other evening as well. I enjoyed the film but agree that Cash's Christianity was ignored as well as his Native American heritage (anyone looking at Johnny Cash could certainly see the resemblance). Notwithstanding these items, the movie was very good. Generally, I am blase about most films I see but 'Walk the Line' was very good.


At 5:48 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Pat, thanks for the comments. I presume that your memory of the famous breakfast fits my own since you don't dispute the details.

I have a lot of Grandpa stories ... such as the time that he decided that our newspaper delivery man was a "reprobate."

Maybe I'll blog on that one sometime.

Jeffery Hodges

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