Good Grief

Learned Vol. 2, Issue 17

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Caution: This week's essay is all about swearing. Which means that there is a lot of bad language scattered throughout. You've been warned.

Good Grief

Like a lot of people, the first image that comes to mind when I hear the phrase good grief is one of Charlie Brown staring up at the sky with a "why me?" look on his face.

Yup. That look.

This is, arguably, the most famous use of good grief in pop culture. It’s what's known as a minced oath; it was (and is) a way of expressing frustration without actually blaspheming, something that Schulz (a devout Christian) and his characters would have been at pains to avoid. Not to mention that his publishers, whose daily and weekly reading audience consisted of a lot of easily-offended churchgoers, would have had strenuous objections to the original blaspheme, good God.

And Charles Schulz, by design or accident, managed to write Charlie Brown as a put-upon loser with just the one catchphrase. It shows, in two syllables, a boy who wants to know why God (or Fate or what have you) has placed him in this situation (putting up with a dog who thinks he's human, losing every baseball game he plays in, having the football pulled away at the last moment, losing his kites to a tree, and so on) without having that same boy swear. Because, while swearing might be more natural (listen to any group of junior high school kids playing Fortnite) it also reads as bad. And Charlie Brown, for all his faults, is a good boy.

Swearing is something that parents and teachers object to, something that good kids don't do. Something that we tell children not to do and berate ourselves for doing in front of them. It is one of the primary means of expression; there's even evidence that swearing out loud alleviates pain and shock...but it's bad. And we shouldn't do it.

George Carlin famously listed "The Seven Words You Can't Say on Television.” In doing so, he highlighted the everyday, common words that television is not allowed to use, and thereby showed just how hypocritical this evasion of swearing can be. But we still do it.

In ESL circles, swearing has become an odd debate with no right answer. It centers around the idea that anyone studying English as a second language is going to hear a ton of swearing. It's in all our media and, well, judging from the number of popular quotes and references we make in daily conversation, we like it that way. And so, students of the language have a right to know what these words mean, where they come from, and why they shouldn't use them unless they know exactly how to do so.

But. No one wants to teach it. I mean, imagine standing in front of a bunch of thirteen and fourteen-year-olds and trying to explain what fuck actually means, much less how to use it correctly. Kinda...squicky, right? Beyond that, there is no way to learn a language beyond practicing it. And practicing means making mistakes. And making mistakes with swear words can get you in trouble real fast.

Here's a for-instance: Way back in the day, I was at a music festival with an Australian friend. A couple of American guys about our age walked up and said, "what's up with you motherfuckers?"

Now, as any good American knows, these guys were just being nice. But my friend started to get a little upset and we had to have an impromptu quorum on linguistics to avoid an international incident right there in the field.

And if this kind of misunderstanding can happen between a group of people who share the same language and similar cultures across several different values (age, gender, etc.), imagine the confusion and negative repercussions to be had when someone misuses a swear word in the wrong place at the wrong time.

To avoid using the wrong word and the wrong time, we (English speakers) resort to minced oaths. Shoot. Gosh. OMG. Freaking. Etc. But do we teach those? Should we? If we do, do we have to teach the original, un-minced oath as well? Like I said, there is no right answer, but it’s worth thinking about. Good grief.

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Origin(s):

From the American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms:

good grief

An exclamation expressing surprise, alarm, dismay, or some other, usually negative emotion. For example, Good grief! You’re not going to start all over again, or Good grief! He’s dropped the cake. The term is a euphemism for “good God.” [Early 1900s]

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Notable Events of the Year 1898

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One of the great joys of science-fiction is seeing all the ways writers come up with to avoid using actual swear words; whether it is due to the constraints of network television or just not wanting to litter their manuscripts with lots of bad language, authors have become very inventive in creating alternative swear words, many of which have entered the pop-media landscape, for better or worse. Here are some of my favorites:

  • Smeghead (Red Dwarf)

  • Frak (Battlestar Galactica)

  • Frel (Farscape)

  • Gorram (Firefly)

  • Nerf Herder (Star Wars)

  • Belgium (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy)

  • Mudblood (Harry Potter)

Next time: The Sword of Damocles. That's it. Stay strong, stay curious. Learn something.