One Tam Ting After Another

We've all used profanity.  If you claim to be an exception, I’d immediately suggest that you have never done any plumbing.  But, even the Mary Poppinses among us keep certain words tucked away for those special occasions when our everyday vocabulary seems inadequate.

One night many years ago, the matriarch of a farm family in western Kansas looked out her kitchen window and noticed a strange orange glow.  Calmly but forcefully, she announced, “Darn!  The barn’s on fire.”  The men of the household would have rushed outside to form a bucket brigade, but they stood and stared at her in shocked silence for a moment, thunderstruck that the great lady had, for the first time in their memory, uttered the word “darn.”

Considering the furor raised by Rhett Butler’s somewhat more forceful final word to Scarlett O'Hara in 1939, we might be surprised to learn how often that word appeared in 19th century newspapers.  There was even a widely-printed spoof of Longfellow’s “Excelsior,” in which, instead of “Excelsior," every stanza ends with the phrase, “You be damn,” explained in the final stanza as an innocent misunderstanding.  The poem is called “The Profane Village,” and concerns the town of Yuba Dam.  More often the word was printed completely in earnest and for editorial emphasis.   A quick search of pinpoints the term “damned abolitionist” occurring six times in Kansas newspapers between 1856 and 1858, when there were only a handful of newspapers in the territory.

We know that many pioneers spoke a robust frontier vernacular, because the writers of newspapers and history books sometimes offered a judicious sample of their unguarded moments.  The authors of the 1878 “History of Jewell County” found strong language acceptable in their scholarly volume, so long as a few letters were left out, as when Samuel Fisher orders John Marling to hand over his powder horn to a persistent Indian haggler with the words, “Let the d___d red cuss have it, but if ever they come down the creek, we’ll give them h__ll.”  Or when Jewell County farmer Sam Bowles tells an Indian who has shot point-blank at him and missed, “You d___d old scoundrel;  give me that pistol, and I’ll make a better shot than that."   

If the speaker had a foreign accent, especially a Germanic accent, no dashes were needed.  Mild profanity could be communicated phonetically, which was somehow less objectionable.  Winsor and Scarbrough give the impression that Thomas Lovewell’s hunting partner Adam Rosenberger included the word “damn” at least once in every sentence, and occasionally three times.  When he realizes that he has fended off attacking Indians with a single-shot rifle instead of grabbing a repeater, he laments, “If I had only not been one tam fool, and had took the Spencer, instead of tat tam Star, I coot haf got two, in place of this tam one."  

Newspaper readers encountering Germanic accents, may have grown to expect a bit of swearing, as if it were an ethnic trait.  A letter of complaint by an exasperated Excelsior colonist in 1869 quoted an immigrant with the group as saying, “I come to dis country to make money, but I no see any;  I spent two hundred dollars for nothing, and I no gets two hundred cents;  what a country!  What a peoples!  Excelsior colony is one tam Excelsior humbug.”

Today, some profane words are considered so powerful or so offensive, that, at least in public, we are urged to refer to them by initials.  "F-word" is the most familiar of these, but “N-word" is quickly catching up.  By the way, during the same years that “damned abolitionist” occurred six times in Territorial Kansas newspapers, the word the “N” stands for was printed in those same papers at least 359 times.  “Redskins” probably isn't on its way to becoming “R-word,” but protest groups have a point about its use for an NFL team.  There must be exceptions, but I have never run across it in a 19th-century newspaper, except as a term of derision.

In our grade schools today there is a growing roster of words that dare not speak their names during class time, but only whisper their initials.  My wife, who helps gifted students, told me about one little boy who solemnly confided to her, “My sister got in trouble for using the C-word this morning.”  My wife’s look of surprise must have changed to a quizzical frown, because the boy then quietly explained, “You, know, ‘crap.’”  “Oh, yes,” she agreed.  “That’s a bad one, all right"


© Dale Switzer 2023