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Independently audited certified average circulation per issue of THE TABLET for issues distri buted between 1 July and


31 December 2010 is 21,858. Volume 265 No. 8900 ISSN: 0039 8837


THE LANGUAGE GAME


The ‘wow’ factor JOHN MORRISH


“WOW!” SAIDthe new Duchess of Cambridge as she walked on to the balcony at Buckingham Palace. “Wow! Wow!” said Irish President Mary McAleese, as the Queen spoke in Gaelic at that historic state banquet in Dublin. “Wow!” is an exclamation expressing sur- prise and delight, ideal for well brought-up people since it contains nothing that can offend. The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that the word is Scottish, dating back to the sixteenth century. Aside from astonishment and admiration, it originally also expressed aversion, sorrow, commiseration and any kind of emphatic assertion. By the end of the nineteenth century,


“Wow!” had spread as far as America, where the dedicated slang-truffler George Ade used it in his 1896 novel, Artie, the story of a young office worker in Chicago. Artie tells his friend, Miller, about a variety show he has just seen: “The girls – Wow!” “Beauties, eh?” Where “Wow!” came from is anyone’s guess. The OED suggests it might be related to another Scots exclamation, “Vow!”, as in this example: “Hech me! but it’s lang since I saw you, and vow! ye’re grown gaudy and grand.” “Vow” here is an elliptical version of “I vow”. Unfortunately “Vow!” is not recorded until nearly three centuries after “Wow!”. The golden age of exclamations has passed.


People today tend to use the obvious taboo words relating to bodily functions. If they don’t do that, they might say “God!” or “Jesus!” or perhaps, if they’re trying to be funny, “Jesus H. Christ!”, a variant supposedly in use since before 1850 and based on the Greek mono- gram IHS or IHC. Taking the Lord’s name in vain has not always


been as prevalent as it is now. James Imade swearing illegal, a prohibition that only fell into abeyance in the mid eighteenth century.


But it was frowned upon until late in the twen- tieth century. Hence we have a plethora of euphemistic or “minced” variants of the reli- gious words. “God!” was replaced by “Goodness!” (Shakespeare), “Goodness gra- cious me!” (Dickens’ Barnaby Rudge of 1841), “Gosh!” (1757) and “Golly!”, noted by the naturalist Gilbert White in 1775 as being an “asseveration much in use among our carters & lowest people”. Even the schoolboy’s enthusiastic “Cor!”, first


recorded in 1931, is a corruption of “God!”, probably arriving via “Corblimey!” or “Gorblimey!” (1896), elliptical versions of “God blind me”. “Gorblimey!” also gave us “Gordon Bennett!”, first recorded as an exclamation in a novel of 1937, the man in question being James Gordon Bennett, a world-famous journalist-turned-playboy. “Christ!”was modified to become “Crikey!”


(first recorded in 1826) and “Cripes!” (1910), while “Jesus!” gave us two American exclama- tions, “Gee!” (from 1895) and “Jeepers!”. Meanwhile, “Jehoshaphat!” or “Jumping Jehoshaphat!” (1866) may replace “Jesus!”. Other long-gone exclamations include


“Lawks!” (1780s), “Lumme!” (1898) and “(Lord) Love-a-duck!” (1898), stemming from “Lord” and “Lord love me”. And then there is a whole string of “Holy …” formations, includ- ing “Holy mackerel!” recorded (or invented) by George Ade in 1899, and possibly a euphemistic variant on “Holy Mary”. Sadly, all these colourful expressions are going the way of the typewriter ribbon. Is any- thing replacing them? Recent dictionaries offer only Bart Simpson’s “Ay Caramba!” (accord- ing to Wikipedia a minced version of a Spanish slang word for penis) and the excitable “omigod!”, first recorded in 1961 and now common in text-speak and online.


Glimpses of Eden


MY COMEUPPANCE arrived in the form of a BMW at the field gate. An irate-looking figure climbed from the car and


strode up the bridleway to where we were water- ing saplings. After a terse nod of greeting, he delivered the words I’d been dreading ever since I started planting trees on the path that runs between his two 18-acre arable fields: “Do you know anything about who’s been putting trees in here?” An impulse to lie, became: “Yes, it was me.”


As the farmer vented his stream of annoyance, a small bird flitting from the corn caught my eye. Singing a single note, the bird bulleted over our heads and plunged into the rapeseed,


36 | THE TABLET | 18 June 2011


feathers as brilliant yellow as that crop. This is the first year yellow wagtails have nested here; the first time I’ve ever seen them; the plastic tree protectors I put over the saplings are stained with their droppings. While the farmer continued talking, a whitethroat poured out its heart from the nearby birch tree, which my son and I put in four years ago. Yet another new species here. The wide field margins, along with our birches, ash, alder, oak and hawthorn, have been a recipe for success, and I was desperately wondering how I could possibly persuade him not to plough up the trees, when I heard a third, beautiful song; this one was human: “So I’ll leave your trees in then. You only needed to ask me, you know.” Jonathan Tulloch


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