When Cussing Just Won’t Do

“For crying out loud!” I heard myself muttering these words after the two-cycle engine of my small garden tiller refused to crank. I know it is in working order. A small engine shop nearby has a guy who can start anything. After servicing this tiller, he cranked it to demonstrate that he’d performed the requested service. It responded to his very first pull of the starter rope, purring like a new engine; a few weeks later when I was ready to till a section of the garden, it was not as accommodating for me. Apparently, this piece of equipment is as stubborn as its owner, working only when it is in the mood. The engine didn’t start that day, but the experience did launch a thought process. What is the meaning of the phrase “For crying out loud? What is its origin?”

According to the idioms origin website,[1] an American cartoonist is credited with introducing the phrase in the early 20th century. It is an expression of exasperation, frustration, or disbelief. That much I knew because those are the only times it ever comes out of my mouth. But what does it mean? The website referred to it as a “minced oath” which was a new term for me. It describes the creation of a new phrase that substitutes acceptable words for other words that we really want to say, but good manners or public opinion discourages their use. In this case, “for crying out loud” is supposedly a minced oath or euphemism that replaces “for Christ’s sake.” In effect, phrases like these are what we use when, for whatever reason, cussing just won’t do!

My southern influenced vocabulary has a few such phrases circulating in reserve in case they are ever needed. “For crying out loud.” “I’ll be John Brown” is another one. (I once knew a song about a miner called Big Bad John and one about Bad, Bad Leroy Brown, but never a John Brown). Then there is “I’ll be doggone.” (Gone where, I always wondered). I distinctly remember a grade school friend who was disciplined for using profanity when her language ran afoul of the school authorities. As a consequence, she tried to create what I now know is a minced oath. She wanted to vent her frustration and still be able to claim she’d not violated the rules. Her newly coined phrase included the words “summer peaches.” She tried it out for a few days, but so far as I know, the expression never caught on.

Though not exactly a minced oath, perhaps “bless your heart” also belongs in a similar category. That phrase can be an actual expression of sympathy, but it can also be a polite way of telling someone they’re as dumb as a bag of rocks. When someone blesses you that way, it takes careful listening to know if you’re being comforted or ridiculed. Some will even describe a good verbal chewing out as “blessing you out” rather than “cussing you out.” Either one is a good dressing down, but only one is acceptable in mixed company. A friend once remarked after reviewing a letter I’d drafted in response to a disagreeable communication from a denominational leader, “That’s the nicest I have ever heard anyone called an S.O.B.” Never let it be said that good manners need to interfere with speaking your mind! It seems we can contort rules and language in all sorts of ways that ease our consciences as we let off steam.

I wonder if perhaps that practice isn’t at the root of a significant dilemma in our society. For fear of upsetting social convention, we soften what we say to the point that what is said loses its intended effect. When I read of yet another skirmish in the Middle East, I think “Oh, for Pete’s sake.” Here we go again. (Or for the love of Pete or in the name of Pete – again supposedly a substitute for “for Christ’s sake by replacing Christ with Peter.) It is easy to shake my head and move on to the next thought in the queue. Granted, I’m powerless to stop that conflict, but is there something more I could do than politely not swear about it? A prayer perhaps? A letter to a congress person? Anything? How much violence persists around us, interrupting or destroying the lives of others in part because minced oaths allow us to maintain decorum and avoid speaking truthfully and forcefully to an issue?

If violence doesn’t trouble us, what about various sorts of injustice? It is difficult for me to imagine any scenario in which a person should be suspected or mistreated simply because of their race or ethnicity.  Imagine bring pulled over for a bogus traffic violation just because of the color of your skin or the turban on your head. Picture being gunned down in a drive-by shooting by rivals who don’t like that you occupy “their” turf. Envision opening your front door to discover derogatory graffiti spray-painted on your car, with no one ever held accountable for these misdeeds. I’d also not want for anyone to target me for retaliation because some of my professional colleagues’ or personal associates’ misbehavior. I’d rather not be denied a loan that I am perfectly capable of repaying just because the lending institution can discriminate without repercussions. “Good grief!” I can understand the decision to keep one’s head down to avoid the spray but is there something more we can do?

Greed is another social epidemic that makes me want to cuss a bit, but I know that is not a response that will change things. The desire to obtain a comfortable life with all the necessities and some of one’s preferred luxuries is understandable, but few ever get around to asking questions like “How much is enough? When do I not need more?” That is difficult to answer because of life’s many uncertainties, but still . . . when the bulk of the world’s wealth and resources are monopolized by a relatively few there is an elephant in the room. When the excess of a few deprives others of opportunities to achieve their own dreams, the system is broken. I recently watched a satirical 2019 movie from the UK called “Greed.” In graphic form, it demonstrates the evils of greed in memorable fashion. It easily leaves viewers disgusted with “them.” It might also nudge us to think about how we benefit from the system and consider ways we might resist it. “Lord have mercy!”

Sometimes, cussing just won’t do—not because of social etiquette but because it has little effect. Perhaps there is a better way – better even than minced oaths and diluted criticism lobbed like under-filled water balloons that don’t even burst upon impact. One creative example I encountered a few years ago involved a Friends Meeting in New York City. It was shortly after the 9/11 tragedy. Fear and urges to retaliate were rampant, especially in the Big Apple where the shock of it all registered close to home. Members of the Arab community in neighborhoods near the Meetinghouse were apprehensive to walk outdoors. Some Friends in the Meeting zeroed in on a way to help. They offered to serve as escorts for members of this group. They would walk along with them from Point A to Point B to help insure their safety. In doing so, they eased fear. They provided support. Plus, they gave witness to their commitment to build trust and friendship. I benefited from this effort one evening, enjoying a fabulous dinner in a Moroccan restaurant while individuals from both groups shared life and laughter as they described the relationships that had formed as a consequence of this effort. That response was a darn sight better than shaking heads and mumbling muted expletives about how things need to change.

A few years ago while looking for resources to use in a leadership course, I found a book titled, Walk Out, Walk On. It told the stories of communities that took the initiative to leave behind limiting beliefs and practices, and instead work to build healthy communities tackling complex problems like homelessness, poverty, and public safety. It is the kind of response that can occur when a group determines no one else is coming to fix the problem for them. If there is to be a better world, they would need to be part of the solution. “Glory be!” You have to wonder why an idea like that doesn’t garner more support.

For crying out loud! and expressions like it are the easy, impulsive first responses. The world is filled with causes of exasperation. Numerous reasons for anger abound. It may even feel like it is time to throw decorum to the wind and dip into the four letter word collection. But the deeper truth is that if we want a better world we have work to do – for ourselves, our communities, and our next generations. Clearly this is time when cussing just won’t do.


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