Joe Biden’s mouth is legendary.
On the one hand, the man won a presidential campaign with the slogan “No malarkey!”
On the other hand, it was more than 11 years ago that hot microphones picked up the then vice president telling Barack Obama that the passage of the Affordable Care Act was a “big f—ing deal” — back when hearing expletives in the White House was less common. Donald Trump initiated a thousand newsroom debates about when and how a president’s vulgarity should be reported as newsworthy, which made it that much more notable this week when, upon hearing the results of Germany’s election, Biden responded in the folksiest way possible:
“I’ll be darned.”
Which, in a way, is more newsworthy than a profane outburst.
This sense of darned is fairly new, with its first documented appearance in the early 19th century. Damned had been damning people for nearly 500 years before it got euphemized.
The darned era was a golden age for euphemisms. Gee willikers, which probably came from exclaimers who didn’t want to yell Jesus, was first documented in 1847. The interjection fudge was a little earlier, in 1766; sugar came a little later, in 1883, but all of a similar vintage.
While each of these innovations aimed to avoid offending others’ preposterously delicate sensibilities, they showed creativity on the part of the speakers.
Shakespeare was king of the euphemisms. He habitually euphemized swear words and body parts in such a way that wouldn’t get him kicked off the stage but so that coarse Elizabethan audiences would know exactly what he was referring to.
In Twelfth Night, one of the Bard’s most frequently produced plays, Malvolio reads a letter and exclaims, “By my life, this is my lady’s hand. These be her very C’s, her U’s and her T’s and thus makes she her great P’s.” Recognize that, when spoken aloud, and sounds like N, and there’s no question what he’s spelling out. (“Her great P’s” are then exactly what they sound like.)
Or when Lady Macbeth tries to gin up her husband’s courage, she tells him, “Screw your courage to the sticking-place, and we’ll not fail.” Courage refers to his physical manliness, and sticking does heavy lifting here, as the French foutre carries double meaning as both to stick and a slang word for copulation. (For an entertaining encyclopedia of the Bard’s bawdiness, read Pauline Kiernan’s Filthy Shakespeare.)
A handful of writers are known for how creatively and effectively they wield profanity. But Shakespeare’s and Biden’s instincts — that a powerful euphemism can have more impact — are spot on. One decade-old academic study found that the nervous system responds more actively to swear words than to their euphemisms. That active response can be distracting and can pull a reader away from what they’re reading, much the way excessive punctuation or capitalization distracts readers from any text’s core message. This means euphemisms keep readers engrossed, whereas words they consider profane can be a subtle (or not so subtle) turnoff.
George Carlin was right that we shouldn’t consider any words to be “bad words,” and we should never cater to the most vanilla. But a well-deployed euphemism can often have a stronger impact. And that’s a big effing deal.
The Grammarian, otherwise known as Jeffrey Barg, looks at how language, grammar, and punctuation shape our world, and appears biweekly. Send comments, questions, and periphrasis to email@example.com.