Commentary by Curtis Honeycutt
I grew up in the buckle of the Bible Belt. Although Norman, Okla., is home to a large state school (Boomer Sooner!), the area is steeped in religious tradition. As a child, I wasn’t allowed to cuss, curse, swear or otherwise utter profanity. For that reason, I collected bad words like baseball cards. I’d privately trade them with friends at recess but wouldn’t dare say them aloud in front of family or grownups.
In the place of off-limits words, we had what I called “substitute swears.” As it turns out, there’s a term for this type of euphemism: minced oaths.
I should share some examples to jog your memory. Have you heard anyone yell, “Fudge!” That’s a minced oath. If someone blurts “sugar,” “shucks” or “shoot” as an interjection, they’re likely using those words in the place of a different word with the same starting sound of “sh-.”
Minced oaths aren’t new. In fact, we can trace them in English back to the 14th century, where we see the words “gog” and “kokk” pop up as euphemisms for “God.” Saying God’s name in vain, after all, breaks one of the Ten Commandments. I know this because, as a Southern Baptist in Oklahoma, I excelled at saying “gosh” and “golly.”
In popular culture, my favorite minced oaths show up in the recently ended NBC comedy “The Good Place.” The show takes place in a heaven-like afterlife where the characters’ profanities are automatically changed to other words, including “fork,” “shirt,” “ash” and “bench.”
In my opinion, minced oaths are the off-brand cereals of cuss words. The words don’t hold the same power as a well-placed four-letter word. Although I wouldn’t consider myself a potty mouth, sometimes the occasion calls for a word that packs a profane punch.
Adopting too many minced oaths into your lexicon runs the risk of you sounding like fictional characters Gomer Pyle or Ned Flanders. Some phrases are so tame that most people probably don’t even realize they started life as substitutionary swear words. “My goodness” began as a way to dodge saying “My God.” “Cheese and crackers,” as well as “jeepers creepers” and “Jiminy Cricket” took the place of saying “Jesus Christ.”
Whether you realize it or not, many of our phrases have roots in religious cursing or general profanity. In formal settings or with acquaintances, it’s probably a good idea to water down harsh speech. After all, you don’t want to end up in the H.R. director’s office. I hear that guy’s a real son of a gun.