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Miscellanea / Manjula Padmanabhan

That verminous little tetragrammaton that rhymes with duck...

There was a time when the f-word was erased from the soundtrack of movies appearing on Indian screens. But if that policy had been followed in the case of Martin Scorcese's Casino, it would have been a silent film. For the two main characters, Nicky and Acee, it was the essential crutch without which their conversation wouldn't have staggered past the credit titles.

What is the power of this squat, unlovely, single-syllabic utterance that it deserves to become the soup, main course and dessert in a cinematic banquet lasting some three hours? Why, when it thumps dully through a conversation with all the charm of bullets shot through a silencer is it such a hit with gangsters and schoolchildren alike?

Of all writers, perhaps only D H Lawrence in Lady Chatterley's Lover was able to pass it through the mouth of his famous gamekeeper to produce a sound which was warm and natural. In any other context it sounds like a death-threat dressed up as violent intercourse. And according to Lewis Thomas in Life of a Cell, that is exactly what it is. He writes that it is derived from Peig, a crawling, wicked Indo-European word meaning evil and hostiles. He traces it through gafaihaz in Germanic, meaning 'foe' to gefah in Old English, thence to faege meaning 'fated to die.', finally achieving fokken in Old Dutch.

'The unspeakable malevolence of the message,' he writes, 'is now buried deep inside the word, and out on the surface it presents itself as merely an obscenity.'

Whatever its etymology, the f-word offers too little in the way of modern meaning to deserve its position as the premier curse word, the world over. One of the nuns in my boarding school had a refreshing solution to the desire to swear. According to her, the need to vent strong feeling by employing profane words can be diverted identifying words or names which had the same concussive effect on the air-waves yet offended no one. The trick lay in uttering the word with sufficient conviction and force. "Don't say hell and damn girls," she counselled, "say instead, Oh Vladivostok!" Similarly: Oh Kanchenjunga! Kamchatka! Pygmalion!

Those of us studying German soon discovered that we were at an advantage. "You Schurrbart!" we could yell, "you billig blau Haus!" and mean nothing more vile than 'moustache' and 'cheap blue house.' Of course, the acknowledged master of the inoffensive curse is the legendary Captain Haddock of Tin Tin comics. 'Billions of bilious blue blistering barnacles!' is a favourite of his, alongside 'Bashi-bazouks, thundering typhoons, cercopithecuses and iconoclasts.'

Dictionaries of scientific terms are a wonderful source for authentic-sounding curses. Imagine calling someone a 'squamose spirochaete', a 'carbuncular poikilotherm' or an 'azygous narcoma'. Their meaning are both nonsensical and harmless: 'spirally moving disease-producing organism with scales'; 'cold-blooded being with bois'; and 'unpaired narcotic coma.'

However, if one is diligent, one can discover curse-worthy terms which have offensive meaning too: 'microcephalic' meaning small-headed, 'putid' meaning decayed and 'improcereant' meaning sexually impotent. And surely no one but another germ would want to be called a 'staphyllococcus' or a 'rhinovirus'.

In his book Words, Paul Dickson presents a chapter of alternative, refurbished and otherwise delightful choices of epithets available to the pious blasphemer. 'Amplexus,' for instance, which means 'the rutting of frogs and toads.' Or how about 'Uzzard,' meaning a third generation bastard? Or 'Sluthc' which blends bitch and slut? He offers 'Bigsix' as a collective term, packing into one word the meanings of the six commonest words that American publishers and broadcasters need to watch out for.

And he quotes a passage of supremely eloquent cursing from a 1991 novel called Final the Woman, of which the following is only a tiny fragment: 'See here, you slack-salted... interdigial germarrium, you rantipole sacrosciatic rock-barnacle you.' He quotes Stephen Leacock as having used 'Asterisk' as an effective and elegant abuse: 'Asterisk' shouted the pirate. 'I'll make it two asterisks,' snarled the other, 'and throw in a dash', 'And then there are the everyday products and brandnames which might easily be turned into G-rated curses. He offers 'Kodak' and 'Kleenex' out of what must surely be an infinite universe: Bata! Tabasco! Purolator! Nescafe!

One of the most interesting curses I have heard recently is from the audio-cassette called One Poem at a Time, read by American poet Samuel Hazel: 'Cursed by the father of the bride of the blacksmith who forged the iron for the axe with which the woodsman hacked down the oak from which the bed was carved in which was conceived the great-grandfather of the man who was driving the carriage in which your mother met your father!' How much more satisfying this is than that verminous little tetragrammaton that rhymes with 'duck.'

Illustrations: Dominic Xavier

Manjula Padmanbhan, author, cartoonist and columnist, commences a column to Rediff On The NeT.

Manjula Padmanabhan

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