By Hugh Rawson
Gosh, darn it, and heck are euphemisms – mild, round-about words used in place of stronger, plainer ones. They translate as the much more forceful “God damn it to hell!” The euphemistic phrase honors old taboos while enabling users to let off emotional steam without much risk of upsetting people with delicate sensibilities.
It is always difficult to trace the origins of casual phrases of this sort, but gosh and many of its close cousins appear to have crept into the English language in the second half of the eighteenth century. This was a time when society in England and its newly united colonies in North America was becoming more refined, anticipating many of the features that are commonly associated with the Victorian Age. (She ascended to the throne in 1837.) People in the late 1700s on both sides of the Atlantic started to act more politely than in the past and to choose their words more carefully, especially when women were present.
The reasons for this change are various, including religious revivals, industrialization and the relocation of people from farms to factories, an emerging middle class, increasing literacy, and an improvement in the status of women. The last, and its effects on language, was especially notable in the United States. Reporting on American society in the early 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville observed in Democracy in America, that “in the presence of a woman the most guarded language is used lest her ear should be offended by an expression.”
The oldest example of gosh as a watered down oath or exclamation meaning “God” in the historically-arranged Oxford English Dictionary is from a 1757 play by an English dramatist, Samuel Foote: “Then there’s the highest – and lowest, by Gosh.” Gosh subsequently was elaborated into many picturesque combinations. To name a few: gosh-almighty, gosh-all-fishhooks, gosh-awful, gosh darn, goshwallader, and ohmigosh. The basic gosh continues to be used. Thus, after accidentally pressing the wrong voting button in the North Carolina state legislature, Rep. Becky Carney was heard saying, “Oh my gosh, I pushed the green” (Daily Mail, UK, July 3, 2012).
Darn, meanwhile, is recorded mainly in American English, with the first example in the OED coming from the Pennsylvania Magazine of 1781. From the context, it is apparent that the term was recognized early on as a euphemism: “In New England profane swearing . . . is so far from polite as to be criminal, and many . . . use . . . substitutions such as darn it, for d- -n it.” (Note the uses of dashes, a convention that we still use; up until about 1700, damn would more likely have been printed in full.) Conveying the flavor of darn it as used in polite conversation nearly a century later is a line from The Arcadian Club, an otherwise unmemorable drama included in an 1874 collection for students: “And I have an impulse to swear! . . . Let Nature have her way! Darn it! darn it! darn it! darn it! I never knew it was so easy. Why there’s a pleasure in it!”
The mild darn also was developed into longer forms, such as darnation, goldarn (where the gol stands for God), and not by a darned sight, with the latter being softened even further into not by a considerable (or long) sight. The sound of the D also carried over into other substitutions for damn, including dang, dash, ding, dog (“I’ll be dogged!” or even “Dog my cats!”), and drat. Of course, darn alone continues in widespread use, as in the 2008 book title, Those Darn Squirrels, or the tongue-in-cheek complaint of New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff in early 2010: “I’m too busy dealing with the news insurance companies to practice any journalism. These days, gosh darn it, I have time only to bill readers.”
Heck for hell appears to be the youngest of this group of euphemisms. Dated only to 1865 in the OED, it may derive from the dialectical ecky or hecky, or – a rather longer stretch – from By Hector, referring to the Trojan hero. Like the others, it has been worked into such common phrases as “By heck,” “Just for the heck of it,” “We had a heck of a good time,” and “What the heck.” It is the most commonly used euphemism today for the infernal regions, also sometimes alluded to as the blazes, Hades, Halifax (“I’d see you in Halifax, now before I’d do it,” Mark Twain, Old Times on the Mississippi, 1875), the hot place, and h- -l (“I firmly said to h- -l with it,” Ronald Reagan, An American Life, 1990). The term may also be abbreviated G.T.H., meaning “Go To Hell,” and more quaintly, typically by children, H.E. double toothpicks.
Hell appears in print nowadays more often than in the past. As far back as 1948, President Harry S. Truman’s campaign slogan was “give them hell,” and Matt Groening, creator of “The Simpsons,” kept his cartoon strip, “Life in Hell,” going for more than thirty years (1978-2012). High standards of politeness are still maintained in some circles, however. Thus, the radical activist Abbie Hoffman wrote a book entitled Revolution for the Hell of It, but after his death in 1989 the Newark, N.J., Star-Ledger referred to this work as Revolution for the Heck of It.
Heck frequently crops up in newspaper headlines, editors apparently regarding it as an eye-catcher, e.g., “Is Our Language Going to Heck?” (Danbury, Conn., Express Line, Nov. 21, 1992) and“Raising Children Is Heck” (New York Times, May 22, 2011). Public figures also tend to lean on it when speaking publicly. President George W. Bush told his emergency management director in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 that “you’re doing a heck of a job,” which was so far from the case that Mr. Bush himself caught a lot of heck. President Barack Obama slipped into the same construction in 2010, saying his secretary of the treasury had done “a heck of job,” but the words were barely out of his mouth when, appreciating the unfortunate parallel with his predecessor’s remark, he backtracked with a joking “Pun intended.”
Heck may also be substituted for even “worse” words. Summarizing the career of Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple Computers, The New York Times cited approvingly the headline used by the satirical online newspaper The Onion in its report on Mr. Jobs’ death in 2011. Not wanting to upset its readers, however, the Times replaced the forceful, four-letter expletive used by The Onion, so that the modified headline read: “Last American Who Knew What the Heck He Was Doing Dies.”
Old taboos die hard.