This week I want to discuss a very Scottish thing: the art of almost swearing. This class of words, prevalent in the post-war years, is difficult to pin down. Acceptable vocabularies varied from family to family. The rule-makers, however, were the most exacting examiners who ever lived: Scottish working class mothers. And those in the dock who might be guilty of using these words were boys and girls growing up. People like me.
The trouble was, you weren’t told in advance which words were almost-swear-words. Even more difficult, reasons for labelling words as almost-swear-words were never explained — even after you’d been punished for using them.
Right, let’s start at the bottom. I was definitely not allowed to say “bum”. This was clearly almost-swearing. It was a word I knew would earn a smack on the bahoochie (which was, again, almost-swearing).
However, anything containing the letters B, U and M in that order, was dangerous. Bumbaleerie (used in some versions of the song One, Two, Three, Aleerie) was borderline. Bumfluff, fuzz on my older brother’s lip, definitely wasn’t allowed. Even bumbershoot, another name for an umbrella and used in at least one Disney film, was risky.
Names for bodily functions, like wee-wee, were acceptable, but only if used in private at times of great need. The appendage I used to wee-wee with was (in my family) referred to as a robin. It came as a great surprise to me that some poor people were actually called Robin as a first name.
There were other words my mother regarded as almost-swear-words, though the reasons are opaque even now. Alf Garnett on TV sometimes said Gordon Bennett. I wasn’t allowed to say it. Neither could I exclaim “Jesus Wept”, although it is a direct quotation from the Gospel of John. Indeed anything to do with God was almost-swearing. I wouldn’t have been permitted to say “Oh my God”, or even OMG as it seems to have morphed into.
Other words weren’t even almost-swear-words, but were still frowned upon. These included boak (being sick), bladdered (drunk), and pussy (a finicky task).
However, the worst almost-swear-word (and I urge the easily offended to look away) was pus, as in “Shut yer pus”.
“Pus” isn’t that bad, surely? It is listed in Scots language dictionaries as a word for mouth or face.
My mother died many years ago, which (for the purposes of today’s column) is a good thing. If she’d lived to see me use the phrase “shut yer pus” on the pages of The Courier she would have skelped my lug. Hard.
Word of the week
Land connected to the mainland by a narrow isthmus. EG: “To escape my mother’s wrath I’d not stop running until the Rhinns o’ Galloway.
Read the latest Oh my word! every Saturday in The Courier. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org