Sunday, September 27, 2009

Creative Swearing—Trumpkin Style

As I read the Chronicles of Narnia, I love discovering little gems hidden throughout the books. In Prince Caspian, I was intrigued by the creative swear words of the red dwarf Trumpkin (aka – Dear Little Friend, or DLF as Lucy refers to him). The explatives are paired alliterative words that are dissimilar in nature, which, when combined, are always followed by an exclamation point—turning them by inflection or tone into swear words. Trumpkin’s expletives include:

- Beards and bedsteads!
- Horns and halibuts!
- Bulbs and bolsters!
- Whistles and whirligigs!
- Soup and celery!
- Thimbles and thunderstorms!
- Lobsters and lollipops!
- Giants and junipers!
- Tubs and tortoiseshells!
- Bottles and battledores!
- Bilge and beanstocks!
- Cobbles and kettledrums!
- Wraiths and wreckage!
- Weights and watterbottles!
- Crows and crockery!

What fun it must have been for C.S. Lewis to concoct such clever swear words. I remember when I was young, my sisters and I did the same thing. Our parents didn’t permit swearing in our conservative Mormon home (an occasional “darn” or “shoot” might slip out), but our friends were already showing their independence through colorful language. In an effort to “join the movement,” and because we couldn't use the commonly used swear words, my sisters and I decided to come up with our own words that could be used in situations where swearing seemed appropriate. My personal favorite was “Rumpelstiltskin.” However, I couldn’t say it without smiling, which unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it) broke the mood of whatever caused me to want to swear in the first place.

I remember my mother explaining that using swear words was an indication of an uneducated person: if someone truly had a knowledge of the English language, he or she should be able to express their feelings without resorting to swear words. That seemed to make sense. I prided myself in having a good fourth grade vocabulary but somehow when I felt like swearing, I couldn’t come up with the right words to express what I was experiencing, hence my resorting to “Rumplestitlskin!” I must have resorted to it once too often because Mom also told me that any word could be used as a swear word if said in the right tone (which she—through the magic of motherhood—could recognize regardless of the word!) and that I wasn’t to use “that tone” in our home. My swearing life was short lived.

Unlike when I was growing up in the ‘50s and ‘60s when swearing was not universally accepted, many children today actually learn swearing from their parents who often use it without even realizing the words are swear words. When I was young, swearing was a form of youthful rebellion; today swear words are part of the routine, accepted vocabulary of daily life. In addition, swear words (as well as taking the Lord’s name in vain) are often used to express happiness or surprise, not just anger or hate. Movies and books are filled with swear words, and swearing is becoming more prominent on television. Today it is hard to comprehend the furor that was created when, in the movie Gone With The Wind, Rhett Butler exclaimed, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn!” At the time it was scandalous. Today no one notices.

I wonder if many people reading Prince Caspian consider Trumpkin’s above-mentioned alliterative words a form of swearing, or have “hard core” swear words become such a part of society that these creative couplets are not recognized for what they are? Or maybe it’s just me reading a certain “tone” into the words like my mother explained. Either way, I appreciate Lewis’ creativity in word selection, and love visualizing the pairings. It almost makes me want to create alliterations of my own just for the fun of creating them. However, after my “Rumplestiltskin!” experiences, I definitely won’t be verbalizing them!

Note #1: Definitions

As often is the case when reading British literature, a dictionary comes in handy to define the occasional unknown word. On the list of Trumpkin’s creative alliterative couplets are the following, which may not be generally known:

Battledore: badminton racket
Bedstead: frame of a bed on which the mattress in placed
Bilge: lower part of the hull of a ship where water collects, or the rank odor of collected water
Bolster: pillows that are oblong and cylindrical in shape
Kettledrums: largest drums in an orchestra that must be played while standing up
Whirligig: Anything that whirls, such as a toy top, carousel, or a decorative object that spins in the wind
Wraiths: Scottish ghosts

Note #2: Other “Creative” Swearing

Writing this post brought to mind two other instances of creative swearing. The first is the boy wonder Robin, Batman’s trusty sidekick. I recall that in the Batman television series, which ran for two and a half seasons from 1966 to 1968, Robin was always exclaiming: "Holy (insert words such as “bill of rights,” “haberdashery,” “heart failure,” “demolition,” “costume party”), Batman!" whenever he encountered something startling.

The other instance is how swear words are handled in cartoons—a collection of miscellaneous keystrokes, known variously as “profanity ideograms,” “taboo avoidance characters,” “obscenicons,” and “spiral thingy lightening bolts.” Here are a few examples:

Note #3: Is Swearing All That Bad?

I also recall a Sunday School lesson I heard at Brigham Young University where the topic of swearing came up. A student in the class said (with a sly smile) that he didn’t think swearing was all that bad, and supported his views with a quote by J. Golden Kimball (1853-1938), a colorful, folksy leader of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who said: “I won’t go to Hell for swearing because I repent too damn fast!” (I bet he had a sly smile on his face, too, when he said it!) The legendary “Uncle Golden," as he was known, is to Mormons what Will Rogers or Mark Twain are to the general American public—irreverent, but beloved.

So, is swearing all that bad? Well, it must be if Uncle Golden says he repents of it so *##! fast.


  1. Aha! so that is what Trumpkin's exclamations are. Lewis' sort of 'creative swear words'. I like it! Thank you for your definitions,too.
    And I totally agree with you and your mother about the swear words. People swear to everyone, at every time and anywhere! Such no manners! and it's so pointless.

  2. Actually, it was my sister's habit to make up any words whenever she was aggravated. and my mom realized it and told her exactly what your mother said to you.

    But when I was reading your third note, I could tell that swear words were just one way of expressing someone's feeling. Still, I say abusive use of swear words could be bad.