January 01, 2007

Conventionalized oaths

It's a commonplace that taboo vocabulary arises from reference to subjects that are culturally taboo, but then becomes conventionalized.  Eventually, people use the words without a thought to their origins or literal meanings; they're just words.

Case in point:  Jennifer Gilmore's report on her family's Christmas celebration, in the New York Times Magazine "Lives" column of 12/24/06, "Jewish Family Christmas":

My father, who is 100 percent Jewish, has always been obsessed with Christmas. He grew up in Minneapolis, in an unobservant household, and he considers it part of his childhood. ''I remember the lights, the trees,'' he used to say to my little sister and me. ''It was magical.'' He decorates the mantel with Christmas cards and tapes mistletoe to the doorways, and one year he even tried to get my mother, also Jewish, with a much more observant upbringing, to allow an evergreen wreath on our front door. ''I can't live with that,'' she said. ''I just can't. Nothing on the outside of this house. We're Jews, for Christ's sake.''

It's a mild oath, but oath it is, and definitely Christian in its origins.  Lots of Jews use "Jesus" as an exclamation, too.

zwicky at sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at January 1, 2007 12:13 PM