The Ten Commandments: Linguistic Universals—Evan Smith Lingua Pranca Contents Original Call for Papers—Tom Ernst & Evan Smith

On Defining the Blaspheme Revisited

Harvey Minkoff
Hunter College of CUNY

Theolinguists have long recognized the existence of the blaspheme (e.g. Aquinas 1270, Luther 1526, Calvin 1559). And it would be hard to improve on the classic formulation of Moses 1300 (b.c.e): “A blaspheme is the minimal unit of eternal damnation.”

Nevertheless, many theoretical and practical problems remain in blasphemic analysisnot the least being the proper level of representation for the blaspheme and its converse, the eupheme. This paper presents data to prove that any nontrivial theory of blasphemy must reject the notion of an autonomous blasphemic level and instead posit systematic blasphemes and a (perhaps universal) blaspheme-eupheme transformation.

Even a theoretical model limited to surface structure will correctly label (1)

  1. God damn it!
as a blaspheme. It is less obvious, however, how to deal with examples like (2) and (3):
  1. Gosh darn it!

  2. Zounds!

The issue here, of course, is that (2) also exists as an independent lexical entry for speakers who are unaware of its euphemistic origin, and (3) illustrates the perennial dichotomy between diachronic and synchronic analyses.

Insofar as blasphemology should be a theory of theolinguistic competence, any model must account for native reactions. How, then, does a speaker of English react to (2) and (3)? From the point of view of the hearer, there are three possibilities:

  1. The hearer is not aware of the euphemistic nature of (2) or the quasi-blasphemy of (3).

  2. The hearer recognizes that the speaker is deferring to the hearer’s sensibilities.

  3. The hearer believes that the speaker is deferring to the speaker’s sensibilities.

Possibility (a) presupposes ignorance of the relationship between God damn it and Gosh darn it and perceives Zounds as an unanalyzable entity met with in Elizabethan drama and the Late Late Movie. In other words, this interpretation sees (1), (2) and (3) as separate lexical items, neither blasphemes nor euphemes.

In contrast, possibilities (b) and (c) implicitly acknowledge a transformational history that is retrievable by the hearer. It follows, therefore, that the ability to recognize a eupheme is proof of the internalization of a blaspheme-eupheme transformation, in this case (4) and (5):

  1. God damn it  →  Gosh darn it!

  2. God’s Wounds  →  Zounds!

But a problem arises at this point because both the left and right members of (4) also exist as unrelated lexical entries, and (5) is no longer synchronically operational, except perhaps in the speech of lit majors. Thus, the actual blaspheme-eupheme transformation must be context sensitive, in order to indicate when (2) and (3) are the results of the transformation and when they are simply lexical choices. (4) and (5) are therefore subsumed in the revised transformation (6):

  1. ! blaspheme ¡  →  ! eupheme ¡  /  

(Read: a blaspheme becomes a eupheme in front of a religious person.)

The Ten Commandments: Linguistic Universals—Evan Smith
Original Call for Papers—Tom Ernst & Evan Smith
Lingua Pranca Contents