A really good expletive (n. an exclamation, often profane [<L ex- completely + plere to fill]) has certain requirements, in terms of how it comes out. It must be short. “Supercalifragilisticexpialadocious” would never do. It must have, as the derivation suggests, some sense of filling completely, to the point of the dam breaking with the weight of it all. Some expetives, like the perinnial favorite “fuck,” do this with the filling happening through the word, the pressure building through the “f” sound, then bursting at the end when we reach the wall of the “k”. With others, the filling-up is implied – that is, it happens before the word begins – and the expetive itself begins with the bursting. For example, when we say “Damn it!” or “Darn!” or “Turkey legs!” or “Bugger!” we are crashing through the dam with that very first consonant.
Just saying these words is satisfying. It doesn’t matter in the least what they really mean or where they came from – at least, as far as the physical satisfaction of verbal expression goes.
But then, one day, we want more. We want, not just the physical satisfaction of expressing that bursting, but also some mental satisfaction. After all, we are humans, and as such we always want more. So we take our perfectly good expetive, our bludgeon or hammer, and we start working on it. Hm, let’s see: we’ll take off a bit here and here, and just add this little bit to this side of it, and that over there… Now, how does it look?
We emerge (for example) with “the square root of bugger all.” It’s not an expletive any more – way too long, too hard to say. Our hammer has become a much more specialized tool: a dagger with a hook at the tip, or maybe a jointed extension for a wrench, for going around corners to get to hard-to-reach nuts. The filling up and bursting are a distant memory, a casual reference; and part of the pleasure of it is the distance. We remember it, we smile at it and pet it and dress it up – civilized after all.
What’s this got to do with anything? You guessed it: the square root of bugger all (meaning, of course, even less than bugger all). It was just an excuse to write that phrase, which I like, in the blog. Thanks again to the Urban Dictionary!