Feb 8, 2013

Cheese and Rice, Our Savior

The Electric Chair was invented by a dentist.
First Electric Chair: Edison, Co.
Dr. Alfred P. Southwick, a pleasant dentist from Buffalo, New York, had witnessed a drunken man being accidentally electrocuted. He noted that the shock had delivered a quicker, less painful death than more popular gorey practices, the least grisly of which were strangulation with an iron collar, hanging and beheading. What followed was the invention of the electric chair.
Andy Warhol's Big Electric Chair
But how to market it? How do you relay the concept of such a horrific tool to the general public? How do you justify it to yourself? There must be some sort of separation between you and the dread thing. Luckily, there are handy linguistic games we play with ourselves that serve the purpose, two favorites being euphemism and nicknaming. During the first several years, most electric chairs were pet-named "Old Sparky," but a few, more colloquial monikers emerged. Louisiana coined "Gruesome Gertie," Indiana had "Old Betsy," and Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Tennessee preferred 
"Old Smokey."

"Woah," doesn't quite cover it. "Jesus Christ!" might be an appropriate response. But, if you didn't want to holler the Lord's name in certain company, reactions could employ a similarly avoidant linguistic tactic called a minced oath. Cheese and Rice, Jiminey Cricket, Gee Willikers, or Bejabbers could stand in.

The general category of silly words or phrases that act in place of actual, dictionary-approved ones provides an opportunity to be indirect, diplomatic, disrespectfully (some feel) distant from religious or historic significance.  It is a privileged fact of our complex language that we can say something other than exactly what we mean, and it can be mutually understood. English has no authoritative body governing "correct" usage, unlike French (Académie française), Italian (Accademia della Crusca), Icelandic (Íslensk málstöð), and Spanish (Real Academia Española). But what happens nonetheless is that the more the silliness is agreed upon, the closer it comes to being absorbed into the vernacular.

The more well known Cockney slang is replete with this type of accepted terminology (we'll keep them clean, here):
          trouble and strife = wife
          Eiffel Tower = shower

50's Diner slang has its own as well:
         Gimme two on a raft and wreck 'em - with a life preserver in the margins =
         I'd like two scrambled eggs on toast, bagel on the side, please.

This practice has a long history. In Greek mythology the king Rhadamanthus imposed on the Cretans the law that men should not swear by the gods, but by the dog, ram, goose, and plane-tree. In Shakespearean England, swearing on stage was banned, and thus all parts of the deity's self were covered by minced oaths: 'swounds (God's wounds), 'struth (by God's truth), 'sfoot (by God's foot), and gadzooks! ("God's hooks," referring to the nails in the cross).

Nicknames, euphemisms, minced oaths - a sprightly hop away from a direct expression of reality. In our least palatable efforts, we employ them to obscure abhorrent fact. Alternately, they act as an important reminder that there are multiple ways to express reality; language, and therefore meaning, are malleable. Humans are both figuring everything out, and making it all up, as we go along. OSLab celebrates this.
You say tomato...