Culture

Holy wow!

Article published on Sept. 14, 2011
Article published on Sept. 14, 2011
Are you more a Sacre bleu! or a Gosh-Golly-Goodness squealer? Do you Mamma Mia! or prefer a bit of Jesus Christ in that equation? Blasphemy and the art of exasperation are part and parcel of the phrase of the week, as seen through cafebabel.com's six official tongues

As the popular Spanish song goes, ‘Life is full of surprises, surprises are given in life’ (La vida te da sorpresas, sorpresas te da la vida). This is the kind of turn of phrase which fills a normal Spaniard like myself’s head whenever I spot a photo in the media of former prime minister Jose Maria Aznar or the Duchess of Alba (Spain’s highest ranking noble) in their swimsuits on some luxury yacht somewhere, or when you find out the dimwit at school has become rich from whatever company he or she managed to succeed in, all whilst you go on living a life of internships, earning 400 euros a month but with all your dignity intact... (Breathe.)

In Spain, you’ll hear expressions denoting surprise such as Dios mío (oh my god!, Ach Du meine Güte in German or Oh mio Dio! in Italian). That also works as a singular reference meaning He’s neither mine or yours: Dios! (god!). Then there's the usually high-pitched mi madre (my mother, or more famously mamma mia! in Italian) or a good old ostras (a polite way of invoking a curse word referring to a communion wafer). We’re restraining ourselves here from sinking to the more vulgar depths of these exclamations. The British version of taming a swear word the way ‘ostras’ does for ostia comes in exclamations such as sugar (instead of ‘shit’); there are also popular ‘b’ words, such as blast! and bother!

We Spaniards certainly refer to a medley of phrases with religious connotations, but the Brits are worse when it comes to being omnipresent believers in the most shocking of situations. They have words like gosh!, golly and goodness, which are all euphemisms for ‘god’, and the earliest records of the words date from the seventeenth century. Goodness gracious me! originated in England, whilst Oh dear! is a way of avoiding the expression dear lord!

Crikey! is a way to avoid saying Christ!, whilst Jeremy Cricket! is another way of spouting Jesus Christ! Religion is a common theme for Italian exasperations too, with extra-special terms such as Oh Gesù mio! (oh my jesus) and Oh Santa Maria Vergine! (oh my virgin Mary). Italian exclamations are also defined by their regional speciality: in Sardinia jesus becomes Cess! The more cultivated opt to invoke the latin god Baco: Oh perbacco! In Milan you’ll often hear the female genital organ being invoked. (We’ll leave you to hunt that one down yourself.) The Poles give a more simple vent to their feelings by calling out for Jej or Chryste, whilst Matko droga becomes their ‘mamma mia’. The well-loved French expression Sacre bleu! is a derivation of par le sacre de dieu - for the love of god. One of our all-time favourites comes from the language's slang through an aside from Oh la la-ing, the French often invoke ‘the cow’ (la vache, or holy cow in English).

Germans tend to dodge the religion bullet and head towards legend with their exclamations. The murderous expression Holla die Waldfee! refers to the last words of an unlucky prince. According to myth, three princesses in the forest, Hillu, Hella and Holla, are bathing in the water when they are accosted by a naughty prince who steals their clothes and requests a kiss from each before he will return their dresses. Two kiss him and get their clothes back; the last and smartest one ends up killing him. The Germans stole Sapperlot! from the French in the seventeenth century, but we applaud them for having one of the most creative expressions of exasperation: oh you green nine! (Ach du grüne Neune!). The phrase refers either to a playing card or to Berlin’s eighteenth century version of Studio 54. The bar/ restaurant Coventgarden (in Blumenstraße 9) crossed a street called ‘green path’ (Grüner Weg). But who needs god when you have Scandinavians? You old Swede! (Alter Schwede) is as original as it is puzzling.

If all of this information is beginning to grate, dear reader, by merit of its compilation, we advise you to do a 180 on your depressive exhalation: say wow! Instead. It’s clear, it’s concise and it’s international.

Illustration: © Henning Studte