August 23, 2016: Blackguardin’

The final portion of last week’s column prompted me to reflect some more about my use of a truly characteristic eastern Kentucky verb: that being, to blackguard. Any good dictionary will tell you that a blackguard (the noun, in most areas of the English-speaking world pronounced “blaggard,” with a silent “ck”) is “a person, particularly a man, who behaves in a dishonorable or contemptible way” or, quite simply, a time-honored synonym for a scoundrel. But you can only find the verb form of the term, that is, to blackguard (in this usage pronounced just like it’s spelled), in lexicons of archaic English, and it means “to abuse someone in a coarse, insulting manner, often humorously.” In short, in the eastern Kentucky of only a few years ago, the old Anglo-Saxon terms for the derriere as noted in my last week’s musings, the acts of defecation, flatulence, urination, and procreation, and the two short synonyms for female dogs that come to mind, for example, weren’t cuss words, exactly: rather they were blackguardin’, though they were certainly looked upon by most folks with little if any more favor than the strictly cussin’ words one might utter in violation of the Third Commandment or the Sermon on the Mount’s injunction to “swear not at all.” 

Even the Kentucky judicial system once made a distinction between cussin’ and blackguardin’. At one time uttering a profane oath in court guaranteed, and perhaps still guarantees, a bench-imposed fine; though not entirely accurately, this misdemeanor was once referred to legally as blasphemy, and there’s an old story still floating around local courthouses about some poor guy who was fined a dollar for blaspheming, had only a five-dollar bill in his pocket for which the bailiff couldn’t make change, and so therefore decided to cuss out the judge for four more dollars’ worth of profanity. But in one of the last documented proceedings involving “bad” language ever to be tried in a Kentucky court, featuring an outspoken Knox County female moonshiner who’d openly identified the County Attorney prosecuting her case as the offspring of a female dog, the Kentucky Court of Appeals found in the woman’s favor in this particular because her choice epithet didn’t strictly involve blasphemy as such: in the exact (but slightly censored) words of the March 7, 1952 ruling, “When a gentleman speaks to a lady possessing Mattie’s rugged personality he should not be abashed if she calls him a son of a (expletive deleted). He should merely consider it one of the vicissitudes of life and go on his way rejoicing, comforted by the thought that women are often mistaken.” Chauvinistic, I know, but it’s probably the very thing that County Attorney needed to hear, especially if he was throwing the book at poor Mattie for engaging in one of the few ways she could eke out a livelihood on a thin-soiled hillside farm. At one time even in this county, not to mention Kentucky’s other hundred and nineteen, one could do more jail time for chicken stealing than homicide, depending on one’s family’s political connections. Reckon that’s still the case? 

Anyway: language inevitably evolves over time. When the King James Version of the Bible was translated, the most commonly-known current blackguardin’ word for urination was still considered acceptable for polite conversation and even public reading matter (for example, see I Samuel 25:22 and Isaiah 36:12). The King James remained the most widely-accepted English translation until the mid-twentieth century, and yet the repressive Comstock Anti-Pornography Postal Laws of the late 1800s and early 1900s made it technically illegal to send a Bible through the mail because it had that word in it—though, as we can easily imagine, the puritanical Postmaster General Anthony Comstock’s censors ignored that one little indelicacy because it was the Bible, after all. But it’s hard to say what the future holds. Television networks have openly broadcast common cuss words for years now, and every day the majority of them are “bleeping out” fewer and fewer terms that we usually define as blackguardin’. Might the polite speech of our descendants one day sound as foreign, and as coarse, to us as that of our ancestors who spoke the English of the King James Bible? Will the so-called F-bomb and S-word finally come full circle from ancient Anglo-Saxon and be termed as “good English” once more? And by that time, and with those terms added back in, will the language even be worth speaking and writing, that is, if anybody’s still even being taught to write on paper rather than using a keyboard

(Expletive deleted) if I know. I’m just a Common Tater. 

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