Alternative Cuss Words.

The blogger nostalgicitalian (“just a guy who likes the classics”) has a 2021 post on things you can say when you don’t want to offend those offended by bad words:

I have mentioned the cartoon Bluey on here in the past. On the Bluey Facebook page a while back, they had a video of the dad (Bandit) using alternate expressions where swear words might be used. Exclamations like “Cheese and jam,” “Beans on toast,” and “Biscuits” are used in place of swear words.

“Biscuits!” is a favorite of mine right now, especially since Ella is starting to copy and say things we do. As much as I want to scream a dirty word when I step on a Lego, “Biscuits” works just as well.

And he has an image of a pleasing set of Alternative Cuss Words, from “Shucks” to “For cryin’ out loud,” with stops at “Geez,” “Nerts,” “Great googley moogley,” “Shut the front door,” and many others in between — “turd” and “bull snot” are about as vile as it gets.


  1. When in college i learned some alternates. from a Mormon missionary (they have a collection all their own) . One that stayed with me was “vootsac”, Afrikaans for “go away”, which has just the right sound.

  2. Christopher Culver says

    Has a map of the American distribution of cuss ever been published? To me that word sounds particularly Deep South or possibly old Western (vittles is a similar bastardization). I was therefore surprised to recently hear a white person born and raised in Michigan use the word.

  3. J.W. Brewer says

    I certainly heard “cuss” in my childhood (northern Delaware, nothing like either the Deep South or Old West). I was not aware that it was etymologically a doublet of “curse” and the words were not used as if they were interchangeable, although I suppose there was some overlap in their semantic scope such that they could have been substituted for each other in some, but not all, contexts.

  4. I’ve never heard of “bolshevik”. I’ve seen its counterpart, “booshwa”.

  5. Used correctly these can be effective. I’ll always remember my surprise, while talking to someone I thought of as a prudish HR lady, and she referred to one of our colleagues as a “see you next Tuesday”.

  6. Has a map of the American distribution of cuss ever been published?

    DARE doesn’t have cuss at all. It does have cuss-fight, with a map showing it mostly attested from the South, plus a bit up in Illinois along the Mississippi.

  7. Bertie Wooster’s “son of a bachelor” is not so much a minced oath as chewed and regurgitated

  8. so, um, a cud-oath?

  9. Long ago I worked with a woman from Alabama who said ‘dadgummit.’ It was her rawest swear.

    And I learned ‘Gordon Bennett’ from a guy I worked with as a teenager. Except the way he said it — venomously, under his breath — made it sound Very Bad Indeed.

  10. made it sound Very Bad Indeed.

    I’d always assumed “God” > “Gawd” > “Gord” (and Dammit). So yes, Very Bad.

    But I see wp claims there was an actual person.

  11. When Repo Man was to air on American broadcast TV, its director, Alex Cox, was put in charge of bowdlerizing it, which he enjoyed. He came up with “melon farmer”, which supposedly took hold elsewhere where the patch was to look obvious.

    Die Hard did likewise, with “Mister Falcon”, but I haven’t seen that movie in any version.

  12. Kate Bunting says

    My father (b. 1907) used to use “Gordon Bennett” and, yes, I understand there was a real person of that name who was well-known in the early 20th century.

    My favourite non-offensive expletive is “Rats!”

  13. In the late 1960s I was sort of adopted by a wonderful family in Santander, in northern Spain.
    The mother was something of a rarity at that time, a university graduate well versed in many subjects. She worked hard and well as a housewife and mother. In actions and speech she was always well composed, even elegant, despite the frumpy house dress and lack of makeup of any kind.

    One day a government minister was heard on the radio, spouting atrocious garbage. I’d never heard Lucia curse, so it was with delighted shock that I listened to her proclaim, “¡Hijo de…
    parentesco variado!”

  14. “¡Hijo de…parentesco variado!”

    How sweet !

  15. Here’s an example of Gordon Bennett being explained as deriving from the name of a real person. It strikes me as a prime example of folk etymology — cute story, but no actual evidence adduced.

    Like AntC, I’ve always assumed it was a minced ‘goddammit.’

  16. “ vootsac”, Afrikaans for “go away”, which has just the right sound.

    During college I spent summers playing soccer for an Italian club in Chicago. I felt fa caldo similarly had the right sound for expressing my dissatisfaction with the reffing, and the right plausible deniability.

  17. Especially if the ref’s named “Aldo”, I suppose?

  18. My time spent among the LDS led to my learning “flip”, “fetch”, “frick”, and “oh my heck”, but my northern Delaware (read, just outside Philadelphia) upbringing always made me sound ridiculous when I employed them.

    So I can say I still relish the F-bomb I dropped on one of the elders whom I shared an apartment with in the last few months of my mission. I’d had enough of being told I was “trunky” (ready to pack my trunks) by this New Jersey-born half-pint imitation. So I let him have it. The dead silence out of the other four elders was so worth it.

  19. David Eddyshaw says

    a prime example of folk etymology

    I don’t think that the use of “Gordon Bennett” as a minced oath is at all incompatible with it being based on the name of a real person: on the contrary, the fact of the name being that of a recognisable real person (at that time) would be the whole point of it: that’s the joke. It fits a pattern (I didn’t actually know that there really is a Berkeley Hunt, but then I don’t move in such circles much.)

    The first bit clearly is a non-rhotic “Gawd” or course.
    (Compare the Gordelpus, one of Olaf Stapledon’s less-happy coinages in Last and First Men. A weapon of mass destruction, IIRC. And “corblimey”, of course.)

    Personally, I prefer “Arnold Bennett!” as a mangled oath. It’s more refined.

  20. David Marjanović says

    Etymologically, cuss is to curse as ass (the other one) is to arse, hoss is to horse, and bass is to German Barsch. Bust and burst are also usually included in the list, but that’s less clear.

  21. J.W. Brewer says

    Wikipedia quotes the OED as speculating that the relevant use of “Gordon Bennett” was “perhaps a euphemistic substitution for gorblimey.” Which suggests there must have been contexts and occasions where “gorblimey” was too shocking a thing to say and required a euphemistic substitute? One internet reference (which does not give a source for the assertion) says that “gorblimey” is itself a minced version of “God blind me,” but were there really contexts and occasions for which it was insufficiently minced?

  22. there’s some jewish precedent for that level of re-mincing: “adonai/adoynoy” [my lord], as a longstanding replacement for “יהוה”, has acquired sanctity by association. that means that it’s usually not written out in full, to avoid the necessary rituals for disposing of papers with unerasable holy names on them, but also that a lot of the observant world extends the “not to be spoken aloud” principle to it, often opting instead for “adoshem” [roughly lor-name].

  23. J.W. Brewer says

    I knew a fellow in college who carefully eschewed the normal list of mildly taboo lexemes by using an impressive array of off-beat minced alternatives (“cussbubbles” is the one that I can recall off hand). He was not a Mormon or from some other obvious demographic background that would seem a predictor of this tic — in fact (I had to check an old directory for the geographical bit) he was an Ashkenazic-American from the San Fernando Valley, and I think I’ve known enough SFV Ashkenazim over the course of my life to have some confidence that more-rigorous-than-average avoidance of taboo lexemes is not one of their stereotypical traits at the group level.

    In my own northern-Delaware youth (which may or may not have been further in the past than Craig’s) I had some LDS classmates, and I find that 40 years later I have no identifiable memories of any of them either using taboo lexemes or using lame-sounding workaround substitutes therefor. Although maybe the latter would have been more memorable? And they perhaps weren’t, in a general public-high-school setting, “on duty” the way they would have been while doing a mission. I do think that Dr. Evil’s “throw me a frickin’ bone” scene in the first Austin Powers movie (a decade-plus after I’d departed from Del.) may have helped to rehabilitate “frickin'” among the general/Gentile public.

  24. ‘Gorblimey’ — also ‘corblimey’, sometimes reduced further to ‘cor!’ — is pretty gosh darn mild. You could hear it on BBC radio in the 1960s, I’m sure. The notion that it’s a minced version of ‘God blind me’ is widespread.

    That’s why I’ve taken ‘Gordon Bennett’ to be a bowdlerized version of something stronger.

    @DE: I agree that the said Mr. Bennett could be a real person, but I’d like to see a convincing argument.

  25. Dr. Evil’s “throw me a frickin’ bone”

    and Battlestar Galactica’s “frack”, perhaps?

  26. The notion that it’s a minced version of ‘God blind me’ is widespread.

    Well, yeah, because that’s what it is. OED: “Alteration of God blind me.” What else would it be?

  27. David Marjanović says

    Dr. Evil’s “throw me a frickin’ bone” scene

    Not as famous as his “sharks with frickin’ laser beams attached to their heads” scene.

    and Battlestar Galactica’s “frack”, perhaps?

    Later, reality tragicomically caught up with that one in the form of hydrofracturing.

  28. @David M.: It’s arguably the fault of the Swiss.

  29. Did Berkeley Hunt members call themselves “berks” before or after the term was reinterpreted as rhyming slang?

  30. David Eddyshaw says

    I dare say it was an exonym defiantly adopted as an endonym. Like “Quakers.” Exactly like “Quakers.”

    (It is of course possible that some amongst them are unaware of the True Meaning of the term. I have the impression that quite a few Brits who use it as a mild derogatory epithet do not actually know its origin. I don’t remember ever having heard it used in what you might call its literal gynaecological sense. Also possible that they may pronounce it “Bark.” As you’d expect. Only Americans say “Burkley.”)

  31. Kate Bunting says

    That puzzles me, since the expression is said to be Cockney rhyming slang, but the London location where the nightingale sang is definitely pronounced “Barkley” Square.

  32. J.W. Brewer says

    What if anything is the difference in current UK usage between the semantic scope of “berk” and that of “prat”? Is it coherent to say, e.g., “That Nigel’s a right prat but ‘e’s not a berk,” or the other way round? What subtle distinction would that be making?

  33. PlasticPaddy says

    I suppose you are referring to a Nick Hornby passage, the point of which may be that the difference is trivial, which is what I think. FWIW I think prat is used in Ireland naturally but not berk.

  34. FWIW that was an example sentence of my own devising. If Hornby has indeed written something like that, I was innocent of that knowledge.

  35. PlasticPaddy says


    ” The point of it was to talk about Something Else, sort of thing, and not get into rows about who was a berk and who was a prat, which was how the afternoons in Starbucks usually ended up.”
    from A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby

    I had you down as having cited Hornby before, but I have not checked this quotation.

  36. J.W. Brewer says

    I haven’t actually read all that much by Hornby, but I suppose I cannot rule out the possibility of having cited him on one or more prior occasions. For some reason it seems to me that someone who is a prat pretty much always is or can be a right prat, but I’m not so confident it’s idiomatic for someone to be a right berk, but there is of course the inherent awkwardness of trying to assess what is and isn’t idiomatic in an idiom that is decidedly not ones own.

  37. David Eddyshaw says

    One can certainly have right berks.

  38. But not left berks. (No berks on the left, comrade!)

  39. David Eddyshaw says

    Alas, would that it were so …

  40. I associate amusing minced cusswords with Sister Boniface.

  41. Christopher Culver- “vittles” was found in various British dialects across the class divide. Jonathan Swift wrote a satire called “Polite Conversation” (1760), in which a character named Lady Smart utters the line, “I hate a crowd; I would rather want vittles than elbow room; we dine punctually at 3.” And a beggar’s narrative titled “The Blind Fiddler” in Chambers’s Edinburgh Journal (1852) contains lines like “Our mother died and left the four of us when I was about five, and from then on we got less vittles and more strap, I can tell you” and “My wife had her vittles today, that’s a comfort.”

  42. vittles is a similar bastardization

    Huh? It’s not a bastardization, it is the only (standard) pronunciation of victuals (AHD; OED /ˈvɪtl/). I have heard people use a spelling pronunciation, but that’s a nonce thing — if it were widespread it would be in the dictionary.

  43. if it were widespread it would be in the dictionary.

    Well, one dictionary (the Cambridge English Pronouncing Dictionary (CEPD) has the following note:

    Although this word has been pronounced without a /k/ for many centuries, the spelling pronunciation /’vik.tʃu.əl/ is now becoming widespread.

  44. Sigh. All good things must come to an end…

  45. David Marjanović says

    Well, the word is extinct, so is its pronunciation, so when people come across it in writing, they give it a spelling-pronunciation. 😐

  46. CPD, quoted above:

    Although this word has been pronounced without a /k/ for many centuries, the spelling pronunciation /’vik.tʃu.əl/ is now becoming widespread.


    Sigh. All good things must come to an end…

    The current Longman Pronouncing Dictionary (LPD) makes no comment at “victual”, which is shown as pronounced /ˈvɪtəl/ – and both UK and US voice renderings lack /k/. At “victualer” both voice renderings lack /k/ and have a bare /t/, and we find this note: “sometimes a spelling pronunciation /ˈvɪk tʃu‿əl ə/”.

    Others of interest are “arctic” and “antarctic”, which at OED are shown first with /kt/ and second with just /t/. Given the recent crumbling of standards at OED we are not surprised that historical remarks are lacking right there. But there’s a note at the etymology for “antarctic” (where many art- forms are shown, across several languages; and Etymology for “arctic” refers us to this under “antarctic”):

    The now nonstandard pronunciation without /k/ in the second syllable is still current in modern use. Several dictionaries of the late 19th and early 20th centuries record it as still widespread; although it appears to have become less frequent in later use (the various editions of D. Jones Eng. Pronouncing Dict., for instance, only give the standard pronunciation with /k/ ), it is still recorded in J. C. Wells Longman Pronunciation Dict. (1990) as widespread but deprecated.

    A commonplace at the Hattery: current OED is deplorably bad for users. We are unable to view everything for “antarctic” on one luxuriant searchable page-spread. Many looking for pronunciation data would have no inkling that a valuable comment on pronunciation is concealed under Etymology.

  47. Well, the word is extinct

    It most certainly is not. I’ve used it and heard it.

  48. My 1977 Chambers gives dais a one syllable pronunciation and says the two syllable version “is only a guess from the spelling”. The 2011 edition accepts both. Other dictionaries seem to have given up on the monosyllabic.

  49. Being the old fart that I am, I of course use the monosyllabic.

  50. January First-of-May says

    Other dictionaries seem to have given up on the monosyllabic.

    …huh, my own guess from the spelling would have been something like (Wikipedia’s second option) /ˈdeɪs/, very much monosyllabic.

    (I’m not confident that I wouldn’t just make it a homophone of days – though admittedly I’d have guessed that was /ˈdeɪs/ too. There’s a rare word dace, a kind of fish, for which /ˈdeɪs/ is in fact the standard pronunciation.)

  51. It [‘victuals’] most certainly is not [extinct]. I’ve used it and heard it.

    I’ve been aware of it for ages — I think first from descriptions of C18th/19th provisioning for sea voyages. Don’t think I’ve ever heard it … which would explain why I use a spelling pronunciation. (Didn’t know there was any other way to pronounce it.)

    Is there a difference between UK vs US pronunciation? (Or is the spelling pronunciation more prominent in one?) Sources don’t seem to think so.

    CEPD Although this word has been pronounced without a /k/ for many centuries, …

    Suggests that at earlier than the “many centuries” it was pronounced with /k/ (?) Presumably in Latin. But etymonline says c. 1300 vitaylle presumably without /k/. ” Spelling altered early 16c. to conform with Latin, but pronunciation remains “vittles.” “

  52. Other dictionaries seem to have given up on the monosyllabic.

    Collins (2023 edition) has both pronunciations (interesting because Collins, like most one volume dictionaries, tends to avoid listing pronunciation variants). CEPD and LPD list both disyllabic and monosyllabic variants at least as far as British English is concerned; for American English they apparently only list the disyllabic variant (but with a variant for the first syllable: /daɪ-/).

  53. Is there a difference between UK vs US pronunciation?

    Nope — see my AHD and OED cites above.

    Suggests that at earlier than the “many centuries” it was pronounced with /k/

    No, it suggests what it says. You can’t very well say “this word has always been pronounced without a /k/,” since it hasn’t always existed. The -c- was introduced in the same frenzy for Latinization at any cost that gave us the -b- in debt.

  54. My father and sister said / says “victuals” (sans /k/) as an affectation. I remember as a child assuming dad was affecting a Victorian illiterate until he explained his was the standard pronunciation. I don’t recall hearing the word in either pronunciation unaffectedly in the wild, or reading it in contemporary texts. I have seen “victualler” on shopfronts, just as I have seen “emporium” and “haberdasher”.

    ngrams victuals v vittles — I speculate that modern prose often uses spelling “vittles” in quoted speech; further research needed.

  55. I suspect victuals will be extinct within a generation, I haven’t heard it in the wild that I remember, just television I would guess. Or is it regional? It does strike me as an Appalachian or maybe Western US word for some reason.

  56. The mother was something of a rarity at that time, a university graduate well versed in many subjects.

    Rather a rarity at any time, I think. University graduates are more common, and so are female ones than they used to be, but they are far more likely to be specialists rather polymaths. We Hattics can’t judge by ourselves and our friends and families.

    Huh? It’s not a bastardization, it is the only (standard) pronunciation of victuals (AHD; OED /ˈvɪtl/).

    Part of the trouble is that there is not onlyl this spelling pronunciation but also a pronunciation spelling vittles.

    We are unable to view everything for “antarctic” on one luxuriant searchable page-spread.

    That turns out not to be the case. Indeed, there are two ways to view that page: you can click on “Tabbed view” at the top of any ordinary word/sense page so that ut appears as a red X, or you can create a personal account from the personal account page. If you don’t get a popup, but are using IP-address or proxy access, click on the human-being icon at the top right of any page and then follow the remaining instructions.

  57. Bust and burst are also usually included in the list, but that’s less clear.

    Why would you think so? Anatoly Liberman’s post on early loss of /r/ discusses it, as does the OED. Liberman also points out trust-buster and blockbuster, which are the only standard forms, even though semantically *trust-burster, blockburster make perfect sense.

  58. David Marjanović says

    That link doesn’t work.

  59. J.W. Brewer says

    Re “rarity at any time,” university graduates (at least if they had stopped with the bachelor’s degree) typically used to be generalists until specialization arrived, with the rise (lateish 19th century in the U.S., don’t know about timeline elsewhere) of vulgar innovations like “electives” and “majors.” Prior to that, almost everyone at a given college might take the same generalist curriculum (Latin and Greek authors, plus a smattering of more recent learning) for the set number of years before being given their degrees. Obviously the late 1960’s in Spain (context of the remark to which John C. was reacting) is more recent than that.

  60. Part of the trouble is that there is not onlyl this spelling pronunciation but also a pronunciation spelling vittles.

    I would assume that’s just an attempt at visual folksiness, like “wuz.” Anyone who actually knows the word knows how it is pronounced; it is not a mystery like “congeries.”

  61. David Marjanović says

    lateish 19th century in the U.S., don’t know about timeline elsewhere

    Similar in German-speaking places thanks to the Humboldt brothers, but much more thoroughly: the generalist education was moved from tertiary to secondary education, so when you graduate from a Gymnasium around age 18 and enter a university, you specialize on something like biology or history or theater immediately. (Further specialization comes later.)

  62. J.W. Brewer says

    19th-century American universities and colleges clearly imported the specialization notion from German academic culture, since among other things alternative role models Oxford/Cambridge hadn’t themselves quite made that move yet. OTOH, the same questionable Teutonic influence on American education* did lead to the importation (I know this bit goes in a different currently-active thread) of student drinking songs and related cultural phenomena. So a mixed bag plus we sensibly declined to import the dueling scars.

    *As I’ve no doubt previously mentioned, there’s a wonderful Ezra Pound rant from 1917 in which he argues that the ways in which the German model of the research university had messed up (in EP’s view) Anglophone education were part and parcel of the same German phenomenon as militarism and “Kaiserism” (maybe also “Junkerism”?) which our troops were currently fighting against in the trenches in France.

  63. It does strike me as an Appalachian or maybe Western US word for some reason.

    One conjectures a Connecticut connection.

  64. Anyone who actually knows the word knows how it is pronounced;

    For some value of “know”. You seem to be suggesting that if I know only its written form/have never heard it pronounced I ipso facto don’t “know” the word. But there’s vast amounts of technical vocab I’ve never heard pronounced — or at least hadn’t until the advent of YouTube. (If the work gave a definition for a term I wouldn’t necessarily check a dictionary; even if went to a dictionary for the meaning, I wouldn’t bother with the pron./it wouldn’t stick.) So I’m excluded from your priesthood?

    Is everything marked spelling pronunciation to be condemned as “folksiness”?

  65. I always like dingleberries or fudge muffins or when I get really irritated fudge muffins with cheese. Of course there’s poop on a rainbow. Sometimes I like to get invented with my curse words so I don’t offend nobody. The worst I can do is get a smile out of somebody and that makes it all worth it. LOL

  66. David Marjanović says
  67. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    I thought the form vittles was old enough to predate normative spelling? Go back far enough, and all writing was pronunciation spellings.

    (In the current side thread on sobre la calle, it took me quite a while to figure out that Yua must be what is now spelled Iba. You might argue that current RAE spellings are boringer, but they come much closer to a 1-1 relation to speech, which makes it much easier for me to read. Even with idiosyncrasies like cero and I still want to write †quando because Latin. The main deviation that I’ve noticed is that you keep j in some verb congugations. Traje and not trage, even though the latter would be pronounced the same and the general rule is to spell the sound that way before i/e).

  68. David Marjanović says


    *chef’s kiss*

  69. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    Short shameful: Not on purpose, and I only saw it when I searched for the spelling from your reply.

  70. I loved it as well! Your subconscious and/or fat fingers are brilliant.

  71. Owlmirror says

    Thinking about “vittle” reminded me of a story I read a long time ago. This was in a book by Robert McCloskey; “Centerburg Tales” (or “More Homer Price”). The gist of the story is that there is a song from a jukebox record that is what we would nowadays call an earworm; a song so catchy that it gets stuck in people’s heads, and compels them to sing it, infecting other listeners nearby.

    The song had these lyrics:

    “Sing hi-diddle-diddle,
    For a silly little vittle.
    Sing get-gat-gittle,
    Got a hole in the middle.
    Sing dough-de-dough-dough,
    There’s dough, you know.
    There’s not no nuts
    In you-know-whats.
    In a whole doughnut
    There’s a nice whole hole.
    When you take a big bite,
    Hold the whole hole tight.

    If a little bit bitten,
    Or a great bit bitten,

    Any whole hole with a hole bitten in it,
    Is a holey whole hole
    And it just—plain—isn’t!”

    Now, a rhyming song is a perfect place to have written “victual” instead of “vittle” to show that “victual” rhymes with “gittle” (and “diddle” and “middle”), but either McCloskey (born 1914, writing originally some time before the copyright date of 1951) didn’t know it, or he or his editors thought it would be too confusing for kids born in the late 1930s to early 1940s.

    (The earworm is resolved by having Homer read the chant from Mark Twain’s Punch, Brothers, Punch — this purges the song from his head. Then he teachers the chant to the crowd of singing townspeople — this clears the chant from his head. Then the crowd teaches the chant to one person, the 6th grade teacher, which clears the chant from their heads. The teacher is cursed to bear it until she tells someone else.)

    (Personally, even seeing “victual” in a rhyming dictionary under “ittle” doesn’t really help my predisposition to think of the word as having a /kt/ sound and 3 syllables.)(But I personally have the habit of sometimes saying “skizzers” or “g’nome”. It’s a weakness.)

  72. David Marjanović says

    Didn’t Bush Sr. once go on about the Human Gnome Project…

  73. Now, a rhyming song is a perfect place to have written “victual” instead of “vittle” to show that “victual” rhymes with “gittle” (and “diddle” and “middle”), but either McCloskey (born 1914, writing originally some time before the copyright date of 1951) didn’t know it, or he or his editors thought it would be too confusing for kids born in the late 1930s to early 1940s.

    Surely the simplest explanation is that he wrote “vittle” because it’s funnier that way. I don’t think education is normally on the mind of someone writing humorous verse.

  74. Previous mention of “Pie and Punch and You-Know-Whats,” which was the very first story in our fifth-grade-level Reading textbook, Freedom’s Ground. I can’t recall if I learned vittle from that story or from Bloom County.

  75. J.W. Brewer says

    I love that Homer Price story, but note that it does involve some deliberate phonological modification to enable a rhyme and should probably not be treated as historical data suggesting that “passenjare” was ever in widespread use as an alternative spelling or pronunciation of “passenger.”

  76. @J.W. Brewer: You can’t blame McCloskey for that, since “passenjare” was Twain’s own spelling. Twain, in turn, claims not to have invented the earworm himself, but I don’t know whether he can be trusted on that.

    I see that the Homer Price story is not mentioned in the “In Popular Culture” section of the Wikipedia article on earworms, although some much less significant examples are mentioned, alongside truly famous fictional earworms like Twain’s and Bester’s.

  77. J.W. Brewer says

    He who voluntarily adopts the “passenjare” variant to advance his own perhaps-nefarious purposes is just as culpable as he who first devised it. Now, one can perhaps fairly say that McCloskey presumed a sophisticated readership who would not be misled, and maybe that was a reasonable assumption at the time.

  78. I can’t have been very sophisticated at ten or however old I was when I first read the Twain, but it was obvious even to me that “passenjare” was a variant adopted for humorous purposes, not an actual pronunciation.

  79. From Harper’s New Monthly Magazine of Dec. 1875, p. 471 (here):

    There has broken out in Boston, with the utmost possible violence, a spirit of doggerel aimed at the street railroad and the financial notices posted up therein. Thus:

      Whene’er a passenger pays a fare,
      There shall be punched by the conductare
      Before collecting another fare,
      And in the presence of said passenjare,
      A buff trip slip for a six-cent fare,
      A blue trip slip for a three-cent fare,
      A white ticquette for a five-cent fare,
      A green ticquette for’n employé’s fare,
      A white check for an eight-cent fare,
      A yellow check for a nine-cent fare,
      A coupon pass for a dead-head fare;
      All in the presence of the passenjare,
      Who’s not allowed, no matter where,
      How short the distance, or what the fare,
      To travel free upon this cair.

    This epizootic has spread to the neighboring cities of New England, where no man is considered fit to conduct a street car who has not graduated from Yale or Harvard, and the poet of the Hartford Times felt impelled to evolve the following on the one-horse, “bobtail,” or “Slawson-box” cars:

      Our one-horse driver takes no care
      To look up the straggling passenjare;
      So when we wish to stop a cair,
      After shaking in vain our umbrellaire,
      And yelling again and beating the air,
      We hire a boy to run ’round the cair,
      And tell the drivare to stop his cair
      If he wants another passenjare.

    Of course, the Master edited it down to a more effective — punchier — form.

  80. Y rocks!

  81. Aww, thanks!

  82. Was rhotic pronunciation still standard in Boston in 1875? Seems unlikely, but that doggerel verse is more effective in a rhotic accent than if I hear it in my grandfather’s non-rhotic accent (born in Lowell 1908), or the „true“ Boston accents I would hear in the 1970s, and which may still exist in Dorchester.

    Although, „umbrellaire“ does work with a New England accent and is an odd pronunciation in a rhotic American accent.

  83. David Marjanović says



    A round-trip word, now found in French as… ticket.

  84. Rodger C says

    Was the passenjare a bright-eyed marinere?

  85. Owlmirror says

    It looks like the author of the Harper’s piece de-punchified the original. Twain, presumably, started from the original, or something very close to it.

    Scharnhorst, Gary. “Mark Twain’s Earworm.” Studies in American Humor, vol. 10 no. 1, 2024, p. 54-78. Project MUSE


    Mark Twain’s obsession with and popularization of Isaac Bromley’s original horsecar jingle not only inspired an entire school of horsecar poems but also parodies of them that satirized political campaigns, public corruption, organized labor, vices such as gambling and alcoholism, the work of newspaper editors as well as admonitions to respect the law. During the Great War, parodies of the jingle commended the women knitting brigades on the home front. The parodies also led to the introduction of jingles in advertising. The original rhyme has survived in the public imagination for generations.

    Opening paragraphs:

    In summer 1875, the Fourth Avenue transit line in New York installed bell punches in its horsecars that required conductors to validate tickets audibly, with the goal to prevent them from cheating the company by pocketing fares. To explain the new system, the line posted this notice:

    The conductor, when he receives a fare, will immediately punch in the presence of the passenger,

    A blue trip slip for an 8-cent fare,
    A buff trip slip for a 6-cent fare,
    A pink trip slip for a 3-cent fare.

    Isaac Bromley (1833–1899), a reporter for the New York Tribune who routinely rode the cars to work at Newspaper Row in lower Manhattan, thought these phrases constituted “almost ready-made poetry” because they “scan,” “rhyme,” and run “with a skippity-skip,” their meter mimicking the rhythm of the car wheels on the rails.¹ Bromley added a chorus to the verse, began to recite it in the Tribune editorial offices, and soon published it without signature in a Sunday edition of the paper.²

    1: Winkleried Wolfgang Brown [Isaac Bromley], “The Horse-Car Poetry: Its True History,” Scribner’s 11, no. 6 (1876): 910–11.
    2: “Horse-Car Poetry,” New York Tribune, September 27, 1875, 5.

    Since I have access via ProQuest to historical newspapers, I can confirm that Bromley’s 1875-09-27 “Horse-Car Poetry” had the alteration of “passenger” to “passenjare”.

              HORSE-CAR POETRY.
    The conductor when he receives a fare,
    Must punch in the presence of the passenjare,
         A blue trip slip for an 8 cent fare,
         A buff trip slip for a 6 cent fare,
         A pink trip slip for a 3 cent fare.
    All in the presence of the passenjare.
    Punch, boys, punch; punch with care.
         A blue trip slip for an 8 cent fare,
         A buff trip slip for a 6 cent fare,
         A pink trip slip for a 3 cent fare.
    Punch in the presence of the passenjare.

    It looks like the changes that Twain made were to tweak the first line from third-person to second-person, change “boys, punch” to “brothers”, and sprinkle in exclamation points.

  86. Wonderful, thanks for finding that!

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