I've been reading the Great American Novel for the second time. Now most Great American Novels are accessible to bright teens, or youngsters in their 20s, but I'm convinced that the True And Original Great American Novel, Moby Dick, requires a bit of seasoning on the part of its reader for full appreciation. At the age of 43, I've been in Ishmael's shoes bouncing between jobs. I've learned not to judge strange people by first impressions, for therein may lurk a Queequeg. I've suffered the loss of a number of friends and relatives, and I've felt capital-H Hatred approaching that of Ahab for the white whale.
But I still don't understand how, in the English language, "blast" became a euphemism for "damn", a reference that struck me on my second reading. Moby Dick, as do many others written before the 1960s, contains a wealth of "blasted" people, "blasted" ships, "blasted" storms, and "blasted" whales.
Oddly enough the blasted whales are not damned. Herman Melville served aboard a New England whaler, and knew his trade. "Blasted" had a technical meaning with respect to whales:
Presently, the vapors in advance slid aside; and there in the distance lay a ship, whose furled sails betokened that some sort of whale must be alongside. As we glided nearer, the stranger showed French colors from his peak; and by the eddying cloud of vulture sea-fowl that circled, and hovered, and swooped around him, it was plain that the whale alongside must be what the fishermen call a blasted whale, that is, a whale that has died unmolested on the sea, and so floated an unappropriated corpse. It may well be conceived, what an unsavory odor such a mass must exhale; worse than an Assyrian city in the plague, when the living are incompetent to bury the departed. So intolerable indeed is it regarded by some, that no cupidity could persuade them to moor alongside of it. Yet are there those who will still do it; notwithstanding the fact that the oil obtained from such subjects is of a very inferior quality, and by no means of the nature of attar-of-rose.
Moby Dick, Ch. 91, The Pequod Meets the Rose Bud. A "blasted" whale is one that died of natural causes, floating on the buoyancy of gas produced by decay. Such a whale was to be picked apart by lesser whalers, the buzzards of the sea. One imagines that such a whale's gas might be flammable, hence "blasted".
But this in no way explains how "blast" became an omnipresent euphemism for "damn". "Damn" was, in a quainter era, a very foul word, meaning actual damnation to Hell among people who believed in Hell as a literal place. But why were the Damned "blasted"?
The euphemism was frequently, and may still be today, used in comic books. But one can hear it in relatively recent movies such as Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, and Star Wars. According to the Partridge Dictionary of Slang, it's a frequent euphemism, also standing in for "bloody", another now quaint term which once had a foul meaning, referring to the blood of Christ. The earliest reference I can find, according to Webster's, is in the 16th century, but no origin or etymology is provided.
And so I give you a puzzle of linguistic archaeology: How did "blast" become a euphemism for "damn", why did it remain current for so long, and where else in relatively contemporary pop culture can it be found?
Last 5 posts by Patrick Non-White
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