Damn And Blast

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


  1. Laura K says

    Hi Patrick,

    I would wonder if this is an abreviation from a longer phrase "blasted by the fires of hell". Sometimes liguistic terms just pop up because enough people shorten a phrase or find a correlation between two seperate entities in a fashion that makes sense to them and boom!

    Also there's a wealth of references in western culture linking hell to the underworld–Cumae, Hades, etc and, in turn, volcanic fissures or vents which would 'blast' forth. And even less educated sailors had more access to classical reference and, in fact, a lot of things that people with comparable education (or lack) today do not. Not to mention that Melville would have grown up hearing the rhetoric wealth of traditional 19th century sermons and received a classical education–of some kind. He would have easily combined blast and damned as many people of his era may have. If you are damned to suffer the blasts of hellish heat etc you are damned; maybe that is the unconsious logic?

  2. says

    I also always understood it to mean "blasted by the fires of hell." The earliest source I can find with casual internet browsing, from 1819, seems to bear that meaning. See here.

  3. C. S. P. Schofield says

    I wonder if Mencken's American Language has anything to say on the subject? I'll see if my copy is anywhere near the surface and get back to you. The one observation that springs to mind is that, from a pronunciation POV, it's satisfyingly explosive.

  4. Andrew says

    The OED actually goes back a bit further, to 1634:

    "And thus I kiss'd my last breath. Blast you all." — George Chapman, Revenge for Honour

  5. A Critic says

    3.3 Cursed, damned. In low language as an expression of reprobation and hatred. Also used adverbially.


    1682 Dryden Medal 260 What Curses on thy blasted Name will fall.    1750 Chesterfield Lett. 8 Jan. (1870) 169 Colonel Chartres‥who was, I believe, the most notorious blasted rascal in the world.    1854 M. J. Holmes Tempest & Sunshine (1858) xv. 204 Lord's sake be spry, for I'm blasted hungry!    1874 Pusey Lent. Serm. 79 Balaam, after the success of his blasted counsel.    1884 Gd. Words Nov. 767/1 Jim Black states that the ‘blasted’ railway has done away with those journeys.    1886 Leslie's Pop. Monthly Jan. 67/2 He's too blasted smart for an Indian.

  6. C. S. P. Schofield says

    Mencken does mention Blast as a substitute for Damn and Blasted as a substitute for Damned, but gives no clue as to the reasoning, save to observe that at times Blast and Blasted have been considered fairly strong language, although by his day this feeling has retreated to the most remote country enclaves and the recesses of the Post Office. He does mention that the DAE (Dictionary of American English) traces Blast (as an expletive, in the Americas) to 1854.

  7. Rich Rostrom says

    Going back further: the Three Witches confront Macbeth and Banquo on a "blasted heath". This is not an expletive, but a reference to the desolate character of the landscape:

    MACBETH: "Say from whence
    You owe this strange intelligence? or why
    Upon this blasted heath you stop our way
    With such prophetic greeting?"

    "Blasted" as a descriptive is clearly negative. ISTR "blast" applied to the ruination of crops, fruit, or flowers by untimely weather.

  8. Josh says

    No comment on blast as a euphemism, but I encourage you to also read In the Heart of the Sea, by Nathaniel Philbrick. It is the true story which served, at least allegedly, as the inspiration for Moby Dick.

  9. says

    As "bloody" is a now quaint term with a formerly extremely profane meaning, I wonder how long it will be before "fuck" becomes relatively innocuous.

  10. IGotBupkis, Sailing the Economic Seas Betwixt Scylla And Charybdis says

    Heh, you want an interesting linguistic twist, go through as many old dictionaries as you can find — what percentage of those published before 1990 had the word "misogynist" but not the term "misandrist"?

    I noted that when looking for a word meaning misandrist, and actually could not find it… not even in theOED, which is supposed to contain everything that isn't slang.

    I had to guess what it was by comparing the roots of the words polygamy and polyandry.

    And no, misanthropist is not the same as misandrist, not by a long shot.

    A very curious omission from the language, seems to me.

  11. IGotBupkis, Sailing the Economic Seas Betwixt Scylla And Charybdis says

    There's always been a linguistic internet working: It treats censorship as noise and routes around it.

    Hence the word "snafu", which is short for "situation normal, all ephed up"… and no, unless you're explaining it to your great grandmother or your first grader, "ephed" does not mean "fouled". Similarly, there's the word "fubar", which stands for "ephed up beyond all recognition", and often shortened to "foo" — and visible repeatedly in old Smokey Stover comic strips (yeah, yeah, yeah, even knowing the name dates me. Eph U :D …)

    Now, interestingly enough, I'm curious about the etymology of the eph word itself. I've been told that it stands for usage in police blotters of a shorthand for "For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge", but some sources seem to argue that it predates that. That's certainly how the Van Halen album got its name, but is that a true story…?