The Creative Exploration of Language


The word tarnation popped into my head the other day and I realized that I had no idea what it meant.  I had always had the sense that it was some type of Americanism and, like many Americanisms, that it was also a euphemism.  Beyond those vague impressions, I had never thought much about the word since the last time I had heard it from the mouth of Yosemite Sam many years ago.

I can’t recall what brought it to my mind now, but as I looked into it, I found that there are two competing theories in relation to where the word comes from.  The first is that it is simply a variant version of ‘darnation’, an American euphemism for ‘damnation’.

The second theory is that it is actually a combination of two words that make up a euphemistic phrase.  The original phrase was ‘eternal damnation’, which, in some 19th Century American accents, could be pronounced as ‘etarnal damnation’.  From here, the words were simply combined into a new word, ‘tarnation’, which combined elements from both words in the phrase.  This process is reminiscent of the one which formed the Elizabethan euphemism ‘zounds’, which was a somewhat tortuous combination of ‘God’s wounds’.

Whichever theory is correct, both methods are interesting and represent potentially fruitful areas to explore for modern language lovers, whether they are writers or not.  New terms and modifications such as those that produced the word ‘tarnation’ are valid linguistic expressions, though, as with other creative uses of language, I believe that the writer bears the responsibility to ensure that any new words created proceed from legitimate antecedents and are not simply created ex nihilo.

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