The beach, the corpse and the cliché that hijacked my brain

I have seen a dead body twice in India. Sorry, let me back up.

I’m not a cussing man. That is, I try not to make a habit of it. I don’t have anything against expletives, only that when I do use them I want it to be on purpose. Some words are too exquisitely nasty to keep in the same plastic cooler as the craps, hells and shoots. You hear about the writer’s tool kit, but slang is more like spices. My spice rack looks like this:

Exclamations hit the brain differently than ordinary words. Psychologists suggest they come from an ancient linguistic battle station that fires up in time of conflict, and we link them to touchy subjects like sex and religion to give them power. Hence, the swear: A verbal artillery shell loaded with a culture’s semantic hangups.

These can be tricky to wield in your writing, though not in a dangerous way – some keep their venom, like certain racial slurs, but most just lose their flavor with repeated use. Psychologist Stephen Pinker points out that while no-no words are as human as language itself, the particulars always shift around. A writer who uses a lot of our four-letter friends gives his style an overall edge, but keep them in reserve and a well-placed F-bomb can light up a paragraph like a thunderbolt. 

This is where the corpse comes in.

I found it on a trip to Gokarna, India. It had washed up on the beach after three days at sea, and its skin was so white I thought it was a rescue dummy until it was actually at my feet. The moment held a cocktail of rare emotions. The initial animal revulsion. The sudden panic of the modern mind coming face-to-face with the state of nature. The question of the soul and this vacant husk that would never think, never know again.

What I said was

This wasn’t selecting a spice. It was groping around the pantry for something to use as a weapon. I hadn’t even known the phrase was back there. Yet there it was, on hand to greet mortality itself. Jiminy Crickets.

Before the Disney Pinocchio the expression was a tame stand-in for Jesus Christ, and it shows up more often than you might think. I know  because I can no longer hear the phrase without thinking of a dead person on the sand. I can’t actually use it (unless I land an assignment for Insectphobics Quarterly or something), but it remains  a little existential landmine buried in Snow White and Happy DaysGilligan shouts it, and for a small moment I wonder if whatever amusing flotsam he’s found this time isn’t the remains of a fellow castaway who took the coward’s way off the island.

I suppose the moral here is to keep your spices in order but be sure to stock your causal patois with a few good-old-fashioned fuckwords. Those are the ones that’ll show up for a fight, and you want to know who’s gonna be there when it all hits the fan.

Or rather, the beach.

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4 Responses to The beach, the corpse and the cliché that hijacked my brain

  1. Mom says:

    This is my favorite yet. Hahaha! right on.

  2. Ishii says:

    Rideassippi makes for good paprika.

  3. Craig says:


    I found that “Shut the Front Door!” stolen from somewhere, works well in certain funny situations.

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