Dang and durn

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Zippy explores the rustic dang and durn (roughly equivalent to damn and its substitute darn), wielding them in a variety of syntactic contexts:


We get verbal durn and dang, in the formulas I'll be gol-durned and gol-dang it (corresponding roughly to I'll be god-damned and god-damn it). And the past participles used as modifying adjectives, in the durned mid-1930s and a danged country store; here the damn versions, in the damn(ed) mid-1930s and a damn(ed) country store, sound a bit too strong, to my ears, in this context (and even the darn versions don't sound quite right to me). Plus a superlative variant of these adjectives, in the dangest, gol-durnest thing. And dang used as a verbal modifier, in I ever did dang see. (Zippy throws in the idiom high-tail it as lagniappe.)

Comment 1. The "root" uses of damn (and to a lesser extent its substitute darn) express strong emotion and negative affect, but some of its uses shade off into mere surprise (I'll be damned if the package didn't explode, the damnedest thing happened to me), and it seems to me that dang and durn are especially suited to these latter uses, as in the durn(ed) mid-1930s and a dang(ed) country store.

Comment 2. Like modifying damned and darned, modifying danged and durned (but not, of course, these used as verb forms, as in I'll be gol-durned) generally have abbreviated variants, damn, darn, dang, and durn, as in some of the examples above.

Comment 3. Dang modifying verbs, as in I ever did dang see, looks special. I ever did damn see sounds marginal at best to me, and I ever did darn see and I ever did durn see are just out of the question.

Comment 4. The "rustic" variants dang and durn tend to co-occur with gol– rather than god-: ?? god-danged. No surprise: this is a kind of euphemistic concordance. And in fact, in the other direction, gol- is distinctly odd with damn(ed): ?? gol-damn(ed). (Gol-darn(ed) is not so bad, for obvious reasons.)

Comment 5. A formula that Bill Griffith didn't manage to get into the strip has some interesting features of its own: I'll be damned if I know or I'm damned if I know 'I don't know', with the rustic variants I'll be danged if I know and I'm danged if I know. These formulas have truncated variants: Damned/Danged if I know. In turn, these truncated variants have abbreviated versions — Damn/Dang if I know — even though the non-truncated variants do not: *I'll be damn/dang if I know.

There's an important point here. Although it's tempting to think of such "truncations" and "abbreviations" as active processes in speakers' grammars, again and again it turns out that these variants have a life of their own, with characteristics that do not follow from the characteristics of their "sources"; instead, the truncations and abbreviations are merely events that happened in the history of language use, events that gave rise to new idioms or constructions. In the case at hand, though damned/danged in I'll be damned if I know are clearly verb forms (and so do not have abbreviated variants), damned/danged in Damned/Danged if I know do not behave like verb forms, and have abbreviated variants.

Also note that the various d-words at issue here have somewhat different syntax (and semantics), though there's considerable overlap. They are distinct lexical items, each with its own properties. In particular, dang is not now simply a "replacement" for damn (though there was a time at which dang was innovated as an alternative to damn).

An even more general point, which has been made many times in the past: casual speech is highly structured, as is non-standard speech and speech with taboo vocabulary in it. There is variation (as there is in standard varieties, in written language, and so on), but people are not just sprinkling words around, leaving stuff out to suit their fancy, and the like.

There's no doubt a lot more that could be said about dang and durn; I'm not proposing to give anything like a full description here (that would take some serious field research), just scratching the surface.

One final comment: Zippy has correctly, as far as I can tell, identified dang and durn as (originally) rustic variants, but his placing them back in the 1930s is not exactly wrong (the words were certainly used then), though if he meant to convey that the words are old-fashioned and no longer in use, he's mistaken, as you can see from a little googling. In fact, there's speculation on the net (in UrbanDictionary, for example) that dang is recent. This is surely from people who first noticed it in the 1970s, but it is drastically wrong. The Recency Illusion strikes again: the OED has cites from the late 18th century on, from non-standard and regional varieties. It does, however, look likely that dang's career in non-rustic contexts might be relatively recent. (Durn is pretty clearly a pronunciation variant of darn, though the OED has no separate entry for it.) In any case, the history of these words and their social and regional distribution is a separate topic, one that I'm not prepared to post about today.



  1. Sridhar said,

    July 12, 2008 @ 4:29 pm

    Ah, the missed opportunity to title this "Durn und Dang"…

  2. Aristotle Pagaltzis said,

    July 13, 2008 @ 9:16 am

    The Recency Illusion in this case might be unsurprising if my experience is at all common: I had not encountered the “dang” form anywhere until a single member of a web forum I used to read popularised it within that group. I might possibly have encountered it even earlier in the Achewood web comic (whose author has a tendency to employ now-outmoded English to give flavour to his characters), which the forumite in question was/is a huge fan of, but if it weren’t for his uptake of the locution, it would not have taken root in our collective group vernacular.

    Of course, I have no idea if this experience is at all common nor have I any basis for assuming so, but it is one data point.

  3. Kragen Sitaker said,

    July 19, 2008 @ 1:58 am

    Aristotle, I think your experience might be common among people whose encounters with native English speakers are mostly in writing, rather than speech. I suspect that all native English speakers over the age of seven or so have encountered "dang" and "darn" and "durn".

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