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Expletives are terrific fun, aren’t they? A little verbal firework display in response to a surprise of some sort—usually either painful, delightful or disgusting—without which the English language would be infinitely poorer.
But the problem with expletives is that they can cause offence in polite society, no matter how sincerely meant. In order to fully capture the shock of the moment, language has gone to the black store cupboard at the back of the racks and pulled out the stinkiest curses to use as fuel. You know the ones; the S-word, the F-word, two of the lesser B-words, they’ve all been brought out and pressed into service, because saying “oh fudge!” when you’ve dropped your only house keys down a drain doesn’t quite cut the mustard.
Then there are the blasphemies, the third-commandment-breakers: “Oh my God!” “Jesus Christ!” and so on. They exist because calling down the very heavens in moments of high stress seems somehow just and appropriate, but as God has made his feelings plain on the subject of taking his name in vain, alternatives have been sought.
The most obvious way to swerve the G-word is just to say gosh, or golly, but where’s the fun in that? We’re all creative people, and language is our playground. To really make full use of the fun of expletives, we need something more colorful, something descriptive and even a touch dramatic. Something like “oh my giddy aunt!”
Giddy is a terrific word, and very apt in the circumstances as it is based on gidi, a word derived from gudo, the old Norse word for God. So in a sense, even taking this scenic route around the houses is taking the Lord’s name in vain. But that’s not the half of it. People with mental health issues or learning disabilities were named giddy because that meant they were possessed by God. As with words like loopy and daffy and nuts, the original medical meaning has receded over the years, leaving a broadly similar definition that is hidden behind layers of pillow-soft warmth. So now giddy can mean anything from dizzy to excitable, but it’s never used as a assessment of mental acuity, as that would be crazy.
Shakespeare was fond of giddy, using it as an intensifier to mean dizzy or moving at high speeds. His “go ye, giddy goose” in Henry IV Part 1 was as much an expression of affection as it was a critique. It just means “stop it, you big silly.”
So, as “oh my God” becomes “oh my giddy aunt,” some of the depth of expression is lost, but more than ably replaced by idiosyncratic charm. And it’s a phrase you can use anywhere and not risk a telling off, even from a vicar. This is probably why the Second Doctor in Doctor Who was so fond of the phrase. Although the move to reduce it to a web acronym—OMGA—is redundant, as it’s already a way of avoiding cursing out loud.
There is also the phrase “act the giddy goat,” which does not seek to hide a stronger term behind charming euphemism. To accuse someone—a drunken buffoon, perhaps, or a loudmouth with contentious and unwelcome opinions—of acting the giddy goat is to bring them up sharply (well, not THAT sharply) on their silly behavior and demand more decorum.
For some reason, Professor Calculus in Herge’s Tintin books—most notably Destination Moon—would always empurple with rage should anyone accuse him of acting the goat.
Maybe if they had added the giddy it would have sweetened the pill a little.
Note: the aunt in question is no relation to the uncle in Bob’s your uncle. Although maybe we should introduce them at the next family wedding.