Zounds! A Browser’s Dictionary of Interjections

Zounds! A Browser’s Dictionary of Interjections by Mark Dunn. St. Martins Press, 2005, paper.


Mark Dunn has given up on defining an interjection. Some grammarians contend that interjections lie outside the rules of grammar; i.e. that they occupy a linguistic fringe. Other grammarians admit that they are often goofy, rarely literal, but nevertheless part of grammar. Zounds! lists over 750 of them. And Mark Dunn admits that this is only a sampling.


Their uses are so varied that creating categories is difficult. Shunning the use of profanity – swear words – but at the same time wanting to make a succinct comment about the matter at hand is a common intent. Darnnation! and gol-durn it!, two of many variations, are stand-ins for the `D’ word. The list of substitutes for swear words is endless. Tarnation! as in, “What in tarnation are you up to?” For Pete’s sake! Pete is thought to reference the apostle, Peter. Gosh! Or even more explicit, gosh-all-mighty! instead of the ‘G’ word. Gee! and gee whiz! and Jiminy Cricket! instead of ‘J-C.’ There are many interjections that mock piety. Holy guacamole! Holy cow! Holy moly!


Many interjections have emerged out of popular entertainment. Jiminy Cricket! was created and sneaked into a Walt Disney movie by its writers. Yadda-yadda! warns the listener that the speaker has chosen to make a quick cut to the finish of a story or argument, or hopes that you will. It is from Jerry Steinfeld’s show. As is Giddouttahere! an interjection to use when you discover someone playing around with your gullibility.


Popular interjections come and go. Many of Dunn’s list sound like grandma talking. Fiddle-dee-dee! and for crying out loud! Grandma would never have allowed the ‘bad words’ for which these are interjections or stand-ins to be uttered in her presence. If she were really strict about these matters, she might not even have allowed these substitutes to be used within her earshot. The current O.M.G., Oh My God! would never have been approved by Grandma. Except when recited in the liturgy.


Interjections are spoken but rarely seen in print. So Dunn’s spellings are useful. The Random House Unabridged Dictionary contains many of Dunn’s interjections and its definitions are better. But first you have to figure out the spelling from a remembered oral tradition. Not so easy.


Interjections commonly function as one- or two-word commentaries. They are often impertinent, dismissive, sarcastic, saturated with attitude. Well, boo hoo! is an insincere, mocking lamentation. Duh! is a commentary on the penetrating intelligence of some observation or realization. Whatever! a contemptuous dismissal indicating a lack of interest. Phooey! is an older dismissive.


Excuuuuuse me! is a response to a rude question or thrust. When drawn out, the word “excuse” takes on a different coloration from the polite usage. Similarly puh-leeze! means something very different from “please.” Interjections can of course be affirmative. Awesome! Cool! Groovy! Right On!


Some interjections are centuries old, some decades, some just the last few years. Some seem so trite as to deserve their forthcoming oblivion. No problem! one that I would like to see fade, despite its Latin provenance. Enjoy! is overused by waiters; let it die. Have a good one! is powerfully off-putting.


But for every interjection that I hope will fade, there are a dozen that I wish would stick around. The secularized Amen! is handy to signify agreement. Boy, oh boy! is fun but threatened because it is gender specific. For crying out loud! Heck! I’ll say! La-di-da! Lord a mercy! Okey-dokey! Voilà! What the Same Hill! Our language would be the poorer without its many interjections.


I gave a review of Zounds! at one of the retirement communities in town. After the above introduction, I asked them to come up with interjections that they remember – even use. They came up with a list of over 120 that weren’t mentioned above, nor by Mark Dunn. Awesome!  A partial list: Baa humbug! Bless your little pee-picken heart! Dad-burn it! For crying out loud! Groovy! Holy cow! Is the Pope, Catholic? My my! Oh my stars and garters! Phooey! Say that again! Take a fly’n leap! You bet your sweet baby!


Warning! Don’t try these out on a crowd that is less than say 60. You’ll get a lot of blank faces, you betcha!

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