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

This story isn’t about Myanmar, but India. I have seen a dead body twice there. Sorry, let me back up.

As a writer, I don’t like to curse. 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 cardboard box as crap, hell and shoot. 

You hear about the writer’s tool kit, but slang is more like spices. I like to think my spice rack is nice and organized. At the very bottom there’s your mundane slang, then minor oaths like hell and damn on the shelf up, then above that the F-bombs and S-words. At the very top, in a locked cabinet, you have the racial slurs, slang for female genitalia, and other sticks of semantic dynamite. 

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. 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.

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I found it on a trip to the seaside 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. That moment had a cocktail of delicate emotions. The initial animal revulsion. The sudden panic of my 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.

My brain fired up the linguistic battle stations, and what I said was


It 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 character, that expression was a tame stand-in for Jesus Christ, and it shows up more often than you might think.

I know this because I can no longer hear the phrase without thinking of a dead person on the sand.

Now it’s at the very top shelf. I can’t actually use it (unless I write an article for Insectphobics Quarterly or something), but it remains a little existential land mine buried in Snow White, Wizard of Oz and Gilligan’s Island—the Skipper shouts it, and for a small moment I wonder if whatever amusing flotsam he’s found this time isn’t the body 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 lingo with a few good-old-fashioned fuckwords. Those are the ones that’ll show up for a fight, and you want to know what’s gonna be there when destiny washes up.

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