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Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The King of Expletives

-- By Tom Phillips

The following post was originally published in my retirement blog, "The Road to Dotage."  Here it is in edited form, with a new (snappy) title, and a new (happy) ending, in a last-ditch attempt to reach a younger (hipper?) audience.  

When I was a little boy, my mother told me about a sacred syllable with mysterious psychic powers.  Om” or “Aum” was said to be the sound of all sounds, rolling up from the deepest recesses of the throat, echoing through the cave of the mouth, then closing with a meditative hum as the lips closed, sealing in its secret wisdom.   

In my twenties and thirties, at the Integral Yoga Institute on 13th Street, I chanted “Om” assiduously.  The instructors said chanting it could produce a state of perfect peace, and it seemed to work, at least within the confines of the yoga institute.  However, the effect faded as soon as you hit the street.  I tried walking on 42nd Street, the busiest, noisiest, most colorful and seductive street of all, looking neither right nor left, inwardly chanting “Om.  It could be done, but it felt stupid.  This was a way of willfully devaluing the hubbub around me, and clinging to my calm center, but it didn’t really block anything out, just placed me at a psychological distance from my surroundings.  It was the aural equivalent of navel-gazing.   

As a Zen student in my thirties and forties, I chanted Buddhist sutras and prayers in a circular, repetitive form.  These greatly calmed the mind, and invoked powers of compassion and insight, and determination to drive on toward enlightenment.  But given the great complexity and subtlety of Buddhist philosophy, there could be no one syllable that said it all.  (We did meditate for a time on “MU,” but this was more a device to sweep our mind clear of anxious thoughts, rather than a clue to the puzzle.)  

As a harried worker and anxious father in my forties and fifties, I copied Homer Simpson’s “D’oh!”  This provided temporary relief when frustrated or exasperated.  It was like an explosion, a blowing off of the whole impossible situation.  It amused my co-workers, but had little or no spiritual value.   

During these years I was not consciously looking for a one-syllable answer to life’s problems.  But something in me was still scanning the vast universe of sounds and letters, like a beachcomber waving his metal wand over the innumerable sands, searching for a gold ring.  And one day, reader, I found it. 

One summer about the age of sixty, I was chuckling my way through Finnegans Wake, mostly just listening to the music, when on page 285 a word jumped out:  
“..hodgepadge, thump, kick and hurry, all boy more missis blong him he race quickfeller all same hogglepiggle longer house blong him, while the catched and dodged exarx seems himmulteeemiously to beem (he wins her hend!  He falls to tail!)..”  

blong.  What is it?  A verb, it seems.  Something somebody does to him.  Something to do with a thumping.  And it’s not the first blong in the book:  On page 247 a similar thumping took place: 
“Soldwater he wash him all time bigfeller bruisy place blong him.  Hence.  He no want missies all boy other look bruisy place blong him.” 

Page 303:   “.. could not but recken in his adder’s badder cadder way our frankson who, to be plain he fight him all time twofeller longa kill dead finish bloody face blong him, was misocain.” 

Blong him, blong him, blong him.   It is a verb, a violent verb, but yet somehow soothing.  Bonk hurts.  Blonk hurts.  But blong softens the blow, absorbs it, makes fun of it, turns pain into contemplation, swallows it, digests and incorporates it.   

See how it works in the mouth.  It begins with the most violent of plosives, B, a burst of vocalized air from the lips, the prow of the mouth.   Bah!  It combats the world’s assault by hitting back, spitting back simultaneously, fortified by the tongue and the teeth together in the wall-like L.  Then it takes the world in and gives it space with the central sound of OM itself, the long infinitely extendable O, echoing as in the holy caves of Ellura.  And finally it sends pain down the drain, into the belly with a gurgling NG.   This is the reverse action of OM, which begins in the belly and closes itself in at the lips, sealing off the inner self.  BLONG begins at the interface of person and environment, and keeps going until the two are one.  

BLONG!  Here is a sacred syllable with street smarts.  And here is the essence of Joyce’s entire oeuvre, a vast wrestling match between language and experience, with language the victor.   The four hundred blows, the slings and arrows, the drunken father, the strumpet wife, the dead child, the botched career, the bus to the fair that ends nowhere, all are redeemed in a new world springing to life from a page of letters.  And Joyce gives “blong” a place of honor.  In the first chapter of Finnegans Wake, he dubs it into the name of his city, his microcosm:   “So this is Dyoublong?” he asks on page 13, i.e. this is Dublin, with the embedded question “Do you belong?”  Could it be that the question ends with its own answer, far beyond Yes or No, a cosmic, re-verb-berating BLONG ? 

                                    A Brief History of Blong  

Joyce cites the source of Blong on page 406 of Finnegans Wake.  “..His stockpot dinner of half a pound of round steak, very rare, Blong’s best from Portarlington’s Butchery, with a side of riceypeasy..”   According to Irish genealogies, the Blongs were prosperous butchers in Portarlington, County Laois, from the early 18th to the 20th century.   They descended from French Huguenots, Protestants who fled persecution in France in the 1690s, who later Anglicized or Irishised their surname from Blanc to Blong.  At times it is said there were half-a-dozen butcher shops in Portarlington, all run by different Blongs.  

No connection between Joyce and the Blongs is known outside of Finnegans Wake.  He probably just liked the name.   But he may also have relished Blong’s merchandise.  One of the first things we learn about Joyce’s hero in “Ulysses” is that he was fond of butcher-shop delicacies:  Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liverslices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods’ roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.”
                                    Blong Today: Uses and Apps     

Blong is no longer a verb, and is little known as a proper noun.  But it survives and thrives as an expletive, in my view the King of Expletives, one that never needs to be deleted.  Use Blong the same way you would any other expletive, as a spontaneous response to your experience of the world.  It is more balanced and complete than the usual ejaculations.  Rather than just cursing and rejecting the environment, or giving up and begging for mercy,  Blong begins with a blast of protest, but then opens into contemplation and ends with reception, resignation, reconciliation, rest.   Feeling bored and frustrated?  Giddy with success?  Harried and misunderstood?  Despised and rejected?   Just say BLONG.   

It can also be used as a pure vocal exercise, for the lower notes.  Prolong the O indefinitely, or sustain the NG a la Sinatra in “You Make Me Feel So Younnngggg.”    

It also works as a telephone prompt.  If you call the cell phone of one of my daughters, you’ll be instructed to “leave a message after the BLONG.”  The next voice is her dad, at the bottom of his register, intoning the sacred syllable.    

                                    Variations on Blong  

Blong is readily inflected with Latin, Italian or made-up suffixes.   For different occasions I use “Blongo,” “Blongoria,” “Blongorioso,” Blongissimus- a- um,”  “Blongovia” and “Blongavici.”   Add your own! 

                                    Full disclosure 

At one time, I hoped to write a best-seller and get rich with a one-syllable answer to all life’s problems.   But I am not a crook, and cannot in good or bad conscience propose any such thing.  Blong works in the moment, but no way can be stretched into a full-scale philosophy.  One does not live by BLONG alone.   


Amblongus pie, Blong on Blong, Blatitude and Blongitude, Fill in the _________,  blanc stairs, Blown Save (1), Mme. Blovatsky, under the Blongyong Tree, Theosophy, Yonghi Blonghi Bo.  

-- Copyright 2013 by Tom Phillips