Dagnabbit is Not an Adjective: Progressive Fails on Language Use

By Laurel Sutton

December 7, 2010

Today’s lesson is about language use, and more specifically, how to use a swear word correctly.

I am usually a fan of Progressive’s commercials, starring the ever-cheerful Flo; they’re short and funny, and while I don’t believe for a second that Progressive actually does allow you to “name your own price” for auto insurance, I like the idea of an ethereal store where you can shop for insurance packages. Maybe it’s supposed to look like heaven.

Anyway, I must complain in the strongest possible way about this most recent commercial because of the blatant misuse of a euphemism. You’ll remember from 8th grade English class that euphemisms are more polite ways of saying something rude or distressing. In this case, alongside the other amusing “old codger” slang, we have the word dagnabbit. This is a word you might associate with Yosemite Sam; it has a definite cartoonish quality, a word that no one would actually use. One wonders if people actually said this, or if it’s just something Mark Twain made up to fool people.
Here’s the definition from Urban Dictionary:

Oldcootism used during great consternation or surprise. Used by 1890s prospectors, cantankerous old farmers, and young people playing old people on TV in the ‘60s and ‘70s.

That is certainly the case in this commercial, where the Old Coot in question uses late 19th/early20th century slang like flibbity-flab, mumbo-jumbo, gobbledy-gook, and okie McSmokie skittly doo, which I think was made up by the writers of this commercial while they were really, really high. (All Old Cootisms are taken from the transcript of this commercial at the Progressive web site. I, for one, am not making this up.) Dagnabbit is a play on goddammit, with the first and last letters of god switched to, I don’t know, make it more palatable. Same with tarnation for damnation, and consarn it for consign it to hell.
But here’s the thing. The Old Coot says

Do I still get all the dagnabbit coverage I need?

This doesn’t make any sense. You’d never say

Do I still get all the godammit coverage I need?

You might say “goddamn coverage”, but you can’t translate that to “dagnab coverage” without totally confusing 100% of your viewing audience. So are we supposed to think that the Old Coot is really crazy, and doesn’t know how to use his Old Cootisms, or should we think that the writers are clueless? Or perhaps, as I pointed out earlier, high?

Sure, I’m a linguist and I obsess about stuff like this. But I think if you’re going to use language as the entire fabric of a joke in a nationwide commercial, you might want to, you know, get it right. I would like to offer my services to Progressive to vet all future commercials for this sort of thing. In the meantime:

Zounds!
Strewth!
and Bloody Hell!

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