At yesterday's English class for Latin immigrants, I was listening to a Guatemalan woman reading from her study book. That's how it works—they read aloud, and you correct them when they make a mistake and explain words and phrases that are unfamiliar or confusing. For example, in one exercise, the word "figure" was used twice, once to mean numbers and once to mean working out a problem. "The figures don't add up" and "I figured out the solution," or something along those lines.
So, in the story we were reading, a man had lost his car keys and was tearing up his house looking for them. While he was searching, a census worker was sitting in his living room and asking him the questions a census worker might ask.
The frustrated man with the lost keys became so "disgusted" and "anxious" that his visitor became "nervous" and "squirmed in his seat," all words and phrases we discussed. Then the frustrated man yelled out, "Darn!"
People just learning English don't know the word darn or any of the other so-called soft swear words like dern or shoot or jeez or friggin. You know what I mean. I tried to define darn for my student but wasn't getting anywhere. It wasn't a word she had ever heard. Finally, I said, "OK, have you heard the word damn? Now, that one she knew. She had heard it quite a bit, sometimes in the form of dammit. So, I explained that darn is simply a nicer form of the word, a more socially acceptable word.
She got it but didn't know that damn wasn't nice in some circles. Now, she knows.
I find soft swear words pretty silly, although I use them, which is not to say I don't use the original forms now and then. My father had quite a sailor's vocabulary. In his case, it would probably be more appropriate to call it a carpenter's vocabulary. He held his tongue around my mother, usually, but he didn't mind cutting loose around me when the moment was ripe for an exclamation. Besides the usual cussing, he would use other words, like dadgummit. If you bite on the T at the end, it can be as satisfying as any word out there.
One evening when I was little, my mother and sisters were out (at church, I think), and my father and I stayed home. We were sitting on the couch watching TV, and something irritated me so that I said, "Dern!" You'd think I had cussed a blue streak or used the Lord's name in vain, the way my father reacted. He chewed me out for using such foul language, and he better not ever hear me talk like that again.
I was so confused because I learned that soft word from him. If he could stomp around the house saying that and worse, why couldn't I? He had no response for my question, but I knew better than to push it. Dadgummit. As I recall, he told my mother when she got home, but I don't remember being punished. She must have realized why I might have thought that was an acceptable term.