It’s a word used across the United States and even internationally, but maybe not as comprehensively as in Stearns County, Minnesota.
Dangit is such a shapeshifting word. It can be used with countless inflections to convey meaning, emotion, and pain.
It’s especially elastic when avoiding the use of filthy language. This was an attraction of dangit for German Catholics in the Stearns County of my youth, and maybe to this day.
The word dang was invented by writer Sophia Lee as a euphemism for ‘damn’, and made its first appearance in her 1781 comedic five act play The Chapter of Accidents: “Dang it, doan’t I zeay, I’ll tell thee present.”
What does that sentence even mean?
Never mind. It gave us dangit.
The word must have then made its way from Europe with the immigrant hordes to Stearns County, the country, and the world.
Germans aren’t renowned for liking change but they know a good thing when they hear it, and the potential applications of dangit must have appealed at a time when swear words were verboten and people had to be creative lest they wind up in purgatory or even hell.
When I was growing up swearing was a no-no, so dangit came in handy.
Even Dad, with his bad Hilsgen temper, would visibly struggle not to let the worst words escape his compressed lips in swear-worthy situations. Like if he struck his thumb with a hammer, or brought the wrong groceries home from the Red Owl or Piggly Wiggly, or if, when surrounded by careless children casting fishing lines, a hook would pierce actual flesh while lake-bound at warp speed. Oh ja.
I could tell Dad wanted to swear more than he did, but thanks to lip compression, religious boundaries, and the pure force of his Germanic personality, all that escaped might be a single ferocious dangit. Or a dammit. Or sometimes a scheiß. Seldom did we hear the Lord’s name taken in vain. I’m sure instances of the latter were always confessed at St Anthony’s after church on Sunday.
He liked gauges, pumps and engines – to take things apart and put them back together and to know what made them tick.
He invented things down in the basement, one of which was patented, its purpose of obscure relevance to large boiler systems of the day. Dad was fascinated by the possibilities of coal and steam and nuclear energy, sometimes touring the power plants of Minnesota including Becker’s, which was trialing the use of waste steam to grow hothouse tomatoes.
Having grown up on a farm and maintained a large garden throughout his life, while he was impressed by how fast and large the steam-cosseted tomatoes grew, and how delicious they looked, he said they had no taste.
"Tomatoes need to grow outside with plenty of water and sunshine, dangit. You can't hurry a good tomato."
Dad’s mechanical interests took a completely different turn later.
I’ve always thought he should have stuck to big things, like the boilers in the hospital basement next to the Mississippi River that were so tall you had to climb a catwalk to check their moving parts. But we each have our ways.
Once, when visiting him at work, I saw what looked like a face with eyes, a nose, and a mouth tattooed in blood on the concrete floor. Dad said the imprint of his workmate’s visage resulted from a medical incident when the man fell many feet to the pavement below.
“It doesn’t wash off, and when I see it I remember to be careful and to pray for him.”
Miraculously, the colleague survived, but I still wonder what became of him. And whether the Turin-like face of blood can still be found on the floor of St Cloud Hospital’s boiler room next to the Mississippi River.
One year Dad was asked to fix typewriters as a side hustle, then fishing reels for a sports store downtown.
He set up a workstation in the basement complete with newly purchased tiny tools and a radio so he could listen to his favorite polka stations.
Dad received a modest fee for each repair. Some were completed easily, and others tested his bad Hilsgen temper.
For the easy fixes all we heard were melodic waltzes and polkas. When things went wrong there were dangits and dammits and dangs, plus muttered words that took him into confession territory, especially if tiny cogs, springs and screws bounced onto the dark linoleum and could not be found.
We all held our breaths on nights when Dad fixed typewriters and fishing reels but dangits aside, it was work he enjoyed. Mostly humming along with his favorite waltzes and polkas.
Like oh ja, there are no rules for dangit. But I’ll share some examples to get you started.
- “I told you to watch for deer, dangit.”
- “Who took my scraper, dangit?”
- “Dangit, do I have to do everything around here?”
A fierce hail of dangits while playing video games once prompted my sister to confiscate her son's prized gaming console. "You can have it back when you can control yourself." Like most things, even dangits can be taken too far in Stearns County, Minnesota.
Photos Thostend, Liliboas, and SK Howard, istock