Damn! What a column!
I have always been fascinated by words, in any form: puns, anagrams, palindromes, rhymes, rhythms and especially word origins. The only word activity I don’t like is crossword puzzles, since they’re either too easy or too hard, and each is as frustrating as the other.
Lots of people are curious about words, but almost all the ones I know are different from me, in that I’m obsessive. For example, if I’m talking with a guy and some word origin comes up, after we say goodbye he may or may not pursue it. But you can bet your bip I’m not going to rest till either I find its origin or find out there’s no known one.
And so it was with a phrase that took me about 45 years to finally find out.
I first heard it in high school, and the only people I knew who said it were Tupper Lakers. The phrase is sounded “Mo-Jee Tooper Lock” and was always shouted as an exclamation, but there never seemed to be rhyme or reason why it was shouted.
“Tooper Lack” is of course a corruption of Tupper Lake. But what in the world was “Mo-jee?”
Good question, chum, and one that nobody I asked could answer.
It was the darndest thing. Everyone I knew in Tupper knew the expression, and a bunch of them used it. In a Tupper bar on a Saturday night everyone’d be hooting it up, when suddenly some guy would yell, “Mo-Jee Tooper Lock!” Then everyone else would laugh, cheer or yell it out, too.
Was it a rallying cry? I didn’t know … and I wasn’t the only one.
I’d make my way over to the guy who first shouted it.
“Hey,” I’d say, “you just yelled ‘Mo-jee Tooper Lock,’ right?”
“Yeah … ?” he’d say, wondering why I asked him the obvious.
“So do you know what ‘Mo-jee’ means?”
“No idea,” he’d say.
And then, inevitably, he’d add he heard it from his grandfather or uncle or some old guy who worked at OWD — someone. And it was always someone older. So if I knew nothing else about it, I knew it’d been around a long time. And if that was the case, I figured lots of old folks would know what it meant.
It turned out no adult I asked knew, either. Their answers were the same as the guy in the bar — they’d heard all their lives but had no idea what it meant. The only thing anyone could tell me was it was a French word, which I’d already assumed.
So 30 or 35 years went by with me hot on the trail of the origin of “Mo-jee,” but the trail was as cold as a politician’s heart.
Then about 15 years ago, I thought I found the answer.
I knew a guy from Malone whose grandparents were French-Canadian, and I asked him.
“Never heard ‘Mo-jee Tooper Lock,'” he said. “I did hear ‘Mo-jee tabernack.'”
“Where’d you hear it?” I asked.
“From my grandmother. When she got ticked off at us kids, that’s what she’d say.”
“So do you know what ‘Mo-jee’ means?” I asked, feeling as if this was too good to be true.
“Yeah,” he said. “It’s ‘Moses in the tabernacle.’ I think it’s a kind of curse.”
I pondered that for a long moment.
“‘Moses in the tabernacle?” I repeated. “It doesn’t sound like a curse to me.”
“Think about it,” he said. “You’ve got Moses, a Jewish guy, in a Catholic church. It could be considered a sacrilege or something. I mean, why would he ever be in there in the first place?”
“He wouldn’t,” I said, “seeing how he croaked about a thousand years before Jesus was even a gleam in God’s eye and there was any such thing as a Catholic church.
“Besides,” I said, “‘tabernacle’ is actually a Hebrew word that means synagogue, which is a Greek word.”
“Whatever,” he said, obviously putting the issue to rest. “I just know it’s a curse and ‘Mo-jee’ means Moses.”
It turned out he was half-right … and thus half-wrong.
Yes, “tabernack” was tabernacle. But ‘Mo-jee’ was not Moses.
So now the logical question is, if it doesn’t mean Moses, what does it mean? That’s a whole n’other story.
The devil and the deep blue sky
About 10 more years went by before I finally found out the answer. I learned it from a Tupper Laker, Diane Fee, who before she was a Tupper Laker was a Quebecoise, born and bred, and thus fluent in French. More importantly, she’s fluent in Quebecois, which is a French dialect. And everything hinged on that.
She not only knew the phrase “Mo-jee tabernack,” she knew what it meant — all of it.
“I’ve always heard the phrase but didn’t know what ‘Mo-jee’ meant,” I said, “till some guy told me it was Moses.”
“Well, he told you wrong,” she said.
“He did?” I said.
“Yes,” she said. “It doesn’t mean Moses; it means ‘damn.’ So it’s, ‘Damn the tabernacle,’ but it’s not meant seriously.”
“So it’s like us saying, ‘Holy crap?'”
“Yeah. I guess it depends on context,” she said. “And there’s a folk tale about it.”
“Sort of. About the damned and a devil, a special devil. A French-Canadian devil.”
“Like Rene Levesque?” I said.
“Oh, a lot worse than him,” she said.
“Is that possible?” I said.
She laughed again.
“Well, in folk tales he makes deals with voyageurs who need to get somewhere fast, by lending them his canoe, which flies. It’s like the canoe of the damned. In return, they promise to give him their souls if they do something wrong.”
“Something wrong, like what?”
“Various things. Take God’s name in vain, bump into a church, all sorts of stuff.”
“And of course they end up doing that?”
“Of course,” she said.
“And then the devil takes their souls?”
“No,” she said. “Funny thing, but somehow they almost always outwit him or he gives them a break.”
To me, he seemed, if not nicer than Rene Levesque, a lot less determined. But I let it pass.
And that ended my search for the definition of Mo-jee. But what didn’t end was my curiosity about why, if I spent 45 years trying to find the definition, I never succeeded.
I searched almost religiously, first in dictionaries, then asking French teachers, then on the internet. Obviously, I drew a blank every time. And the reason I did was because of something I mentioned earlier — that Quebecois is a dialect. So while spellings might stay the same from Paris to Quebec, the pronunciations change.
I heard Mo-jee, and that’s how I spelled it. Or maybe Mo-gee. Or even Moh-gie. But none of that mattered. Even though it’s pronounced Mo-jee, it’s spelled Maudit, something I had no clue about and, if I had seen it, would’ve pronounced the Parisian way, Mo-dee.
Once I knew how it was spelled, I looked at a bunch of entries on the internet and found out something interesting about it. It translates as “damn,” but in Quebec it’s used in a positive way, as in “Damn, that’s good!” And thus, “Damn! Tupper Lake!” — as in, “Ain’t we something!”
Ultimately, this search not only gave me sense of triumph, but it made me appreciate the three great gifts Quebec has bestowed upon the world.
One is a forgiving devil.
The second is “damn” as a positive word.
And the last, and by far the most important, is of course poutine!