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As you know, somewhere in The adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Jim expresses his certainty that he's noticed that a noise came from the garden of Miss Watson by saying (my emphasis)

"Say, who is you? Whar is you? Dog my cats ef I didn' hear sumf'n..."

I wonder if: a) the expression in boldface was a common one in those days (at least, in the area where the story develops), b) it is totally obsolete these days, and c) you know expressions that are equivalent to it and not at all uncommon to listen nowadays.

Why do I believe that it may have been an actual expression from those times? To begin with, there is the disclaimer by M. Twain that appears at the beginning of the book:

IN this book a number of dialects are used, to wit: the Missouri negro dialect; the extremest form of the backwoods Southwestern dialect; the ordinary "Pike County" dialect; and four modified varieties of this last. The shadings have not been done in a haphazard fashion, or by guesswork; but painstakingly, and with the trustworthy guidance and support of personal familiarity with these several forms of speech.

I make this explanation for the reason that without it many readers would suppose that all these characters were trying to talk alike and not succeeding.

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They're in Missouri, not Mississippi. –  Peter Shor Nov 11 '12 at 23:22
    
Close enough for government work, no? –  user21497 Nov 11 '12 at 23:25
1  
@peter-shor He might be referring to the area of the Mississippi river, which also runs through Missouri. –  Lunivore Nov 11 '12 at 23:35
    
@Lunivore Alongside Missouri: it's the eastern boundary. The Missouri River runs through Missouri. –  StoneyB Nov 12 '12 at 0:12
    
@StoneyB "The story begins in fictional St. Petersburg, Missouri, on the shore of the Mississippi River." I therefore infer that Huck is also on the eastern boundary. –  Lunivore Nov 12 '12 at 11:01

3 Answers 3

"Dog my cats" is a minced oath, reflecting oaths of the type "God damn my eyes", or "Damn my soul". It was moderately common in the 19th century (you can generally trust Twain); just Google Books the phrase for that period.

It's not entirely obsolete, but in contemporary speech it's used pretty much jocularly, with quotes around it, like "Well hesh my mouf" or "Jeez Louise" or "Holy Maloney".

We don't worry so much about vulgar language as Twain's readers did, so contemporary equivalents would be less reticent and less colorful. If you need something generic, "Heavens" or "For heavens' sake" have been pretty much standard since Jacobean theatres and publishers started using it to replace the terms forbidden by the 1606 Act to Restrain Abuses of Players.

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I’ll be damned if I can think of a single good example of this in English, but in the Danish translations of Tintin, one of Captain Haddock’s staple interjections is Splitte mine bramsejl!, which could be rendered into good pirate English as “Well, rend my t’garns’ls!” (the latter word being an attempt at spelling the nautical pronunciation of topgallant sails), which is a precise parallel. Similar also is the more down-to-earth, “Well gross me out, and gag me with a spoon!”. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Jan 18 at 15:23

My great-grandfather, born 1865, used to use the term and I asked him what it meant. He told me that it was short for 'turn your dogs loose on my cats why don't you'. It was used when someone was being unnecessarily mean to you verbally or physically.

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My grandparents used it in the same way as I’ll eat my hat! or Durned if I ain’t!, with the meaning of “I swear I’m telling the truth.”

It is as the first sentence said: a minced oath, meaning that it is used in the place of actual swear words, usually “I’ll be damned if. . . .”

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protected by tchrist Jun 26 at 14:16

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