How to curse by Sandra Horn


We’ve just been with a group of friends in Northumberland. Beautiful Northumberland. We are a disparate lot and apart from us Southerners, members of the group hail from Berwick on Tweed, Glasgow, Cumbria, Yorkshire. I just love listening to the musical lilt in the conversations around the table, and the discussions about all and sundry, in particular, words: ‘what do YOU call…?’ It made me think about how furious I get when our language is reduced – especially so-called ‘strong language’ which is anything but strong. Rather, it’s weak as it conveys so little except, usually, ire. It isn’t far removed from grunt-and-point to keep on saying ‘fuck’, for example – and, while I’m at it, its usage in everyday speech is relatively new. It makes me angry when it is used in films supposedly set in, say, the post-war years. It was then considered so rude and vulgar that it would have been very shocking to hear anyone use it, and if someone said it in front of a woman he (probably he) would have been knocked down/ostracised/reviled. Maybe amongst some groups of men it was in common parlance, but otherwise rarely if ever heard. Now it is on everyone’s lips, so to speak, and any shock value it once had is long gone. So where do we go from here if we want to convey something extreme? Do we need new curse words? Not really, we just need to know how to use what we already have to best effect.

 In Carlisle, there is a millennium pavement on which are the family names of the Border Rievers, so that everyone treads on them. The pavement leads to a tall stone carved with words from Gavin Dunbar, Archbishop of Glasgow in the late 16th century.




 The Rievers were making so many people’s lives an utter misery (the lives of those who survived the raids, that is) that he cursed them in an impressive 1,000-word tirade, which was subsequently read from every pulpit in the Diocese. He used no swear words as we know them, he just let rip with pointed and unmistakeable words in the usage of the day: 

"I curse their head and all the hairs of their head; I curse their face, their brain, their mouth, their nose, their tongue, their teeth, their forehead, their shoulders, their breast, their heart, their stomach, their back, their womb, their arms, their legs, their hands, their feet, and every part of their body, from the top of their head to the soles of their feet, before and behind, within and without."

"I curse them going and I curse them riding; I curse them standing and I curse them sitting; I curse them eating and I curse them drinking; I curse them rising, and I curse them lying; I curse them at home, I curse them away from home; I curse them within the house, I curse them outside of the house; I curse their wives, their children, and their servants who participate in their deeds. I worry* their crops, their cattle, their wool, their sheep, their horses, their swine, their geese, their hens, and all their livestock. I worry their halls, their chambers, their kitchens, their stanchions, their barns, their cowsheds, their barnyards, their cabbage patches, their plows, their harrows, and the goods and houses that are necessary for their sustenance and welfare."

"May all the malevolent wishes and curses ever known, since the beginning of the world, to this hour, light on them. May the malediction of God, that fell upon Lucifer and all his fellows, that cast them from the high Heaven to the deep hell, light upon them."

And so forth. Strong language indeed. No amount of effing and blinding could make it any stronger. I’m not sure how I got here from chats round the table with northern friends, but for what it’s worth, here it is: our magnificent, rich and colourful language.


·        * Ill-wish


 labels: strong language, Gavin Dunbar, The Curse Stone, Northumberland



Susan Price said…
I'm a big fan of the Archbish's curse but I think it was intended as a true curse, a sort of malign spell intended to do harm, so he had to be exact and thorough in his wording or it wouldn't work. I'm not sure the style is suitable for when you drop a hammer on your toe: 'I curse this hammer: I curse its metal and its wood: I curse those who mined the ore and those who cut the tree...'

And as the creator of the Border Reiving Sterkarms, I think I have to say that their existence was the result of centuries of ceaseless wars and politicking between the powerful in both England and Scotland. Since neither country could effectively claim (and tax) the Borders, they abandoned them to lawlessness. Many Border people allied themselves to one of the leading reiver tribes because, violent bastards though they were,they offered some tiny protection from all the other violent bastards when no one else did.

And there I am, casually using bad language. 'Bastard' is another word that was used very sparingly in our youth and still retained its original meaning of 'born out of wedlock.' You are absolutely right about 'fuck.' I was once bored almost to distraction listening to a friend whose every other word was 'fuck.' He even split words and put it in the middle. Repeated so often, it had no shock value, no descriptive or characterising value: no value at all. It was a bit like listening to a toddler banging randomly on a drum.
Sandra Horn said…
I was thinking of you and the Sterkarms while we were in Northumberland! We came back lateish on Friday and I struggled to think of what to blog about at short notice. I'd been telling someone we met about the curse and it was all I could manage. I guess 'fuck you' is a sort of curse but it makes no sense at all!
Jan Needle said…
May every old fairy, from Cork to Dun Laoghaire

Tip him prompt and merry In river or lake

May a lump of a stick raise the bumps fast and thick

On the monster that murdered me beautiful drake.

May hIs cat never hunt, may his pig never grunt, may his shirt fly away like an ould paper kite.

Et cetera et cetera…

That's the way to curse, never mind your mimsey archbishops. Having said which, I am an absolute believer that swearing of almost any sort is a fine, wonderful, and absolutely essential part of our language.. As they say in France,"crudites sont trezz bong."

Bill Kirton said…
I was going to write something supposedly witty or maybe recall some memory of my youth when grown-ups didn't swear, but more recent examples of my own linguistic reactions every single time I see or hear de Pfeffel disqualify me from contributing to the debate.
Sandra Horn said…
Well yes, Bill! In spite of my protestations, I can't stick to plain non-sweary words whenever I see/hear/think about him either - and not just him...
Penny Dolan said…
Thank you for this magnificent curse, Sandra. I'm copying it out, in case a suitable occasion comes along.

Thanks to for remindng me of that landscape and coastline and Sue Price's mighty clan of Sterkarms!

I agree about the Archbishops words being an incantatory curse on both body and spirit and wonder whether if, if you had a sudden headache or stomach-ache or even a nit-bite, thos words would set you worrying anxiously whether tthe curse had struck? Like a health warning now when you stop - or start - doing something unhealthy for a day or two?

But if you were a reiver, when death was common-place, would it or would it not have a hold in the dark middle of the night.

ps. That's my automatic reaction to appearances of the Piffel too!
Susan Price said…
Love your curse on the duck-murderer, Jan. And I agree that, on the whole, profanity is one of the joys of life -- but like a lot of other things, it can become very dull and boring when there's no inventiveness behind it.

Penny, from what I've learned of the reivers, I doubt the archbishop's curse would have worried them. When an Elizabethan, English 'Warden of the March' had one in prison, he discovered that the man had almost no knowledge of Christianity. They wouldn't have had much idea of what an archbishop was.
I agree with you, Susan, using that same word again and again just devalues its ability to shock or have any effect except boredom. (Incidentally in case anyone is tempted ever to watch the film 'Burn After Reading' I can tell you this is a prime example - I was misled by a review claiming it was a comedy, which it wasn't either.)
I trained myself not to swear when the kids were small in case they picked it up from me, and I am glad to say this has more or less worked.
Griselda Heppel said…
Your farzer was a 'ampstair and your mozzer smelt of eldairberries...' Now why did that come to mind?
Love all the richness of malevolence on display here.
Ruth Leigh said…
Magnificent! I like some of Shakespeare's insults and curses. They sound far better nowadays than random shouting of the f-word

Popular posts

How to Make Love to Your War Bag ~ Reb MacRath

Hit the Road, Jack, and Don’t You Come Back, No More No More No More No More (well, until you’ve sold at least five books, anyway)

A Few Discreet Words About Caesar's Penis--Reb MacRath

Where We Work (Part Two) - Joint Post

Needle fails again by Jan Needle