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The Book of Curses

Professor Gargoyle, you must understand, has travelled to and fro in the
earth, culling flowers of speech: a kind of recording angel he is, but
without any sentimental tears. To be plain, he studies swearing. His
collection, however, only approaches completeness in the western
departments of European language. Going eastward he found such an
appalling and tropical luxuriance of these ornaments as to despair at
last altogether of even a representative selection. "They do not curse,"
he says, "at door-handles, and shirt-studs, and such other trifles as
will draw down the meagre discharge of an Occidental, but when they do

"I hired a promising-looking man at Calcutta, and after a month or so
refused to pay his wages. He was unable to get at me with the big knife
he carried, because the door was locked, so he sat on his hams outside
under the verandah, from a quarter-past six in the morning until nearly
ten, cursing--cursing in one steady unbroken flow--an astonishing spate
of blasphemy. First he cursed my family, from me along the female line
back to Eve, and then, having toyed with me personally for a little
while, he started off along the line of my possible posterity to my
remotest great-grandchildren. Then he cursed me by this and that. My
hand ached taking it down, he was so very rich. It was a perfect
anthology of Bengali blasphemy--vivid, scorching, and variegated. Not
two alike. And then he turned about and dealt with different parts of
me. I was really very fortunate in him. Yet it was depressing to think
that all this was from one man, and that there are six hundred million
people in Asia."

"Naturally," said the Professor in answer to my question, "these
investigations involve a certain element of danger. The first condition
of curse-collecting is to be unpopular, especially in the East, where
comminatory swearing alone is practised, and you have to offend a man
very grievously to get him to disgorge his treasure. In this country,
except among ladies in comparatively humble circumstances, anything like
this fluent, explicit, detailed, and sincere cursing, aimed,
missile-fashion, at a personal enemy, is not found. It was quite common
a few centuries ago; indeed, in the Middle Ages it was part of the
recognised procedure. Aggrieved parties would issue a father's curse,
an orphan's curse, and so forth, much as we should take out a county
court summons. And it played a large part in ecclesiastical policy too.
At one time the entire Church militant here on earth was swearing in
unison, and the Latin tongue, at the Republic of Venice--a very splendid
and imposing spectacle. It seems to me a pity to let these old customs
die out so completely. I estimate that more than half these Gothic forms
have altogether passed out of memory. There must have been some splendid
things in Erse and Gaelic too; for the Celtic mind, with its more vivid
sense of colour, its quicker transitions, and deeper emotional quality,
has ever over-cursed the stolid Teuton. But it is all getting forgotten.

"Indeed, your common Englishman now scarcely curses at all. A more
colourless and conventional affair than what in England is called
swearing one can scarcely imagine. It is just common talk, with some
half-dozen orthodox bad words dropped in here and there in the most
foolish and illogical manner. Fancy having orthodox unorthodox words! I
remember one day getting into a third-class smoking carriage on the
Metropolitan Railway about one o'clock, and finding it full of rough
working men. Everything they said was seasoned with one incredibly
stupid adjective, and no doubt they thought they were very desperate
characters. At last I asked them not to say that word again. One
forthwith asked me 'What the ----'--I really cannot quote these
puerilities--'what the idiotic _cliché_ that mattered to me?' So I
looked at him quietly over my glasses, and I began. It was a revelation
to these poor fellows. They sat open-mouthed, gasping. Then those that
were nearest me began to edge away, and at the very next station they
all bundled out of the carriage before the train stopped, as though I
had some infectious disease. And the thing was just a rough imperfect
rendering of some mere commonplaces, passing the time of day as it were,
with which the heathen of Aleppo used to favour the servants of the
American missionary. Indeed," said Professor Gargoyle, "if it were not
for women there would be nothing in England that one could speak of as
swearing at all."

"I say," said I, "is not that rather rough on the ladies?"

"Not at all; they have agreed to consider certain words, for no very
good reason, bad words. It is a pure convention; it has little or
nothing to do with the actual meaning, because for every one of these
bad words there is a paraphrase or synonym considered to be quite
suitable for polite ears. Hence the feeblest creature can always produce
a sensation by breaking the taboo. But women are learning how to undo
this error of theirs now. The word 'damn,' for instance, is, I hear,
being admitted freely into the boudoir and feminine conversation; it is
even considered a rather prudish thing to object to this word. Now, men,
especially feeble men, hate doing things that women do. As a
consequence, men who go about saying 'damn' are now regarded by their
fellow-men as only a shade less effeminate than those who go about
saying 'nasty' and 'horrid.' The subtler sex will not be long in
noticing what has happened to this objectionable word. When they do they
will, of course, forthwith take up all the others. It will be a little
startling perhaps at first, but in the end there will be no swearing
left. I have no doubt there will be those who will air their petty wit
on the pioneer women, but where a martyr is wanted a woman can always be
found to offer herself. She will clothe herself in cursing, like the
ungodly, and perish in that Nessus shirt, a martyr to pure language. And
then this dull cad swearing--a mere unnecessary affectation of
coarseness--will disappear. And a very good job too.

"There is a pretty department of the subject which I might call grace
swearing. 'Od's fish,' cried the king, when he saw the man climbing
Salisbury spire; 'he shall have a patent for it--no one else shall do
it.' One might call such little things Wardour Street curses. 'Od's
bodkins' is a ladylike form, and 'Od's possles' a variety I met in the
British Museum. Every gentleman once upon a time aspired to have his own
particular grace curse, just as he liked to have his crest, and his
bookplate, and his characteristic signature. It fluttered pleasantly
into his conversation, as Mr. Whistler's butterfly comes into his
pictures--a signature and a delight. 'Od's butterfly!' I have sometimes
thought of a little book of grace-words and heraldic curses, printed
with wide margins on the best of paper. Its covers should be of soft red
leather, stamped with little gold flowers. It might be made a birthday
book, or a pocket diary--'Daily Invocations.'

"Coming back to wrathy swearing, I must confess I am sorry to see it
decay. It was such a thoroughly hygienic and moral practice. You see, if
anything annoying happens to a man, or if any powerful emotion seizes
him, his brain under the irritation begins to disengage energy at a
tremendous rate. He has to use all his available force of control in
keeping the energy in. Some of it will leak away into the nerves of his
face and distort his features, some may set his tear-glands at work,
some may travel down his vagus nerve and inhibit his heart's action so
that he faints, or upset the blood-vessels in his head and give him a
stroke. Or if he pens it up, without its reaching any of these vents, it
may rise at last to flood-level, and you will have violent assaults, the
breaking of furniture, 'murther' even. For all this energy a good
flamboyant, ranting swear is Nature's outlet. All primitive men and most
animals swear. It is an emotional shunt. Your cat swears at you because
she does not want to scratch your face. And the horse, because he cannot
swear, drops dead. So you see my reason for regretting the decay of
this excellent and most wholesome practice....

"However, I must be getting on. Just now I am travelling about London
paying cabmen their legal fares. Sometimes one picks up a new variant,
though much of it is merely stereo."

And with that, flinging a playful curse at me, he disappeared at once
into the tobacco smoke from which I had engendered him. An amusing and
cheerful person on the whole, though I will admit his theme was a little

H.G. Wells