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    The Book of Curses

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    Chapter 18
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    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
    Next Chapter
    Chapter 18
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