We’re staying inside, we’re social-distancing (or, more accurately, physical-distancing), we’re washing our hands over and over, we’re inventing new corona-words, we’re choosing new email signoffs (adieu to “Cheers!”; bonjour to “Be well”).
And here in the virtual Strong Language enclave, we’re thinking about illness-inspired swearing.
Contemporary English falls short here: “A pox on both their houses” was vividly literal for the original audience of Romeo and Juliet, for whom smallpox was a daily threat; today its meaning is literary and metaphorical. But in two European languages, Dutch and Yiddish, the tradition of sickness-cursing is alive and thriving.
“No one in England has been called a ‘poxy bitch’ for centuries, but in the Netherlands you can still call someone a pokkenteef,” observes the anonymous author of a March 26 article about Dutch swearing in The Economist (paywalled). In American English you “laugh your ass off”; in Dutch you “laugh yourself the pleurisy” (lachen je de pleuris). (Pleurisy is an inflammation of the pleura, the thin layers of tissue that separate the lungs from the chest wall.)
Kanker—cancer—is an especially potent Dutch swear. “If you want to make something offensive in Dutch, just add kanker to it – ‘cancer sufferer’ is an extremely coarse insult,” wrote James Harbeck in a 2015 article for the BBC about global swearing. In a recent email, James—who publishes here as Sesquiotic—followed up: “I can confirm, from interaction with a Dutch friend, that these swears have real impact. Kankerhoer, ‘cancer whore,’ for instance, is about as friendly as fucking cunt.”
Dutch swears may also invoke illnesses that have mostly been eradicated in developed countries: You can tell someone to “typhus off” (optyfussen) or “get consumption” (krijg de tering). According to the regularly updated Wikipedia list of illness-related Dutch swears, corona is already being used is used “the same way as kanker, kolere [cholera], tering [tuberculosis], or tyfus [typhus].”
Yiddish—the language once spoken by millions of European and diaspora Jews, and kept alive by organizations such as New York’s National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene—has an equally robust and perhaps even more elaborate tradition of illness-cursing. Consider some examples from the Yiddish Radio Project’s website:
Got zol gebn, er zol hobn altsding vos zayn harts glist, nor er zol zayn geleymt oyf ale ayvers un nit kenen rirn mit der tsung.
God should bestow him with everything his heart desires, but he should be a quadriplegic and not be able to use his tongue.
A kramp (a kram, a kortsh) im in layb (in boyakh, in di kishkes, in di gederem, in di finger).
A cramp in his body (in his stomach, in his guts, in his bowels, in his fingers and toes).
Trinkn zoln im piavkes.
Leeches should drink him dry.
Er zol kakn mit blit un mit ayter.
He should crap blood and pus.
A couple of curses are especially apt for Passover, which begins this year at sundown on April 8:
Er zol hobn paroys makes bashotn mit oybes krets.
He should have Pharaoh’s plagues sprinkled with Job’s scabies.
Gut zol oyf im onshikn fin di tsen makes di beste.
God should visit upon him the best of the Ten Plagues.
…not to mention the all-purpose (and rhyming) “Zol er krenken un gedenken” (Let him suffer and remember).
The chapter on curses in Michael Wex’s invaluable Born to Kvetch: Yiddish Language and Culture in All Its Moods (2005) opens with an elaborate epigraph—a curdled blessing that’s a specialty of Yiddish cursing:
You should own a thousand houses
with a thousand rooms in each house
and a thousand beds in every room.
And you should sleep each night in a different bed
in a different room
in a different house
and get up every morning
and go down a different staircase
and get into a different car,
driven by a different chauffeur
who should drive you to a different doctor—
and he shouldn’t know what’s wrong with you, either.
Wex observes: “This kind of elaborate curse—delivered in a Talmudic singsong—isn’t an imprecation; it’s a pastime, a form of recreation that lets standard Yiddish thought and speech run wild.” If kvetching—complaining—is “essentially passive,” Yiddish cursing “is a step in the direction of control; it’s the kvetch armed, the kvetch-militant, the kvetch that sets out to silence itself.”
Wex lists a litany of imaginative, misery-invoking curses:
May your feet be twisted
May your belly make you scream
May your gallbladder burst
A thunderbolt in your sides
You should have angina
You should break your head
May your penis lie in a grave
May a hole and a hernia lie in your guts
And the notably specific yet medically undocumented
You should piss green worms
Not to mention the all-purpose toyte klole or “dead curse” Ver derharget, literally “get yourself killed.” It’s so useful that its English translation, Drop dead!, has been used since at least the 1930s by such notable goyim as John O’Hara (Appointment in Samarra, 1934) and John Osborne (Look Back in Anger, 1957)—and, memorably, by Judy Holliday as Billie Dawn in Born Yesterday:
Billie: Would you do me a favor, Harry?
Harry Brock: What?
Billie: Drop dead!
“It is fitting,” Wex writes, “that people who regard medical school as the most important non-Jewish invention of all time should put a particular emphasis on illness in their cursing.” Yiddish curses often invoke “a plague,” “a recurrent fever,” and “choleria”—the last of which, a bastardization of cholera, is pronounced kho-LEH-ree-a and can refer to an unpleasant person.
Cholera deserves one additional linguistic note. Standard dictionaries will tell you the word comes from a Greek source, khole, meaning “bile.” When I was learning Hebrew, though, I heard a different story: that cholera comes from Hebrew kholi-ra, “bad disease.” It turns out that this folk etymology goes back to the Middle Ages, when cholera epidemics were prevalent, mysterious, and dreaded. We’re seeing similar folk etymologies today with COVID-19, which is not, in fact, an acronym for “Chinese-originated viral infectious disease” (thank you, Snopes).
May we all live in healthier times.