Thursday, September 12, 2013

... you, and the horse you rode in on!

It has never made sense to me that the curse-word fuck was somehow related to the word for sexual intercourse. In fact it’s not related: the two words are homonyms. They look the same, sound the same and are spelt the same. But their origins are different – as different as the bill of a duck and the bill of rights. The curse-word may not be welcome at Grandma’s dinner-table, but it’s not obscene.

Back during the Vietnam War, a protestor in California was prosecuted for obscenity, for carrying a sign saying “Fuck the draft!” His lawyer argued (successfully) that advocating sexual intercourse with a law was such a meaningless comment that it couldn’t possibly be obscene. Correctamundo. BUT, he was lucky the judge didn’t know about homonyms. If he (the judge) had known, and had read the sign as “Curse the draft!” the protestor might have gone to jail for blasphemy. Who knows?

“May almighty God damn the draft to everlasting hellfire!” “Here’s my middle finger to the draft!” Those make sense. So do “Fuck it!” and Fuck you!” and “Fuck him!” and “Fuck off” and “Fuck me!” (“Somebody must be cursing me!”) Even “What the fuck?” We can take it to mean “God, I beg you: please tell me what’s going on!” It’s all very religious.

Most English curses call on the god of the moment. Today we say “Jesus Christ!” the way our ancestors said “Damn!” (from Domine, an earlier lord of heaven) and “Bugger!” (from Bog, a contemporary name of God, and still the name of God in some Slavic languages). “Shit/shite!” as a curse is probably the Arab or Indian evil divinity “Shaitan”, as is French zut!

There is a sameness about modern English curses that is frankly boring. Old reports tell of men who could curse for minutes without repeating themselves; but they must have been extremely mild curses. Cleaning out the camp-toilet box a few weeks ago, my son accidentally sloshed some of the liquid onto himself. He tried valiantly not to swear in front of his mother and me, but failed. “Oh shit! [longish pause] Fucketty fuck fuck fuck!!” he cried in exasperation. That’s about as original as modern swearing gets, these days.

The curse-word is probably related to our word fingerfig, in some early Germanic dialects. One of my grandmothers used to say “I don’t care a fig for that!” In many religions – perhaps most – fingers are used by priests to convey approval. “Bless you, my child!” The sign of the Cross; hands clasped in prayer or greeting; a hand raised in salute or greeting; both hands raised in the gesture of peace. Did I say “hands”? I meant fingers. Even shaking hands with someone in greeting or farewell, or to seal a deal.

Fingers crossed, two index fingers crossed to ward off the devil, knock on wood – they all reinforce silent prayers. One of my favourites – which I use myself – is the silent curse with index finger, pinky and thumb jabbed forward. Oooh, very powerful! The same gesture when pointed downwards at one’s side or behind one’s back is a prayer. It wards off the Evil Eye or any other devilish danger. I learnt that in Italy, if I remember. I wonder if they still use it.

Reportedly, it is a confrontation in an old Western movie that is reckoned to be the inspiration for what must be one of the most satisfying curses in circulation. “I’ll fight you, and the horse you rode in on!” Some character said.

Substituting “Fuck you” for the first bit while retaining the rest of the quote adds genuine quality to the curse, I believe. The poor old horse is so wonderfully irrelevant that the overall effect is just plain funny. Spoken solemnly and in genuine anger, though, it is a surprisingly effective curse. Perhaps the menace lies in daring the object of the curse to smile. After all, it really is still funny.