Cursing — Catholic Style

During the seventh inning of a recent baseball game, umpire John Hirschbeck got carried away in a dispute with pitcher Hideki Irabu, the temperamental but promising New York “Yankee” from Japan. Two days later, the New York Times stirred up matters further, reporting that Hirschbeck had made an insulting comment about Irabu’s nationality.

Hirschbeck’s defense was truly a sign of the times, as well as of the Times. “It did not happen,” he explained. “‘Japanese’ was never said. I did cuss. That’s part of the game. But I never said anything racially. On the lives of my family, that’s the truth.”

The media debated the merits and veracity of this reply, but no one seemed struck by the odd congruity it implied. We have reached a point in our topsy-turvy worldview, when profanities of any sort aimed at God are “part of the game,” while references to nationality—or other pieties of the modern age—have become the new blasphemy. Hirschbeck’s final statement—swearing on the lives of his family—added a piquant touch to the whole proceeding.

To be just, St. Augustine classified cursing among the slighter sins (although a number of Biblical passages could be cited which imply a more severe judgment). Yet it is also among the most pathetic: Truly, it is a self-inflicted wound. Instead of enhancing their prestige and authority, the “cussers” merely put on display their own debasement and lack of character. How much better to emulate Calvin Trillin’s father who, according to a recent memoir, was a master of non-swearing curses. My favorite: “May you have an injury that is not covered by workman’s compensation.”

My generation is distinguished by a zest for full and equal rights in the area of swearing. Today, the umpires are as profane as the players, the rulemakers—from the president on downward—as debased as the ruled. Who can deny that women have risen to a new degree of prominence in this field, formerly dominated by men? The under-privileged in the inner city have also demanded their full and fair share of expletives, scrawling them on walls and buses, celebrating them in their music and literature. The word that so dismayed Holden Caulfield only a few years ago is now proclaimed enthusiastically, it seems, by all and sundry.

I recently strolled into a compact disc store, only to be aurally assaulted by a rap record that spewed out more obscenities than a Dennis Rodman interview on fast forward. I often visit this store with my young son—I will make a note not to do so in the future—but fortunately on this occasion he was not with me. But other obliging rap fans have literally brought their offerings to our door, driving by with their music blasting loud enough to penetrate through walls. The radio stations are currently holding the thin blue talk line against broadcasting this nihilism in four-four time, but surely that is a passing aberration, to be corrected in time by Michael Eisner and other titans of the media.

But the cussers are eventually constrained by the very popularity of their cussing. To their dismay, the four letter words begin to lose their strength and power to shock, once we have been deluged with them ad nauseam. As anyone who gives a tinker’s damn can see, there is an undisputed need for new curse words. The old ones have all but lost their potency. Where is that benefactor, the towering progressive mind who will step forward and oblige us?

With this pressing deficit in mind, I aim to present a solution to the clamoring masses, ever seeking new ways to cuss. I offer them nothing less than a new lexicon of the profane, varied, and different ways of cursing not known even to characters in a Quentin Tarantino movie.

My proposal is simple: I suggest that they revive some of the curses of antiquity. These are curses with a pedigree, with time-honored success. I especially enjoy the various Babylonian curses that are employed in the Epic of Gilgamesh. On Tablet VII (or what’s left of it), Enkidu announces to the Harlot that “I will curse you with a great Curse.” He proceeds to launch the Babylonian equivalent of the George Carlin seven-words-you-can’t-use-on-TV routine.

May owls nest in the cracks of your walls….

May dregs of beer stain your beautiful lap….

May the builder not seal the roof of your house….

May a drunk soil your festal robe with vomit….

May you never acquire anything of bright alabaster….

Now, that is some serious cussing. Enkidu knows how to pile it on. It’s a shame that the full text of this passage has been lost to posterity, but even in its fragmentary state it demands our respect in the pantheon of literary curses. As a beneficent gesture, I offer these extracts (from the translation of Maureen Gallery Kovacs), to any rap producer who wants to stand out from the pack.

Shakespeare’s plays, it is well known, offer a cornucopia of innovative curses, and feature two knights of the maledictory art in the persons of Sir John Falstaff and Sir Toby Belch. But an even better role model for contemporary cussers is Master Stephen, from Ben Jonson’s Every Man in His Humor, who offers an impressive range of multicultural expletives, swearing by the “Pharaoh’s foot,” the “body of Caesar” and “St. George.” Or for even greater variety, one is referred to the ancient Arabs, who swore by the almighty powers of the fig, or the Goths, whose oaths attested to the preeminence of thunder and lightning.

Or those seeking a longer text are invited to borrow from the pages of curses included by Laurence Sterne in his windbag masterpiece Tristam Shandy. Sterne, a rabid anti-Catholic at the time of the novel’s writing, describes with relish the elder Mr. Shandy’s skill in tricking a Catholic into reciting a lengthy and detailed curse. To add to the verisimilitude of the event, Sterne includes the original Latin text of the curse, which takes up several pages.

Maledictus sit in totis viribus corporis

Maledictus sit intus et exterius

Maledictus sit in capillis; maledictus sit in cerebro. . .

And on and on. . . .

Roughly translated, this passage curses the listener from the hairs on his head to the soles of his feet. With the addition of a drum machine and some samples from the right R&B song, this is a lyric that promises to stand out even when played alongside the most extreme gangsta rap records. And, after all, it is well known that rap artists are seeking to tap into the market for Latin music.


  • Ted Gioia

    Ted Gioia is a musician and author, and has published six non-fiction books, including, "The History of Jazz."

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