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The profanity of disease

Over spring break, I spent a day in Tombstone, Arizona. This is the town where, if you don’t know the story, Wyatt Earp and his brothers, accompanied by their friend Doc Holliday, had a shootout with a group of cattle rustlers at the OK Corral. Though the Earp brothers wore the badges, when the tale is told the hero is usually Doc Holliday—noted gambler, crack shot, prodigious drinker, educated southern gentleman, dying all the while of tuberculosis. Contemporary accounts (1880s) of his exploits occasionally refer to him as “consumptive,” but in the 1993 movie Tombstone and the 2015 book Epitaph by Mary Doria Russell, various characters deride him as a “lunger.” According to the OED, the first recorded use of lunger is in 1893, and it reflects an interesting change in societal attitudes to people with tuberculosis. Pre-1880, tuberculosis was mysterious, a possibly inherited condition thought to bestow on sufferers a heightened sensitivity and creativity. The physical frailty and paleness it produced were beautiful in the Romantic imagination—Byron declared to a friend that he “should like, I think, to die of consumption.” In 1882, however, the year after the Tombstone shootout, Robert Koch discovered that tuberculosis was caused by a bacterium, and very contagious. Quite suddenly, it transformed from interesting condition to terrifying disease. English-speakers needed a new epithet to sum up and distance themselves from sufferers in order to ward off, linguistically, the disease and the diseased—hence lunger.

Through the centuries, English has had other derogatory terms and swearwords based on disease, but they have never made up a large proportion of our bad words. Other languages—Dutch and Yiddish, for example—have much stronger and more elaborate disease-related swearing. Nevertheless, English-speakers of the past could choose from a few options, depending on what illnesses were most feared at the time.

John Henry “Doc” Holliday, dentist and gambler, an ally of the Earps at the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Photographer unknown. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

While leprosy has been known since Greek and Roman times, and plays a thematic role in the Bible, the disease spread especially widely in medieval England. Society was of two minds about it. On one hand, it was so horrible—in its most famous form, Hansens’ disease, the bacterium “rots” a person’s extremities and can chew through bone—that lepers were thought to be holy people imitating Christ’s passion, living a life of such suffering on Earth that they would go directly to heaven after death. On the other hand, the disease was sometimes imagined as God’s punishment for sin (usually some sort of heresy), the physical disfigurement a mark of inner foulness. Terms for sufferers of the disease reflected this dichotomy. Leper and lazar seem to have been the more standard, unmarked terms. Lazar especially has connotations of sanctity, as it is derived from Lazarus, who in Luke 16:19-31 begged outside a rich man’s door and was carried away by angels to heaven after death (while the rich man who ignored him went to hell). Another Lazarus was resurrected by Jesus, serving as the final evidence (in the Gospel of John) that Christ was truly the son of God, and receiving sainthood for his trouble.

In contrast, mesel, another term for a person afflicted with leprosy, skews derogatory. One character in the 14th century romance Amis and Amiloun tells another: “Fouler mesel there was never…than thou shall be!” And in 1386, Chaucer’s Parson, whose tale is one long moral treatise, declares that it is a sin to chide or make fun of one’s neighbor, “as Mesel, crooked harlot…” Mesel here is obviously an insult, not intended to evoke the holy suffering of leprosy.

Historically, the strongest disease-related insult in English was pox. This sometimes referred to smallpox, but more often was used for syphilis, known as the “Great pox” or the “French pox” (meanwhile, in France, it was mainly called the “Neapolitan disease,” but the Spanish and the English also came in for a share of the blame). When European colonists brought smallpox to the native Americans in the 16th century, they picked up syphilis in return. The disease spread widely in the 16th-19th centuries, and its effects were terrible—patients got widespread, weeping rashes all over their bodies, which in a third of cases went on to eat away parts of bone and produce soft tumors, causing nerve pain and cardiac problems as well as facial deformity. William Davenant, a 17th century playwright, poet laureate, and friend of King Charles I, lost his nose to syphilis in 1632, and his contemporaries never let him forget it—he was followed by nose jokes for the rest of his life.

Q: Why does Davenant have a grudge with Ovid?

A: Because his Sirname is Naso [“nose” in Latin].

William Davenant, operator of one of the first licensed theatre companies after the Restoration of Charles II in 1660. From The Works of Sir William Davenant, frontispiece, printed by TN for Henry Herringman, London, 1673. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Joking aside, the French pox was widely stigmatized because it was known to be sexually transmitted, and was thus interpreted as a sign of loose morals. This apparently didn’t do Davenant any harm, but for many people, being called “pox-ridden” or “poxy” could destroy their reputation. A woman might lose marriage prospects; a working man might lose business, if his moral probity was suspect. Thus pox-insults were actionable under English common law—in the 17th and 18th centuries especially, people were sued for defamation for saying things like “thy wife is a scurvie [“diseased”] pocky queane [“prostitute”]… she hath the French pockes and I say so still” or “whore, pocky whore, burnt Arst whore” (“burnt-arsed” also refers to venereal disease).

Pox is the only one of the words we’ve been discussing that might actually be considered a swearword. Unlike lunger and mesel, it could be used in a variety of ways. It was an insult, as we’ve seen, but could also be a curse: “Pox take you!” or “Pox on you for a fool!” It could be used non-literal interjections (“O Pox!”, like “Damn it!”) and as intensifiers (“this pockie stuff!”, like “this fucking stuff!”). In the 18th century, authors and publishers of more delicate sensibilities sometimes partially censored it, as with other mild swearwords such as bl—dy and d—n. In 1756, one critic so deplored the book he was reviewing that he declared, “A p-x on such writing!”

The biggest difference between pox and other words like lunger and mesel, though, is that pox and its adjectives are not epithets. Today some of our worst, most taboo, most emotionally charged words are epithets—nigger, for example, is considered by most people to be the “worst” word in the English language; paki, a derogatory term for people of Southeast Asian origin, is extremely offensive in the UK. For us today, it is taboo to sum up and label people on the basis of race, size (“fat”), or mental acuity (“retarded”). In the past, however, that was simply what one did. Epithets were, of course, sometimes still hurtful to the people so addressed, but there was little wider cultural consciousness that such words were painful and harmful or that it might be preferable not to use them. So lunger and mesel, though derogatory and insulting, probably did not have the emotional charge of true swearwords, unless you too were beautifully pale and coughing up bright red blood.

Featured image: “Leprous Beggars” from A Dictionary of the Bible (1887) by Philip Schaff. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons/Library of Congress.

Recent Comments

  1. Karen Shook

    You should ask Dutch speakers about modern-day swearing with diseases. The use of ‘kanker’ (cancer) as a swearword is widespread, although by no means approved of; other diseases also feature.

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