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Blessing and cursing, part 2: curse


Curse is a much more complicated concept than blessing, because there are numerous ways to wish someone bad luck. Oral tradition (“folklore”) has retained countless examples of imprecations. Someone might want a neighbor’s cow to stop giving milk or another neighbor’s wife to become barren. The fateful formula would be pronounced and take effect. More than one “witch” has been accused of such crimes and burned. Or an evil queen would turn her stepsons into ravens (they are swans in H. C. Andersen), for she too knew some terrible spell. The episode of Jesus’s cursing a fig tree brought to life tons of exegetic literature. A curse could consign one to eternal perdition or to a lighter punishment, and different words might be needed for each action. Compare the images evoked by such words as anathema and excommunication. This is not the place for a disquisition on theology, but we should realize the great difficulty the Anglo-Saxon missionaries had while adapting the basics of the new faith to the conditions of their apprehensive and often hostile audience.

The heroine is surrounded by her brothers. The evil stepmother's curse turned them into birds.
The heroine is surrounded by her brothers. The evil stepmother’s curse turned them into birds.

I touched on some of such difficulties in the post on the history of the verb bless. “Bless” was not an item the missionaries could find in the vocabulary of the people they strove to convert. If Germanic blōtan stands behind this verb, its original meaning might have been approximately “to honor (a divinity) by sacrifice.” If the root of bless is the same as in the word blood (which seems to me less likely), the result appears to be nearly the same, namely “to redden the altar with the blood of the sacrifice.” In both cases, the action was expected to propitiate the deity (and guarantee a reward). Blōtan is thus close to but not quite the same as “to bless.” The Latin word the missionaries had in mind was benedicere “to speak well.” Yet, as we can see, Engl. bless has nothing to do with speaking, and it is etymology (that is, its inner form) was as opaque thirteen centuries ago as it is to us.  The other Germanic languages made do with an adaptation of the Latin verb for “to give a sign” (German segnen, etc.). The sign was understood as a gesture bringing about the support of the external forces.

The roads we take.
The roads we take.

When it came to a word for cursing sinners, the way for borrowing a Latin term, common in the ecclesiastical language, was also open, as evidenced by the existence of the verb “to damn.” But for some reason, no one thought of it, and it had to wait until it was borrowed into Middle English from Old French. Another French verb of the same type is condemn, ultimately con + damn; it also penetrated English only in the Middle period. For worship a compound was coined (“worth” followed by the suffix ship—a peculiarly English formation), but, in dealing with the place of worship, the missionaries never resorted to the names by which pre-Christian sanctuaries and synagogues were designated. Some such old native words are known, for example, Gothic alhs and Old English ealh. They have not continued into Modern English. In other cases, an old word merged smoothly with bookish borrowings. For example, Old Engl. rōd meant “gallows” and came to mean “the cross on which Jesus was crucified,” but in some dialects rood still means “rod, pole, perch” (though not “gallows”; rod and rood are not related).

Church is an adaptation of a Greek word, and it was coined very early; temple, shrine “sanctuary,” fane (now almost forgotten), and their likes are non-native and comparatively recent. Church is a place designated for the Christians, so that calling it ealh was out of the question. Some objects and abstract concepts were occasionally given familiar names. This must have happened when associations did not seem too dangerous. Perhaps sometimes they were even welcome, for the flock would understand the new message without relapsing into heathendom. This would explain the retention of bless alongside blōtan (assuming that this derivation is correct and that bliss helped bless to stay in the language). It is the decision to use the Germanic word god for the god of the new religion that is the hardest to explain. Perhaps the idea of a Supreme Being in Christianity did not appear to those people too different from the idea of the all-powerful divinity of old.

An old English temple.
An old English temple.

Since the practice and vocabulary of cursing is ancient, there was, in principle, no need to Anglicize Latin maledicere, literally, “to speak badly” (as in Engl. malediction), the antonym of benedicere. Yet the missionaries could have translated maledicere element by element and produced a so-called translation loan, and indeed yfle cweðan (yfle “evilly, badly” and cweðan “to say, speak”: compare the related words quoth and bequeath; ð has the value of th in Modern Engl. this) has been attested. Or they could have followed the example of their German colleagues, who made do with fluohhon. Modern German still has Fluch “curse” and fluchen “to curse.”  Perhaps we have a notion of why they did not do so.

The word had cognates everywhere in Germanic but displayed seemingly incompatible meanings: “bewail” in Gothic and “strike” in, for example, Old English. The secure cognates outside Germanic also refer to striking. According to the conjecture by Max Förster, an eminent scholar to whom I owe most of the material presented above, the initial idea was “to lament and beat the breast, while bewailing the misfortune.” If such was the case, the Old English verb retained the primordial sense more accurately than its Gothic congener. In any case, Old Engl. flōcan meant “to strike” and was probably not fit for rendering the idea of maledicere.  But Old Engl. wiergan carried the same connotations as maledicere (“consign to perdition, including permanent perdition” and “outlaw,” that is, “excommunicate a person”) and Modern Engl. curse. The word occupied a significant place in the vocabulary of Old English; however, there is no trace of it in the language we now speak. Its total disappearance is a mystery.

Wiergan (also with a prefix) was a perfect match for maledicere. It even seems to have developed some additional meanings under the influence of the Latin verb. Yet in Old English (and only in that language), the verb cursian appeared, as though from nowhere. It was used for profane purposes (“to revile, vilify”) and for excommunication. The noun curs “curse” did not lag behind and displayed the same two senses. Finally, the verbal noun cursung “pronouncing a curse” and “damnation” followed suit. Where did cursian come from, and how did it succeed in ousting its well-established competitor? Definitive answers to those two questions are lacking, though the hypotheses are many, and in the nearest future we will examine all of them. In the entry curse, most dictionaries follow the OED and say “origin unknown.” Such a verdict, as we have seen more than once, conceals all kinds of nuances, from having no clue to a word’s history to being confronted with the embarrassment of riches: several explanations exist, but we have no way to decide which of them is the best; or all the fantasies look hopeless, so that the word’s origin is indeed “unknown.” We’ll have to decide where we are in this case.

To be continued.

Images: (1) “The Wild Swans” by Arthur Joseph Gaskin, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Blessed/Cursed image by Priscilla Yu for Oxford University Press, edited from Public Domain image by Gerd Altmann via Pixabay. (3) “Chapel Conversion – geograph.org.uk – 215095” by Roger Gilbertson, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons. Featured Image: “Lewis Morrison as “Mephistopheles” in Faust!, performance poster, 1887″ Lithograph by Dickman, Jones & Hettrich, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Stephen Goranson

    Interesting how “bless” is sometimes used for “curse,” as in a reprimand, getting “blessed out,” meaning cursed out. (Also used as a cover after an insult: “He’s so slow; bless his heart.”) This euphemism or reversed meaning is old. Nearly two thousand years ago the Hebrew eighteen-blessing prayer added a “blessing” on minim, heretics, “…may they speedily perish.” Hebrew “minim” (kinds) itself was seen as good in Genesis, for kinds of trees, etc. It took on a negative sense (in the second century AD or CE?) as a disapproved group. During the same time the Greek word behind English “heresy” made a transition from a choice of a school of thought to a disapproved choice.

  2. Paul Nance

    Interesting that wiergan has now completely dropped out of the language. Is it cognate with German würgen? I’m puzzled by Würgengel; what could be the connection between “to strangle” and “Angel of Death”?

  3. Sarah Livne

    Stephen Goranson, if you want to look for that reversal (“bless” in the sense of “curse”) back in the Hebrew bible, there is a clearer example than that: in more than one instance there is mention of the punishment for a person who has “blessed god”, when clearly the meaning is that they have cursed, not blessed, but in that context to even use the word “curse” was so unspeakable that they used “bless” (with our modern day quotes sign intended).

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