A pox on you!

239094_5_Swear words and insults in the English language have common taboo themes, most notably sex, race and ethnicity, and religion. The former are extremely offensive, while blasphemy has mostly lost its punch, although we still hear many people taking the Lord’s name into vain.

But one category of profane words has mostly fallen out of usage in English: insults and curses which invoke suffering, disease and death.

There are a few exceptions. There is the modern curse, “I hope you get AIDS and die”, while in 2016 Carl Paladino wished that Barack Obama would catch “mad cow disease after being caught having relations with a Herford.”

Johnny Carson, as Carnac the Magnificent, comically cursed his audience with, “May the fleas of a thousand camels infest your armpits”.

But in earlier English it was all the rage to wish suffering, pain and eventual death on someone you hated.

You might remember this famous quote from Romeo and Juliet:

“A plague o’ both your houses,” cries Mercutio, cursing the Montague and Capulet families whose rivalry leads to his death.

Historically, pox was a very vulgar word. Sometimes referring to smallpox, but more often syphilis, a debilitating and disfiguring ailment that was stigmatized because it was known to be sexually transmitted and therefore construed as a sign of loose morals. The word could be used in a curse, such as “Pox take you!” It could also be used in interjections, such as “O pox!” Up to the 18th Century, calling someone a “pocky whore” was deemed so offensive that victims sued for defamation and pox was often censored in books.

Fortunately, derogatory terms based on disease and death have, well, died out…5122940217_2c1fb66edb_b-e1426853348797

However, other linguistic relatives of English have retained this category in their repertoire of insults. In particular, death and disease-related insults are common in Dutch. In the Netherlands, ‘tuberculosis’, ‘typhus’, ‘leprosy’, ‘smallpox’, ‘cholera’ and other dreaded diseases of the past are used as expletives in some modern dialects of Dutch. It is not uncommon to wish these diseases upon people for cutting you off in traffic or for getting on the elevator when you’re still trying to get out. This blogger recounts the time that he was riding his bike around Amsterdam when he cut off another cyclist who angrily wished syphilis upon him.

One of the strongest insults in the Netherlands is kanker, which means “cancer”.

The insult Kankerlijer, “cancer sufferer”, is particularly offensive and emotionally charged because it is akin to wishing the disease upon someone. Kanker is also used in interesting compound nouns to insult people, such as kankerhoer “cancer whore” and kankeraap “cancer monkey”. Just as offensive words can be used in a positive way among people who know each other, kanker can be used as an intensifier in positive phrases. For example, kankerlekker can translate to “extremely attractive”, although it’s still not a word that is used in polite company.

Kanker op is similar to “fuck off”, although it is considered to be far more harsh because it not only tells someone to ‘go away’ but also invokes a potentially deadly disease.

Perhaps many of our derogatory words in the English language aren’t so bad after all?

Posted in: Uncategorized
Karen Stollznow

About the Author:

Dr. Karen Stollznow is a linguist and researcher. She is the author of the best-selling book God Bless America. Her other titles include Hits & Mrs., Language Myths, Mysteries and Magic, Would You Believe It? and Haunting America. Her forthcoming book is On the Offensive: Prejudice in Language Past and Present.

3 Comments on "A pox on you!"

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  1. Rune Aasgaard says:

    When living in Germany, I sometimes had philosophical discussions with my friends about what swearwords said about our culture and heritage. The simplified version (perhaps grossly so) ran like this:
    English – Sex and genitals. Puritanians. Not very open / liberal-minded about that sort of thing.
    German – Feces. Their obsession with orderliness and cleanliness.
    Nordic – Religion. Particularly references to the Devil and his abode. Strict lutheran upbringing. Harsh rural life, where inviting misfortune / evil spirits was shunned.
    Hispanics – Insults about your mother and sister. Protective about the family. Catholic aspect, with the female being a symbol for the Virgin Mary?

  2. There’s definitely some truth to this! Themes behind swear words and offensive language have their basis in taboos, which change over time. That’s why blasphemy isn’t deemed to be so bad in English anymore, while racist and ethnic-based insults and derogatory language is considered to be so offensive today.

  3. Timothy ONeill says:

    In the vernacular of 2020, a Corona on you just doesn’t have the same ring!!

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