The other day I found myself tasked with explaining to a young Chinese woman the concept of an ancient Chinese curse, such as “May you live in interesting times.” The best I could come up with by way of coining another example, admittedly drawn from my life experience of the past decade, was “May all your dealings be with lawyers.” Recalling the same experience later on suggested an effective way to intensify the malediction: “May all your dealings be with lawyers and surgeons.” Whereupon I drew upon my own store of maledictory Yiddishkeit, aptly summarized in a classic compendium:
To acquire character of some kind, a curse must be apropos. Khob (ikh hob) im in drerd, “I have him in the earth,” i.e., “To hell with him,” is unspecific, but krenken zol er, “May he be sick,” or “May he be a sick man,” narrows down the field of operation. We enter the range of the higher cursing with zol er krenken in nakhes (Heb), “May he sicken in satisfaction,” that is, “gratifyingly, making a fulfillment or pleasure of it.” It is a quietly gruesome curse, a gentle, insistent, unrelenting, and unviolent condition. Oyskrenken zol er di mames milkh, literally, “May he sicken out his mother’s milk,” probably means, “May his mother’s milk sicken in him,” or “May his mother’s milk turn retroactively into a sickness.” This confines the curse to a definite and clinical area. But zol er krenken un gedenken, “May he sicken and remember,” or “May he sicken memorably,” has no point of reference; it has a general grimness and assertiveness but no descriptive merit.
The sickness theme occurs in many forms, some general, some pointed. Shraybn zol men im retseptn, “May prescriptions be written for him,” means anything and everything in the scope of pharmacology; the idea is one of continuing activity and anxious experimentation with the man’s health. Keyn dokter zol im nit helfn, “May no doctor help him,” sounds at first like “May no doctor want to help him,” but on closer analysis reveals itself as “May no doctor be able to help him, may all doctors be helpless, may they be at a complete loss, with or without prescriptions.” A dokter zol im darfn, “May a doctor need him,” seems comparatively mild; but the offensiveness lies in its mildness. May a doctor need him for what? Diagnosis? An autopsy? Or perhaps the need is the doctor’s—for a livelihood. Very sweeping is the all-round demoralizing oyf doktoyrim zol er es oysgebn, “May he spend it (all) on doctors,” which need not imply anything more than imaginary sickness.
The anatomically focused curse carried a high degree of satisfaction. A veytik im in boykh, “A pain in his belly,” or heart, or head, is free from vagueness or complications. In the same class are a kramp im in layb, in di krizhes (Slv), di kishkes (Slv), di finger, “cramps in his body, small of the back, bowels, fingers”; shtekhn zol im in di zaytn, “May he have stabbing pains in the sides”; krikhn zol er oyf ale fir, “May he crawl on all fours”; zol im drikn in hartsn, “May he have (physical) heaviness of the heart”; zol im dreyen farn nopl, “May he have a turning (dizziness) of the navel”; varfn zol im hayzer hoykh, “May he be thrown (by convulsions) housetop high”; redn zol er fun hits, “May he talk from heat,” that is from fever in delirium.
Rhyme and rhythm augment the effect, sometime at the cost of intelligibility. Geshvoln un gedroln zol er vern rings powerfully, but while geshvoln means “swollen,” gedroln is extremely rare, and has to do with varicose veins. On the other hand, fargelt un fargrint zol er vern, “May he turn yellow and green,” is perfectly clear and gets its force from the alliterative g’s; also, the two colors convey the complementary sufferings of body and mind, withering disease for the yellow, chagrin, envy, etc., for the green. Sometimes extravagance of expression, like vaulting ambition, o’erleaps itself and falls on the other side. Thus, a mageyfe zol oyf im kumen, “May a pestilence come upon him,” and a mabl zol oyf im kumen, “May a flood come upon him,” blunt the force of the personal misfortune by making it part of a general calamity, no distinction being awarded for special gratification. A duner zol im trefn, “May a thunderbolt hit him,” and a blits im in kop, “a lightning stroke in his head,” provide more satisfaction by singling out the target and not confusing it in a universal misfortune.
As we have seen, some curses are merely generalized cries of irritation; if they are at all specific it is by accident, the result of a passing whim. A kholerye oyf im, “A cholera upon him,” a fintster mazl (Heb) oyf im, “Black luck upon him,” geyn zol er tsum tayvl, tsu al di shvartse rukhes, (Heb) “May he go to the devil, to all the black devils, demons,” and many more in that class are practically interchangeable. But a somewhat-out-of-the-way expression like a ruekh in zayn tain, “A devil in his father,” is not so much a curse as an expression of disgust or contempt or, at mildest, of disrespect. It also has a touch of quaintness. It is told of an extremely well-brought-up young man that his father was in the habit of bestowing upon him the severest tongue-lashings on the slightest provocation or none at all. The paragon of filial piety endured it all without a word until the verbal assault surpassed all bounds; then he ran out of the house and, encountering the first acquaintance on the street, burst out with a ruekh in dayn tatn! “A devil in your father!” Thereupon the amazed acquaintance responded with a hearty a ruekh in DAYN tatn! Vastly relieved the model young man exclaimed, dos hob ikh gevolt!, “That’s what I wanted!”
The elliptical curse has the charm of a mock tactfulness. Zayn nomen zol aheymkumen, “May his name come home (instead of himself)”; a kleyn kind zol nokh im heysn, “May a small child be named after him,” and me zol shoyn nokh im a nomen gebn, “It is time someone was named after him,” gracefully avoid the mention of death (it is forbidden to name anyone after a living person); but the implication is gently poisonous. Also filled with kindliness is a locution like ikh vel im bagrobn vi an oytser, “I will bury him like a treasure,” that is, carefully and lovingly, making much of him. Still elliptical, but more heavy-handed are: me zol shoyn zitsn shive (Heb) nokh im, “It is time they sat shive for him” (the prescribed days of mourning); neyen zol men im takhrikhim, “May cerements be sewn for him” (this could be premature; pious old Jews prepared their graveclothes in advance); opkoyfn zol men bay zayn tatn di malbushim, “May his clothes be purchased from his father” (this last is particularly vicious).
Some curses have a large, generalized scope; they are carryalls of universal application. Vos es hot gezolt zayn mir in klentstn finger zol oysgeyn tsu zayn kop, “That which should have happened in my little finger should be directed upon his head,” is somewhat metaphysical; it probably means, in the final analysis, “Let complete calamity come to him rather than that the slightest harm could come to me.” Also somewhat unclear, but massive and lowering, is vos es hot zikh mir gekholemt di nakht un yene nakht zol oysgeyn tsu zayn kop, tsu zayne hent un fis, tsu zayn layb un lebn, “May that (evil) dream which I dreamt last night and the other night and every night be directed upon his head, his hands and legs, his body and life.” This accumulation of sentiment must be spelled out slowly, like an incantation.
Some curses are intellectual constructions rather than emotional exercises. Got zol im bentshn mit dray mentshn: eyner zol im haltn, der tsveyter zol im shpaltn, der driter zol im bahaltn, “May God graciously send three persons upon him, one to hold him, the second to split him, the third to conceal (bury) him” (but this is half jocular, and depends entirely on the rhymes); vifl yor er iz gegangen oyf di fis zol er geyn oyf di hent, un di ibrike zol er zikh sharn oyfn hintn, “As many years as he walked on his legs may he walk on his hands, and for the remaining years may he push himself along on his behind”; the next is a partnership curse, vern zol fun dir a blintse un fun im a kats, er zol dikh oyfesn un mit dir zikh dervergn, volt men fun aykh beyde poter gevorn, “May you turn into a blintse and he into a cat, and may he eat you up and choke to death on you, so that we would be rid of both of you”—the parties of the second and the third part are taken care of by the party of the first part. Tsen shifn mit gold zol er farmogn un dos gantse gelt zol er farkrenken, “May he own ten shiploads of gold—and may all of it be spent on sickness.” This is a suspended and balanced pronouncement, the first half full of promise, the second, after a brief pause, extravagantly and superfluously malign, since it is inconceivable that there should be sufficient medical activity to exhaust in one lifetime, and no matter with how large a colloquium, ten shiploads of gold. Mathematically exact, but still beyond credible bounds, is the slowly developing formula, hobn zol er hundert hayzer, un in yedn hoyz hundert tsimer, un in yedn tsimer hundert betn, un der kadokhes zol im varfn fun eyn bet in dem tsveytn, “May he have a hundred houses, and in every house a hundred rooms, and in every room a hundred beds, and may fever toss him from bed to bed.” So extravagantly imaginative as to be lost in its own concept is megulgl zol er vern in a henglaykhter, bay tog zol er hengen un by nakht zol er brenen, “May he be reincarnated as a candelabrum, to hang by day and burn by night.”—Maurice Samuel, In Praise of Yiddish, Cowles, 1971, p. 230
In all candor, gentiles tend to squander their imprecations. Thus according to world-class maledictorian Reinhold Aman, Anglo-Saxon cultures prefer insults dealing with excrement and body parts, Catholic countries are fond of blasphemy, and cultures of the Middle and Far East are partial to ancestor insults. I would add that, by contrast, we Jews derive the substance of our swearing from a higher authority, as exemplified in Deuteronomy 28:15-68 and Leviticus 26:14-45. Having had our ancestors worked over by the Almighty, my people know how to help our enemies find their proper level. Unlike gentile put-downs, Yiddish curses seek to put an end to their objects, and often succeed at that, in spirit if not in body. We aim not merely to revile or embarrass, but to depress, discourage, and demoralize. Watch this space for my contribution to the genre.