Our title is so friendly and pleasant it would never be a Yiddish curse. We know, because we just wrote it. An authentic Yiddish curse is much sharper, with a twist of sarcasm. But we’ll get back to that . . .
Today is William Shakespeare’s birthday. He was born on April 23, 1564 — and he died on that same day 52 years later. Shakespeare has been known for centuries as a man of great words who strung them together to make great sentences and plays. He wrote more than 30 plays, some comedies, some tragedies, all commentaries on life, many still relevant today.
So what would Shakespeare think about the state of the printed word today? Would he object to downloading Romeo and Juliet on a Kindle? Would he fight for the electronic rights to copies of his plays e-mailed around the world? When the Duke of Normandy nagged him to start a blog, would he agree or he say,“Begone ye old sot.”
Shakespeare is known for his command of the language, which was sometimes foul and less than flattering. Like this from Hamlet: “If thou dost marry, I’ll give thee this plague for thy dowry, be thou as chaste as ice, as pure as snow.” Or this from Troilus and Cressida: “He has not so much brain as ear wax.”
Shakespeare’s curses have spawned a host of imitators over the centuries. Online we found an automatic Elizabethan Curse Generator , which randomly creates curses that sound as if Shakespeare might have written them. We requested three curses, please:
Thou roguish ill-composed minnow!
Thou churlish flap-mouthed barnacle!
Thou saucy clay-brained haggard!
Try it for yourself. The site is http://www.trevorstone.org/curse/
These denunciations are fun, but they strike us as a little too Anglo-Saxon, too highfalutin. We think the Yiddish curses we grew up with are earthier, grittier and more colorful. Marnie Winston-Macauley, author of Yiddishe Mamas: The Truth About the Jewish Mother, says these curses involve lulling your victim into a false sense of your good wishes. Then, when he’s kvelling, you yank it away.”
The oaths often involve terrible things happening to various body parts. According to Michael Wex, author of Born to Kvetch, “Human anatomy receives considerable attention in Yiddish cursing and, just like leprosy, Yiddish curses cover the whole body from the ground up.”
We’ve observed that belly buttons, tushies and parts of the male anatomy figure prominently in lots of Yiddish curses, like the always popular “May you grow beets in your belly button and pee borsht! Perhaps the most famous Yiddish body-parts curse is “Er zol vaksen vi a tsibeleh, mit dem kop in drerd!” which translates to “May you grow like an onion with your head in the ground.”
Once your body parts have been put out of commission, other favorite targets are your family members and your wealth. We’ve heard, “May your daughter’s beauty be admired by everyone in the circus” and “May you grow so wealthy you can afford only the finest doctors.”
If you’ve read this far, you know that we’re not big on cursing. So let’s just say “gai gezunt” — go in good health!