Joyce Eisenberg and Ellen Scolnic write, speak and blog together as The Word Mavens.
William Shakespeare was born in April, the month that kicks off with April Fools’ Day. So perhaps it’s no surprise that he filled his plays with fools – from Falstaff to Puck.
He also loved a good insult. William, who was born on April 23, 1564 and died on that same day 52 years later, is known as a man of great words. He strung them together to make great sentences, brilliant plays and cutting jabs, like this:
From Timon of Athens: “Would thou wert clean enough to spit upon.” From Troilus and Cressida: “He has not so much brain as ear wax.” And this from Richard III: “Thou elvish-mark’d, abortive, rooting hog”!
The playwright’s clever insults have spawned a host of imitators over the centuries. The online Elizabethan Curse Generator randomly creates curses that sound as if Shakespeare had written them. We requested three curses, please:
Thou roguish ill-composed minnow!
Thou churlish flap-mouthed barnacle!
Thou saucy clay-brained haggard!
Everyone’s cursing these days. It’s not news when you hear the F-bomb dropped in a speech, in a cafe, on TV or in a PTA meeting. But today’s potty mouths aren’t nearly as clever as William Shakespeare.
And Shakespeare had nothing on our Bubbes and Zaydes, our Yiddish-speaking grandparents. We think the Yiddish insults we grew up with are earthier, grittier and more colorful. Marnie Winston-Macauley, author of Yiddishe Mamas: The Truth About the Jewish Mother, explains that Yiddish curses involve lulling your victim into a false sense of your good wishes. Then, when he’s kvelling (bragging), you yank it away.”
Favorite targets are your family members and your neighbor’s wealth. Grandmom might curse a rival: “May your daughter’s beauty be admired by everyone in the circus.” Let’s hope that daughter doesn’t fall in love with a strongman and go live on a circus train during a six-month tour of the former Soviet Union.
Grandpop might say: “May you grow so wealthy you can afford only the finest doctors.” Oy, we’d rather not have to fork over the co-pays for our dermatologist, ophthalmologist and proctologist.
Yiddish curses often involve terrible things happening to various body parts. “Human anatomy receives considerable attention in Yiddish cursing and, just like leprosy, Yiddish curses cover the whole body from the ground up,” writes Michael Wex, in Born to Kvetch.
We’ve observed that pupiks (belly buttons) tushies and parts of the male anatomy figure prominently in Yiddish curses, like the always popular “May you grow beets in your belly button and pee borsht!” You might be immune from this curse if you have an outie belly button. Perhaps the most famous Yiddish body-parts curse is “Vaksn zolstu vi a tsibeleh, mitn kop in dr’erd!” which translates to “May you grow like an onion with your head in the ground.”
Other Yiddish curses are more subtle: “His luck should be as bright as a new moon.” Or maybe not so subtle: “He should marry the daughter of the Angel of Death.”
Both Shakespeare’s curses and Yiddish curses can use a 21st century update. We’re adding these to our repertoire:
“May you arrive early but always be last in the car pool line.”
“May you enjoy your new iPhone in good health and not have to set the font to extra extra large.”
“May you get a reservation at the hot new restaurant and find your table is next to the bathroom.”