Friday, 17 May 2013


Beshrew, Curse, Imprecate, Cute, Animal,
How did this loveable little rogue (picture by Joey M) get tangled up with this nasty business?
(he didn't apparently, because it's an Elephant Shrew which, I've no idea why, is not a true shrew)


Verb trans. Archaic. Middle English.
[from BE- + SHREW Old English screawa, scræwa, Old High German scrawazz dwarf, Middle High German schrawaz, schrat, schröuwel devil,
Old Norse skrogger fox, Icelandic skröggur old man, Norwegian skrogg wolf, skrugg dwarf, Swedish dial. skrugge devil, skragga.]

1. obsolete. Make wicked, deprave. ME-M16

2. Invoke evil upon; curse, blame for a misfortune. Now chiefly in imprecations: the Devil take -, curse -. LME

When I came to write about the word beshrew this evening, I was struck by despondency. It's not been a great day, and here I am facing a word that's all about invoking evil and blaming others and calling down wickedness, etc, etc. What's worse, it is actually connected to a little animal that I'm rather fond of: the humble shrew (yes, it does seem obvious that it would be to do with shrews and not, say, elephants, but I didn't realise there was a connection between the cute animal and the cursing, rather than just a different shrew word altogether).

Fortunately, while casting forth imprecations would once have struck terror into people, cursing has rather lost its edge in this part of the world and any attempt to literally beshrew someone is likely to get little more than a raised eyebrow. So rather than ponder on the horror and beastly nastiness that beshrewing actually is, I did a little scouring for imprecations that, for whatever reason, don't quite work (or do work but in a pleasing way). I don't know if they're authentic, they're probably all mistranslations, but here are my favourite five:

  1. May you live in interesting times
    But alas no! This famous curse is (rather spoil-sportingly) not authentic, or at the very least a mistranslation of a real one. While it's construed as 'may you live in turbulent times', it's still a rather pleasing thought and, as imprecations go, would be quite a nice one to have hurled at you after a particularly rancorous game of Boggle.

  2. May the cat eat you and the Devil eat the cat
    This rather convoluted curse kills two birds with one stone, so to speak, although again I must object to an innocent animal being caught up in all this nasty imprecatory business. The only one that could be forgiven for beshrewing the cat would by the eponymous shrew himself. As for me, once I've been eaten by the cat, all further predation seems somewhat redundant, so go ahead; see if I care who or what eats the cat.

  3. May you find the bees but not the honey
    It's rather poetic, it creates a pleasing image and colour scheme in the mind, and therefore this classic Irish curse gets two anaphylactic thumbs up.

  4. Throw salt in his eyes and pepper in his nose
    'Never beshrew upon anyone what you can more easily do yourself,' said no one, ever, but I stand by those words. It does seem a tad lazy to be calling upon the universal forces of good and evil to do this when, if you really feel that strongly about making someone sneeze and giving them itchy eyes, you can far more easily do this yourself.

  5. May God give you thousands of trouble
    This would be the point that I should just shut up and walk away, but I wouldn't be able to; I would feel compelled to point out that trouble is an uncountable noun and therefore 'thousands of trouble' makes no sense at all. To be honest it was probably such pretentious pedantry that lead to me getting cursed in the first place. Will I ever learn?

Are there any humorous, nonsensical or rather sweet imprecations where you're from? If so, let your fingers type freely and your comment box be filled with insightful and pithy witticisms.


  1. Interesting post!

    Here's a very common Greek one:

    "Bad rabies!" (lyssa kakia!)

    I guess it's short for "I hope you get a nasty case of rabies"

    You can use it when you're annoyed by someone or something, usually a loud noise. I've always found it funny because all Greek people utter it in the same emphatic way, prolonging the 's' sound, as if to make sure the curse will work.

    1. 'Bad rabies' is good! I like it! Although (as I put on my pedant's cap), could it be a little redundant? I mean, can rabies ever be anything other than bad? : o )

    2. Yes, I know it sounds strange in English. It's super emphatic! (28 Days Later emphatic)

    3. Ewwww! 28 Days Later ... I hated that film! There's just something about eye-gouging in films ... it doesn't do it for me. And then I went and watched 28 Weeks Later, convinced that, by now, they must surely have got the problem under control and this would be a gentle, uplifting story about how Britain was rebuilt after a zombie near-apocalypse. What was I thinking?? : o )

  2. when I told my teacher I wasn't going to university, he said if he were in a room with me, Hitler and Stalin, and had a gun with 2 bullets, he would shoot me twice. this isn't quite an imprecation I suppose, and unfortunately I only learnt Godwin's Law yesterday.

    1. I love your teacher almost as much as I love Godwin's Law!

  3. May beets grow in your belly is one that's always puzzled me. I mean, there are so many worse things that could grow in your belly, like deadly nightshade or a porcupine.

    1. True, but neither a porcupine nor nightshade turns your wee pink, which can be very alarming when you're not expecting it.

  4. LOL How about, "May you be as happy as a cat with rat's breath?!"

    What an interesting post!!!

    1. I like this one Beth ... but ... is it a blessing or a curse? I mean, cats like rats don't they? So wouldn't that be like me having breath that smells like ginger beer? (I *love* ginger beer!) Or is it that I would be smelling ginger beer but wouldn't have any? Or is it a 'too-much-of-a-good-thing' kind of curse? Hang on - I can't even smell my own breath! I'm so confused by this one! Or is that the curse??? I don't know!!! Someone please end this torment!!!!

  5. As a stereotypical Canadian, I'm evidently too nice to be able to think of any particular imprecations we employ. There must not be any!

    1. That could be the basis of an imprecation, Kara:

      "May you be cursed with the even, kind and balanced temperament of a Canadian *just* at the point in your life when you need to be assertive, pointed and a little bit nasty to someone."

      How does that work? It's certainly no odder than any of the others : o )