[Ads-l] Antedating of "Curses!"

Shapiro, Fred fred.shapiro at YALE.EDU
Sun Feb 6 00:50:36 UTC 2022

The following was discovered by Patricia O'Conner and Stewart Kellerman.  This is from their great Grammarphobia blog.

Fred Shapiro

The OED’s earliest citation for this use of “curses” (minus the “foiled again”) is from Khartoum! (1885), a military drama by William Muskerry and John Jourdain: “Ha! they’re here. Ah, curses!”

But we found an earlier example in a dramatic monologue for the stage, The Death of Chatterton, published anonymously in Tait’s Edinburgh Magazine in September 1839.

The scene takes place in a London garret, where the young Thomas Chatterton, about to commit suicide, delivers these lines: “Why should I seek to live? I’ve lived already long enough to know I cannot live for that I love the best. Curses—curses—curses!”

Here’s a non-stage example, from Ada, the Betrayed: Or, The Murder at the Old Smithy, published in Lloyd’s Penny Weekly Miscellany (London, 1843):

“To be foiled by a half-starved hound! I, Jacob Gray, with my life hanging as it were by a single thread, to be prevented from taking the secret means of preserving myself by this hateful dog! Curses! curses!”

Note in that example that cursing is associated with being “foiled.” This was a common motif in overheated plays, stories, and novels of the 19th century.

We found many examples like this one, from F. C. Thompson’s Nythia, a novel serialized in a British children’s magazine, The Boy’s Athenaeum, in 1875: “Oh, curses light upon them all! I am foiled—foiled—utterly foiled!”

And here’s a stage example, from Benjamin W. Hollenbeck’s After Ten Years (1885): “Foiled again! Curse my ill luck.”

By the late 19th century the cursing-and-foiling device had become a cliché, a fact not overlooked by humorists.

We found this passage in Charles Gurdon Buck’s “Mervorfield,” published in an American humor anthology in 1886:

“ ‘We are foiled! foiled!’ ‘Are we?’ said Bill. ‘What ought we to do when we are foiled?’ ‘Why, I suppose we ought to go away, muttering hideous curses.’ ”

Here’s a later example, from J. M. Barrie’s memoir of his life as a smoker, My Lady Nicotine (1890): “When they are foiled by the brave girl of the narrative, it is the recognized course with them to fling away their cigars with a muffled curse.”

It wasn’t long before the appearance of the full phrase “Curses! Foiled again.”

The earliest example we’ve found is from the Nov. 25, 1911, issue of a Michigan newspaper, the Flint Daily Journal. This is the item in its entirety:

“It is presumed that when Uncle Jud Harmon read in his morning paper that another ship had taken Col. Bryan off the stranded Prinz Joachim, he muttered between his teeth, ‘Curses! Foiled again.’ ”

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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