Monday, April 09, 2007

Damn to you!

An AP story reports that a flight was canceled due to language. Before the plane took off, the pilot flew into a rage while on his cellphone.

'Passengers who were boarding the aircraft could hear his end of it,' Gregor said.

Las Vegas police were sent Friday to McCarran International Airport to investigate, Gregor said. Authorities were told that the pilot cursed one passenger who confronted him, Gregor said.

After reading this I posted a little note to the American Dialect Society. Here I include a small bit of the exchange.

In my first post I wrote

Inanimate objects are cursed all the time, but with a human object I would expect to find 'cursed at' or some other syntactical indication of a dative form.

This transitive use of 'cursed' sounds like a case of nefarious magic to me. How common is this form?

Benjamin Zimmer offers a helpful response:
'Curse' = 'swear at' is fairly common. Here are some more news articles in which people are "cursed" with obscene epithets rather than evil spells:

And the examples clearly support his point.

Dennis Preston writes

'Cursed (cussed) at' sounds odd to me. The completely idiomatic form of this in my vernacular (with a human object) is 'cuss out.'

I pissed off old Hatfield and he cussed me out something awful.

'Cussed at me' would be unusual for me here.

I agree. But would he say or expect to hear "cussed me"?

Charles Doyle challenges the premise of my question more directly.
I don't understand why there's an 'issue' here; most of the OED's historical examples of transitive 'curse' have human (or anthropomorphic) objects (was Job supposed to 'curse AT God and die' or 'curse God OUT and die'??). I don't find anything odd about simply CURSING a person!

So I had to respond.
Remind me not to get on your bad side.

What caught my attention wasn't the stark syntax. The semantics were peeking around the corner and that's what I noticed.

Clearly the form is common enough not to be conspicuous or interesting to most readers. Sure--Job probably did curse. But as I read that, the character truly does intend a curse. He isn't just saying 'damn you' to his deity out of anger--he is actually uttering a curse of _effective_ ill will (now that's chutzpah). The use of 'to (curse|cuss)' as a simple expression of anger or frustration is common enough. I guess my ears are slow to catch on to its transitive use.

I should have made it more clear in my original observation that since I hear the meaning changing slightly I was just unsure of how common the usage is without the semantic distinction (which I now see no one else hears).

Having read the AP story Mark Liberman offers an amusing suggestion over at Language Log.


  1. What happens in semantics when there's an awkward usage but listeners/readers "know what you mean?"

    I actually do hear the nefarious magic implications of the AP sentence, but the guy doing the cursing doesn't sound interesting enough to be doling out supernatural curses. Isn't there a linguistic equivalent to the real-estate maxim about "location, location, location?"

    "Context, context, context."

    Or isn't there?

    (And did you notice how I just asked two different questions with almost the same syntax? What happened? "Isn't there..." & "Or isn't there?" -- methinks the first was "rhetorical" and the second is earnest. There I go again, opposing rhetoric to earnestness. Where's the Insignificant Wrangler when we need him?)

  2. Grice's maxims might be relevant. I'll post something about them presently.

    And yes context is everything. Well it's a lot. As well as intentions and emphatic use. But the analyses usually focus on repeated and accepted forms that are understood by a community.

    If something is a mistake but still understood one relevant analysis first figure out if it's a common mistake and then try to answer "why?"

    And do you realize what an excellent observation you make about the "isn't it...isn't it" structure. I'm really going to have to look at that.


  3. I never realize the relative "excellence" of my observations... they all seem eminently excellent to me.


Thanks for reaching out.

You can also contact me at wishydig[at]gmail[d0t]com.