March 12, 2002

Curses! Foiled again!

March Ampersand
topic: curses

The villain always said, "Curses! Foiled again!"

Why foiled? Is the
idea that he's been fended off with a fencing foil? Perforated as by a rapier's
point? Even stabbed with a stiletto?

Or has he been foiled in an even
more literal way: bound so tightly in tinfoil that all his nefarious thoughts
perforce came to naught? Swathed in sheets of aluminum so that he is unable to
make his date with the heroine and the train?

He is certainly meant
to be a foil for the hero; all his unrelieved evil ways serve only to show the
burnished gleam of the hero's sterling qualities. But does this mean the hero is
also his foil? If a foil is meant to show off good qualities by contrast, then the
hero can't be the villain's foil, so how can he be foiled again?

then there's the "Curses!" part. Has anyone anywhere ever actually said "curses"?
(It doesn't count if the person saying it was trying to imitate those foiled
silent-movie villains.) Or is it a placeholder, meant to denote foul language
without ever exposing tender ears to actual swearing, much like the symbols used
to show profanity in comic strips? And if so, why couldnŐt a silent movie villain
say "*$#%#@&*!", just like Sarge does when he beats up Beetle Bailey? After
all, the movie villain only spoke in captions, just like a comic character.
Perhaps the symbolic cursing convention wasnŐt invented until well after the
dastardŐs heyday.

What curses would the villain have used, if not
hampered by the need to keep his audience's ears (and eyes, in the days of silent
movies) unsullied? Surely nothing scatological or sexual – the innocent heroine
wouldn't have even understood his words. Profanity, perhaps. Or perhaps the
villains of those days had a flow of epithet unmatched in these more prosaic
times. You seldom hear any imaginative swearing anymore. Oh, I once knew a six-
year-old who was adorable as she stamped her little foot and swore the worst oath
she was allowed: "Rats!" And there was someone in college whose favorite epithet
was "Holy Hammer!" I once asked if the reference were to Thor's Mjöllnir, but she
didn't know either – she had picked up the phrase from someone else. There's
precious little swearing anymore that isn't either a four-letter word, a
combination of them, or a euphemism for them. Some of the worst news of recent
days has brought a small spate of creativity, as Americans struggling to find ways
strong enough to express their emotions dropped the usual swear words as too
hackneyed and suddenly added words like "pusillanimous" to their vocabulary, but
that effect was short-lived. Almost no one reaches the level of Kipling's "By the
livin' Gawd that made you" anymore, let alone his more imaginative flights of
derogatory, or the sorts of hard names the men who hammered out the Declaration of
Independence called each other in their less harmonious

Nobody swears well anymore. It's a lost

Goshdarn it.

Posted by dichroic at March 12, 2002 04:59 PM
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