Daily Archives: July 25, 2011


My wife, Aina, said to me this morning, “You look skinnier.”

I said, “But I don’t weigh any less.”

“That’s the curse of running,” she replied.

Of course I heard her correctly, and knew she meant that I was gaining muscle while losing fat. But I can’t ever resist also hearing incorrectly, just for fun: in this case, “That’s the cursive running.” So I said, “Interestingly, cursive comes from a Latin root meaning ‘running’.”

She laughed. “See?”

Indeed, running is fluid and all joined together, just like writing that is all joined together: a sequence of curves and lines. But one may stop or stumble in running, and rather more so may one stop and stumble in writing. I sometimes lose my place – because my m’s and n’s tend to have points rather than humps, a word like community makes me stop and count how many points I’ve written. And if I had to write unununium often it would certainly have me cursing! Even civility can give me trouble (the word, I mean, not the practice) – if my aim were to join all the letters together, I would surely curse iv. But at least I can write cursively, which seems to be a dying art: it’s just not the type of communication preferred by those native to keyboards – a pity; they lose some style with their digits.

But what has running to do with cursing anyway? Aside from what you might say when you are cut off by a car, or nearly run down by a cyclist, or obstructed by oblivious walkers, or almost tripped by a dog on a long lead, I mean. What in the fluid lines of a runner and the fluid lines of handwriting has anything to do with malediction?

Nothing at all but the sound and shape of the word, it would seem. The Latin source of cursive is cursivus, “running”, from currere, “run” (as in current, for instance), while the English word curse (the antonym of blessing) is a lexical orphan: like dog (but unlike cur), it has no known cognates in other languages. Well, of course, we can only trace what we have in print – the curse of relying on the written word.


As you scan the lines of a gossip rag for whatever your enquiring mind wants to know, and some scandal crosses your eyes, some shame or infamy, are you actually seeking to be scandalized? Do you take Schadenfreude in Schande, do you want to be offended?

Certainly some people do like to take offense, and to find it where it can be found. I remember an intermittent character on the sitcom Barney Miller who was ever looking for the shady side – his name was Scanlon, and I have always thought they picked that name because of the echoes of scam and scandal.

Is there any sort of negative phonaesthetic kick to that /skæ/ onset? Aside from scandal and its derivatives and scam, we see it in in scab, scad, skag, scamp, scan, scant, skank, and scat. Most of those have some negative tinge, though scad does not and scamp often does not. And scan? Generally not, though it does put me in mind of Hamlet’s

that would be scann’d:
A villain kills my father; and for that,
I, his sole son, do this same villain send
To heaven.
O, this is hire and salary, not revenge!

When I first read it, I thought he was using scann’d to mean something negative (rather like rotten or vicious), but actually he’s running through the scansion of the situation – and finding that it doesn’t meter out: the “to heaven” hangs over onto another line. What, a line in Shakespeare that doesn’t make the meter? Scandalous!

One need not seek in such obscure places for scandal in plays, of course; it makes some very good theatre generally. Indeed, a famous play of a sesquicentury or so after Shakespeare is The School for Scandal by Sheridan, and in the times in between – especially during the Restoration – there were many plays that trafficked the stage almost exclusively with the comings and goings of scandalous behaviour. Nor has the appetite let up; from Desperate Housewives to the nightly news, we like to be scandalized.

And how would you define scandalize? Does it mean “offend”? Certainly you can find that equivalency in the Bible, for instance, as Bill Whitla pointed out to me (and others) today: in Matthew 13:57, where one usually reads that Jesus’s townsfolk were offended by what he was teaching, the Greek source uses a conjugation of the verb σκανδαλίζειν skandalizein, which might suggest that they were really scandalized – that’s much juicier than just being offended, isn’t it? Can you be scandalized without whispering amongst yourselves, for instance?

But we should bear in mind that that Greek origin is a word for a snare or a trap, used metaphorically to refer to a stumbling block or offense. Scandal appeared in English first in reference to irreligious behaviour bringing discredit. Now it refers to shocking people by some violation of propriety or morality. But propriety has broadened in its scope. And the liking some people have for breaches of propriety is rather indecent – it’s scandalous how much they seek to be scandalized! (Ooo!)