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In a question on Hermeneutics.SE recently, we were discussing a phenomenon in the Hebrew book of Job where the author repeatedly uses a word that standardly1 means "to bless" to denote an action generally translated "to curse".2 One of the Classical Hebrew lexicons indicates that a similar usage is possible in English:3

bless, with the antithetical meaning curse...from the greeting in departing, saying adieu to, taking leave of; but rather a blessing overdone and so really a curse as in vulgar English as well as in the Shemitic cognates4

I presume by "vulgar" he means "common" rather than "obscene", but either way I'm either not familiar with this English usage, or at least I'm having trouble recalling it. (The ODO entry provides no help.) The lexicon was published in 1906 so it may be something specific to that era. Can anyone help me identify what expression(s) this refers to and/or examples of such usage?


1. Over 300 times in the Hebrew Bible, with little variation in translation.
2. Perhaps most famously, Job's wife's advice to "Curse [lit. bless] God and die."
3. Brown, F., Driver, S. R., & Briggs, C. A. A Hebrew and English lexicon of the Old Testament. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1906. It's the last subentry (#5) under piel ("Pi."), about two-thirds down on the left column of page 139.
4. Now generally spelled Semitic. The lexicon was likely referring primarily to Arabic and Aramaic.

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  • Note that a curse as in vulgar English doesn't imply profanity (bad language). It means that in the speech of common people, a "curse" can just mean any undesirable affliction (a troublesome disease, for example), rather than some invocation for supernatural powers to visit trials and tribulations on the person thus "damned". Commented Nov 23, 2015 at 17:26
  • You're not likely to encounter "a blessing overdone" in the vulgar tongue, but people will often say you can have too much of a good thing Commented Nov 23, 2015 at 17:31
  • @choster Thanks -- if there's a better link for a reputable publicly available English dictionary, please feel free to edit.
    – Susan
    Commented Nov 23, 2015 at 17:39
  • @FumbleFingers Right, the question mentions that I suspect that by "vulgar" he meant "common" rather than "obscene". I hadn't thought of it specifically excluding the supernatural, though -- interesting.
    – Susan
    Commented Nov 23, 2015 at 17:43

2 Answers 2

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The OED entry notes that bless can be used in an ironic fashion in its senses of conferring happiness, good fortune, divine favor, and so forth:

  1. In many senses (esp. 5b, 7, 8, 9, 10) bless is used euphemistically or ironically for a word of opposite meaning, ‘curse, damn,’ etc.

1814 J. Austen Mansfield Park I. xviii. 353 Could Sir Thomas look in upon us just now, he would bless himself.
1838 Dickens Oliver Twist I. xiii. 204 An emphatic and earnest desire to be ‘blessed’ if she would.
1878 H. Smart Play or Pay (ed. 3) viii. 156 Fuming, blessing himself, dashing himself.

In this sense, it is similar to the use of bless your heart (cf.), which on its face is a show of endearment (CDO) but is also used, in Southern (U.S.) English, to cast aspersion cloaked in false affection or sympathy.

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  • Excellent, thank you. Outside my vernacular, but I'll take it. If it works so well, it's odd that none of the major English translations of the text cited has chosen to use "bless" this way.
    – Susan
    Commented Nov 23, 2015 at 17:56
  • @Susan Perhaps translators felt sarcasm or mockery was an inappropriate tone for a Biblical author, or perhaps they felt the direct translation would have led to misinterpretation. How is it rendered in the Vulgate?
    – choster
    Commented Nov 23, 2015 at 18:11
  • Yah, I suppose. The Vulgate consistently translates literally -- benedico. (The Septuagint (Greek) is the more ancient translation, and I gave the relevant bits + translation in a footnote on the linked Hermeneutics.SE question. I have a feeling there’s something going on with the Biblical author (or redactor, as some have suggested) and the LXX translator circumventing direct rhetoric about "cursing God". Modern translators have different concerns.)
    – Susan
    Commented Nov 23, 2015 at 18:25
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One has to wonder if it denotes how inflection is often as important as the words themselves, and so "have a nice day" can mean anything from exactly what it says to the polar opposite of "I can't stand the sight of you any more, so I'm leaving". Or the sort of overly-polite way a commoner might address a lord, sarcastically showing their derision for the title.

Or, for the best literary example off the top of my head, in the manner that Antony repeatedly refers to Brutus as an "Honorable Man" in Julius Ceasar, implying that he is anything but.

Inflection

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  • Basically sarcasm, then? This seems to me generally outside the realm of a lexicon, but maybe that's all he meant.
    – Susan
    Commented Nov 23, 2015 at 17:45
  • I think so - what is more "vulgar" that the lowest form of humour? Or, as I prefer to call it: An essential office survival skill! And do note the date. 100 years ago such obvious sarcasm WOULD have been deemed a vulgar way for interaction in "polite society" Commented Nov 23, 2015 at 17:48
  • If so, it seems odd to me that no translation I'm aware of has seen fit to allow English to do the same thing the Hebrew is doing in the example cited. I would think sarcasm would be transferrable.
    – Susan
    Commented Nov 23, 2015 at 17:50

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