Will's word

30th May 2003 at 01:00
Curst or cursed (adjective). "under a curse, deserving a curse"

The earliest meaning is full of religious overtones, and in its sense of "damned" it expresses strong dislike to this day. But c1400 another sense developed, referring to a person's disposition. Anyone who was cantankerous, shrewish, or bad-tempered would be called curst (usually in that spelling). Likewise, people who were angry or fierce. These usages became dialectal in the 19th century, but they were strongly present in Shakespeare's day. "Here she comes, curst and sad," says Puck of Hermia in A Midsummer Night's Dream (III.ii.439). Women are usually described as curst - Bianca in The Taming of the Shrew is a famous instance - but men could be curst too. "Be curst and brief," says Sir Toby to Sir Andrew in Twelfth Night (III.ii.40). The "angry" sense is seen when the Clown in The Winter's Tale (III.iii.126) talks about bears: "They are never curst but when they are hungry".

David Crystal is author, with Ben Crystal, of Shakespeare's Words, published by Penguin

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