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Bad cess

Q From Ruth McVeigh: I know Bad cess is an Irish curse, but where does it come from?

A To say bad cess to you to somebody is to wish them bad luck, so it’s not pleasant, though as curses go there are worse. The second word is the problem in working out the phrase’s history. An initial idea might be that it has some connection with cesspits or cesspools, suitably revolting associations for any imprecation.

It’s a red herring, however, because it was possible at one time to wish a person good cess — to wish them good luck — and so there’s hardly likely to be a link with sewage. The US publication Putnam’s Magazine, in an issue of 1857, has an Irish character saying: “Oh, he’s a curious crayther [creature], the pig, an has his own ways, good cess to him!”. R D Blackmore’s famous novel Lorna Doone of 1869 also has good cess, said by a character native to Exmoor. That may seem odd, since cess is closely associated with Ireland, but the English Dialect Dictionary records bad cess from Devon near the end of the nineteenth century, so it’s not out of place. (The same work also records it from Cheshire.)

Deciding where cess comes from isn’t simple. The Oxford English Dictionary suggests that it might be a shortened form of “success”; J Redding Ware, in Passing English of the Victorian Era of 1909, prefers to find the origin in a dialect term that means a piece of turf — hence a place to be in or live, which is more than a bit stretched; Eric Partridge notes cess, a tax.

This last one makes a lot of sense. Cess, often in its early days in the sixteenth century spelled as sess, is from assess in the taxation sense. The first cess was an obligation put on the Irish people to supply the Lord Deputy’s household and garrison with provisions at prices “assessed” by the government. The word has been since become widely known throughout the English-speaking world and is still used for a tax in Ireland, Scotland and India.

Taxation, being one of life’s eternal verities, would seem to be a suitable subject around which to create curses. It’s easily the most plausible of the possibilities, although — of course — that doesn’t mean it’s the right one.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 17 May 2008

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 17 May 2008.