Q: Did the defeated villain’s epithet “Curses!” originate as a euphemistic way of indicating curse words in comic books for younger readers?
A: No on all counts. The usage didn’t originate as a euphemism or in comic books.
The epithet “Curses!” began life as a melodramatic stage epithet that 19th-century dramatists put into the mouths of dastardly villains.
Typically, the foiled villain would spit “Curses!” near the end as his evil scheme unraveled. By the early 20th century, the cry had been expanded to “Curses! Foiled again.”
However, we haven’t found any evidence that “Curses!” was a euphemism for something stronger. And by the time it showed up in 20th-century cartoons and comic books, it had long been regarded as a humorous cliché.
In its entry for the noun “curse,” the Oxford English Dictionary says the plural form was used “as an imprecation, expressing irritation or frustration; esp. (histrionically or as a stage-aside) curses, foiled again!”
The OED’s earliest citation for this use of “curses” (minus the “foiled again”) is from Khartoum! (1885), a military drama by William Muskerry and John Jourdain: “Ha! they’re here. Ah, curses!”
But we found an earlier example in a dramatic monologue for the stage, The Death of Chatterton, published anonymously in Tait’s Edinburgh Magazine in September 1839.
The scene takes place in a London garret, where the young Thomas Chatterton, about to commit suicide, delivers these lines: “Why should I seek to live? I’ve lived already long enough to know I cannot live for that I love the best. Curses—curses—curses!”
Here’s a non-stage example, from Ada, the Betrayed: Or, The Murder at the Old Smithy, published in Lloyd’s Penny Weekly Miscellany (London, 1843):
“To be foiled by a half-starved hound! I, Jacob Gray, with my life hanging as it were by a single thread, to be prevented from taking the secret means of preserving myself by this hateful dog! Curses! curses!”
Note in that example that cursing is associated with being “foiled.” This was a common motif in overheated plays, stories, and novels of the 19th century.
We found many examples like this one, from F. C. Thompson’s Nythia, a novel serialized in a British children’s magazine, The Boy’s Athenaeum, in 1875: “Oh, curses light upon them all! I am foiled—foiled—utterly foiled!”
And here’s a stage example, from Benjamin W. Hollenbeck’s After Ten Years (1885): “Foiled again! Curse my ill luck.”
By the late 19th century the cursing-and-foiling device had become a cliché, a fact not overlooked by humorists.
We found this passage in Charles Gurdon Buck’s “Mervorfield,” published in an American humor anthology in 1886:
“ ‘We are foiled! foiled!’ ‘Are we?’ said Bill. ‘What ought we to do when we are foiled?’ ‘Why, I suppose we ought to go away, muttering hideous curses.’ ”
Here’s a later example, from J. M. Barrie’s memoir of his life as a smoker, My Lady Nicotine (1890): “When they are foiled by the brave girl of the narrative, it is the recognized course with them to fling away their cigars with a muffled curse.”
It wasn’t long before the appearance of the full phrase “Curses! Foiled again.”
The earliest example we’ve found is from the Nov. 25, 1911, issue of a Michigan newspaper, the Flint Daily Journal. This is the item in its entirety:
“It is presumed that when Uncle Jud Harmon read in his morning paper that another ship had taken Col. Bryan off the stranded Prinz Joachim, he muttered between his teeth, ‘Curses! Foiled again.’ ”
The earliest stage example we’ve found is from Foiled, by Heck! (1917), a comic play by Frederick G. Johnson.
In the play, a villain named Sylvester Brewster says “Curses! Foiled again!” no fewer than four times. (In a scene involving an oilcan, he also mutters, “Curses! Oiled again!”)
The full phrase appeared around the same time in the caption of a “Jerry on the Job” cartoon strip in the Harrisburg (PA) Patriot on Aug. 11, 1917: “ ‘Curses, Foiled Again,’ Says the Dog.”
Soon afterward, the expression turned up in the Jan. 18, 1918, issue of Judge, a New York humor magazine. In an article called “The Stage Crook Goes Straight,” Roy K. Moulton mourns the passing of the villains of old:
“The old-time crook remained true to his traditions. You could bank on him. Of course he would always be obliged to hiss: ‘Curses! Foiled again!’ for he was always foiled.”
And “Curses! Foiled Again!” was the headline on a sports story published on June 29, 1922, in the Lexington (KY) Herald. (The Herald’s baseball team lost to the newsboys.)
When we began our researches, we expected to find that the epithet was common in intertitles, those bits of dialog that were projected on silent-film screens. We still suspect this is true, but we haven’t been able to find examples in the sketchy databases of silent-film scripts that we’ve searched.
At any rate, long after silent movies were history the phrase “Curses! Foiled Again!” was given new life by melodramatic cartoon villains.
One famous comic-book example was the mad scientist Dr. Sivana, who made his diabolical debut as the foe of Captain Marvel in 1940.
A generation later came television’s dastardly Snidely Whiplash of Dudley Do-Right of the Mounties, a series that aired in the 1960s as segments of The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show.
Snidely Whiplash, archenemy of the heroic Dudley, usually exited on the line (voiced by the actor Hans Conried) “Curses! Foiled Again!”
And as the OED notes, the expression “Curses, foiled again!” can be heard in the ’60s novelty song “Snoopy vs. the Red Baron,” by Phil Gernhard and Dick Holler. (Oxford dates it from 1967 but in fact the song was recorded in 1966.)
You ask whether publishers of cartoon strips and comic books used “Curses!” euphemistically, perhaps to avoid shocking young readers. The answer is no.
As we’ve written on our blog, for more than a century cartoonists used another euphemism to represent swearing in the funnies. This was an arbitrary string of symbols (like %&*&##@!!) called a grawlix.
Finally, a note about the word “curse.” It’s something of a mystery, or as the OED puts it, of “unknown origin.”
In late Old English, when “curse” entered the language, it was spelled curs, and “no word of similar form and sense is known in Germanic, Romanic, or Celtic,” according to the dictionary.