Bite your tongue

Bite your tongue

Some modern cures for the ancient causes of the common scold

By Ellen Snortland 06/10/2010

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Is “Numbskull: Please scold me!” tattooed on my forehead? I’ve been the target of several scolds in the past few weeks. I’ve wanted to lash back, but I’ve held my tongue. I can scold with the best, but I’ve quit. There’s simply no joy in it.
I used to be righteous and felt obligated to “correct” those who broke my rules, whether or not they actually knew the rules. I admit that I’m still occasionally righteous, but I mostly keep my harsh rebukes to myself. I actually like to have fun more than I like to be righteous. Life is too short to scold or be scolded.
You may notice that scold is gender specific. One does not usually apply the word “scold” to men, although I will have to begin doing so immediately … the rats! The New Oxford American Dictionary defines “scold” as a “verb [trans.] to remonstrate with or rebuke [someone] angrily: ‘Mom took Anna away, scolding her for her bad behavior.’ noun archaic — a woman who nags or grumbles constantly.”
Scolding used to be a crime, according to English common law, punishable by all sorts of imaginative methods. Along with tea, American colonies imported the scolding laws and punishments. If a judge deemed a woman a scold because she gossiped, publicly chastised a man or even complained, her sentence could be “ducking,” a word morphed from “dunking.” The good townspeople, who had it up to their ears with this particular woman’s tongue-lashings, would tie a chair between two beams, rig it to a pulley or lever, place it next to a pond or river and then dunk her. Splash! Kerplunk! Glurg, glurg, glurg. I guess that taught her to stop complaining when the local drunk goosed her. It’s easy to see how these laws could be abused merely because a woman was disliked or tried to defend herself.
Alas, what was good for the goose was not good for the gander. Men could scold, er, berate, harass, yell, gossip, rebuke or remonstrate with impunity. The contempt that people — including other women — had for opinionated females was a form of domestic terror. No wonder women learned to hold their tongues.
Gossip was no small thing. If someone started a rumor that Sally looked at John the Milkman funny and cast a spell, Sally could be punished for witchcraft, especially if John’s cows stopped giving milk. Now, if Sally also happened to be Jewish, or a gypsy, or a healer, she could REALLY be in trouble. (Her husband could also burn for being Jewish or simply being married to her.)
We’ll never know how many women perished from the Inquisition and burning of so-called witches, but some scholars estimate the number to be in the millions. However, like many things having to do with women, the figures are minimized in many official records; sometimes the records themselves were burned with the “heretics.” The Germans were leaders in female barbecues largely because of Heinrich Kramer, a misogynist Catholic Inquisitor (what are the odds?) who wrote the famous “Malleus Maleficarum,” which is Latin for “The Hammer of Witches.” It’s the famous rant on women and witches, first published in Germany in 1487. There was a female Holocaust centuries before the genocides of Jews and Armenians. 
The height of scold punishment overlapped the witch-hunt eras. Some women could see that scolds’ ducking punishments were a lot better than burning. But these public castigations served to paralyze women’s expression in speaking and writing. Convicted scolds were punished not only by ducking, but by being forced to wear a contraption encasing the head called a “brank,” which was a scold’s mask, bridle or cage. These were usually metal doohickeys that the local ironsmith would fashion to literally “hold the tongue” and keep the woman from speaking. Some of them also had bells on the back so everyone knew where the brank-wearer was at all times. The last US scold laws were finally purged from the books in the early 1960s, because they applied only to women and were deemed contrary to the equal protection clause of the Constitution. Now, both men and women can be charged with disorderly conduct or public nuisance misdemeanors.
I have a beloved little book of quotations compiled by Abby Adams called “An Uncommon Scold: 1,000 Quotable Quotes on Subjects from the Preposterous to the Divine, Uttered by History’s Most Witty & Wicked Women.” It’s delightful to see what other women have said through the years, remarks that most people are not aware of, some of which would have gotten the woman in trouble in days gone by. Whenever I get a chance, I use a woman’s quote, just to be a stealth scold. According to Amanda Cross, “That’s the point of quotations, you know; one can use another’s words to be insulting.”
I assume that men and women who scold are simply miserable. I know when I used to scold it was because I blamed others’ imperfections for my misery. Alas, anyone who tries to be perfect or make others perfect may need a big dose of cold water … but not a ducking. If you feel yourself start to scold, bite your tongue, or go away until it passes. 

Ms. Snortland teaches a writers’ workshop in Altadena. Contact her at


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