The cardinal who won a cursing contest, allegedly

cardinal cursing contest

In 1817, Lord Byron is said to have challenged an Italian cardinal to a multilingual cursing contest.

The English poet reputedly opened the contest by uttering as many different imprecations as he could in the languages he had studied.

Byron recalled later that he swore “in all the tongues in which I knew a single oath or adjuration to the gods, against post-boys, savages, Tartars, boatmen, sailors, pilots, gondoliers, muleteers, camel-drivers, vetturini, post-masters, posthouses, post, everything.”

Realizing that he was running out of words, the nobleman switched to English slang. He eventually exhausted his reserves and fell silent.

At that moment, the gently spoken cardinal is said to have uttered these crushing words: “And is that all?”

The prince of the Church then unleashed a seemingly unending stream of London slang, much of it unknown to the poet.

Lord Byron described the cardinal later as “a monster of languages … a walking polyglot … who ought to have existed at the time of the Tower of Babel, as universal interpreter.”

The cursing contest story is told by Charles William Russell in his monumental 1858 biography “The Life of Cardinal Mezzofanti.”

Russell, an Irish Catholic priest, added a note of scepticism, saying that while the anecdote was “still current in Rome,” it was “doubtless a mere exaggeration of the real story.”

Cardinal Mezzofanti is regarded as one of the greatest — if not the greatest — language learners of all time.

He was not merely a polyglot, or speaker of multiple languages, but a “hyperpolyglot,” a person fluent in six or more languages.

Mezzofanti’s nephew claimed that the cardinal was acquainted with 114 languages.

Russell himself estimated that Mezzofanti spoke 30 languages with “rare excellence,” including Armenian and Maltese, a further nine fluently (including Algonquin), and 11 “less perfectly.”

Giuseppe Gasparo Mezzofanti was born on Bologna’s Via Malcontenti on Sept. 17, 1774.

A precocious learner, he was ordained a priest in 1797 and named a professor at the venerable University of Bologna.

Briefly removed from the post after refusing to swear loyalty to Napoleon Bonaparte’s Cisalpine Republic, he ministered to foreigners wounded in the Napoleonic Wars, expanding his knowledge of European languages.

Mezzofanti claimed that he could familiarize himself with a new language in two weeks by asking the recuperating soldiers to recite well-known prayers in their native languages, which he would then use to build up his mastery.

He credited God, not just his native skills, with helping him to pick up foreign tongues.

“Through the grace of God,” he said, “assisted by my private studies, and by a retentive memory, I came to know not merely the generic languages of the nations to which the several invalids belonged but even the peculiar dialects of their various provinces.”

Mezzofanti moved to Rome in 1831, serving as a member of the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith. Continue reading

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