Going to great lengths for swear words

What is the lengthiest spoken oath commonly required of witnesses in a formal legal trial? The answer seems to be 374 words, in the judicial courts of Burma, until at least the middle of the 19th century.

An English translation appears in Kenneth RH Mackenzie’s 1853 book Burmah and the Burmese, published in London. Mackenzie writes: “The oath is written in a small book of palm leaves, and is held over the head of the witness.”

Called The Book of Imprecations or The Book of the Oath, the slim volume also expresses the court’s sentiments about any witnesses who would fudge facts. The court is fairly thorough in its wishes, touching on the most likely eventualities.

“May false witnesses die of bad diseases, be bitten by crocodiles, be drowned. May they become poor, hated of the king. May they have calumniating enemies, may they be driven away, may they become utterly wretched, may every one ill-treat them, and raise lawsuits against them. May they be killed with swords, lances, and every sort of weapon. May they be precipitated into the eight great hells and the 120 smaller ones. May they be tormented. May they be changed into dogs. And, if finally they become men, may they be slaves a thousand and ten thousand times. May all their undertakings, thoughts and desires ever remain as worthless as a heap of cotton burnt by the fire.”

And so on….

So begins this week’s Improbable Research column in The Guardian.

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