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shameless pleading

Wilgefortis

A classier form of “Dagnabbit.”

Dear Word Detective: Last week I was searching for something totally unrelated and found a word origin (slang) question someone had posted. It had to do with some old guy he had worked with who would say something like “wilber fortus” every time he would pick up a bad rivet (or defective screw, or something). I was intrigued and tried to find an answer until I gave up. I erased the link to the question. Then yesterday I came across a reference to a Saint Wilgefortis and wondered if it had anything to do with the above question which I now cannot find. Can you help? — Lester St Cronus.

Perhaps. Incidentally, the sequence of events you describe is just one of the myriad and wonderful ways that the internet has added to the sum total of confusion, anxiety and despair in the world. You might want to increase the amount of time your computer saves its browsing history. Or adopt the practice of emailing yourself promising links. I’d love to see that guy’s question.

I haven’t found any evidence that “Wilbur Fortis” is an established oath or expression of frustration. Nor have I uncovered anyone by that name whose reputation would make him a logical response to a moment of exasperation at work. The only famous Wilbur that springs to mind, apart from Mister Ed’s owner (yes, I’m obsessed with Mister Ed) is Wilbur Mills, the politician whose career blew up when his apparent paramour, Argentinian stripper Fanne Foxe, fled from D.C. police by jumping in the Tidal Basin in 1974.

That leaves us with your hunch, which I believe to be a truly inspired insight. I think the guy who muttered “Wilbur Fortis” under his breath was actually saying “Wilgefortis,” invoking the name of Saint Wilgefortis in a moment of frustration the way we might say “Goldurnit” (a “minced oath,” or euphemistic form, of “God damn it”) or “Jumping Jehosophat” (King Jehosophat of Judah, whose name stands in for both Jesus and Jehovah).

The legend of Saint Wilgefortis is just plain weird. The daughter of a “pagan” king of Portugal in the 14th century, Wilgefortis, a Christian, faced an arranged marriage to the king of Sicily. In distress, Wilgefortis prayed for a way to avoid the marriage, relief which took the form of a lush beard growing on her face. This slaked the Sicilian king’s ardor considerably, and the marriage was canceled. Unfortunately, all this enraged Wilgefortis’s father, and he had her crucified. Saint Wilgefortis is today the patron saint of relief from tribulations and particularly of women who wish to be “disencumbered” of a bad marriage (she was also known as “Uncumber” in Britain).

But now the bad news. If the story of a bearded lady saint who specializes in making bad things go away seems too good to be true, that’s because it probably is. Most scholars of such things believe that Saint Wilgefortis and her beard are the result of a cultural misunderstanding many centuries ago. The Volto Santo di Lucca (Holy Face of Lucca) is a wooden crucifix that stands in the cathedral of San Martino, in Lucca, Italy. Unlike most crucifixes, in which the body of Christ is clad only in a loincloth, in this one he is wearing an ankle-length tunic. Common in the iconography of the Eastern Church, in Italy this robe spelled “woman” to some observers, and replicas of the crucifix, as they spread through Europe, fed the legend of a bearded, martyred, and female Saint Wilgefortis.

Although the story of Saint Wilgefortis has been periodically “debunked” since the 16th century, her legend is still popular in parts of Europe, and there’s even a carving of her in Westminster Abbey, complete with cross, gown and flowing beard. So it’s entirely possible that the co-worker of the man who posted that question was appealing to Wilgefortis to save him from the curse of poor quality control at the rivet factory.

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