A Quick F***ing Survey of Swearing Around the World
Trigger warning: I generally try to use polite language, but I am comprehensively relaxing that standard here, for obvious reasons.
“When the British Empire finally sinks beneath the waves of history, it will leave behind it only two memorials: one is the game of Association Football, and the other is the expression, ‘Fuck Off.’”
— Richard Turnbull, the last governor of British Tanganyika
One likes to think democracy, industrial production, and modern medicine are also worthy legacies of Britain’s imperial past, but there is some insight in Mr. Turnbull’s cheeky prophecy. “Fuck off” is an innovative and versatile application of a classic imprecation, and one that has caught on around the world.
That phrase is fairly unique, but its operative verb has equivalents in languages everywhere. There are a few themes that spawn naughty words in any society, and the foremost of them is sex. Variations of “fuck” are ubiquitous, as are the application of it to female family members. One of the most comprehensive comes from India, where if you are particularly irritated, you can call someone madarchod bhenchod betichod: “mother-fucker daughter-fucker sister-fucker!” In East Asia, family honour goes even deeper: one of the most severe insults in Chinese is “fuck your ancestors to the eighteenth generation!”
Another popular domain is sex with oneself. British “wanker” is an appropriate-sounding word, while the French va te faire foutre (“go do yourself sex”) is more direct. And of course, implications that someone or his female family member practices the world’s oldest profession is an insult everywhere.
Sex is not the only bodily function that everyone seems to agree is profane. “Shit” has translations in every language, though interestingly, it is a stronger curse in English than German Scheiße, French merde, et cetera. People in Latin Europe have been calling distasteful things caca since the days of Pompeii.
A theme of dirty, animalistic things emerges when you consider that most agricultural societies start to use domesticated animals as insults. Donkeys come in for particular abuse in Western Europe, e.g., Portuguese burro de merda (“ass of shit”). Germans combine two dirty farm animals in Schweinhund (“pig-dog”). In the Arab world, whose founding father was known to hate dogs, they come in for particular abuse: kalb (“dog”) or worse, ibn al-kalb (“son of a dog”) are among the worst insults an Arab can level against someone.
It is often necessary to call someone stupid, and peoples around the world have come up with many different ways to do it. Spanish bobo comes from a Latin word for a stammerer. French crétin evolved from medieval Catholic political correctness, reminding people that even the mentally disabled were Christians. English “idiot” comes from the opposite direction: originally from Greek, it was an insult clerics levelled against uneducated laymen.
Etymology is an important area of linguistic study, but it is tricky with illicit vocabulary, because the men who wrote chronicles back in the day were not the sort to explore profanity. Colourful words appear sporadically in the English historical record, dating back to a reference to a 14th Century outlaw named Roger Fuck-by-the-Navel. The word is assumed to be Germanic, and there is some evidence that it has analogies in Scandinavian languages, but it is hard to tell because Norse clerics were no less squeamish than ours.
We have a fuller record beginning only in the 18th Century. There is an amusing story that Samuel Johnson, compiler of the first English dictionary, was once congratulated by a presumptuous society lady for including no bad words in his book; he invited her to actually crack open a copy and look them up. A few languages have quirks that make things more explicit. The Chinese character 肏 (“fuck”) is formed by simply combining “enter” (入) and “meat” (肉). (The ancient version of the character for “want” was likewise formed by writing “hand” on either side of the character for “woman”).
Some languages choose a particular theme to play on. “Poxy” used to be a common condemnation in English, and is still current in Ireland. But the Dutch derive most of their obscene vocabulary from diseases. An angry Dutchman might tell someone to optyfussen (“typhus off”) or krijg de tering (“get consumption”), or call her a kankerhoer (“cancer whore”). These insults date back to the Protestant Reformation, when cleanliness was a sign of godliness. Koreans are on the same wavelength. If someone is blathering nonsense, you can tell him he is ji-ral, a medieval term for having a stroke or seizure. Colombians are more modern — they pepper their insults with gonorrhea.
Another forbidden theme is religion. Indeed, we call illicit words “swear words” based on old timey disapproval for taking the Lord’s name in vain (“oaths” used to have the same connotation).
Québécois society has grown more liberal in recent decades, but words like calisse (“chalice”) and tabernak (“tabernacle”) still dominate French Canadian illicit vocabulary. (Sacre bleu is rare in French today, but it survives in English as an expression of mock outrage.) Arab society has not grown more liberal in recent decades, and some of their imprecations, like “may God swallow the earth beneath him!” sound positively medieval.
Well into the 1960s, “damn” was so dastardly that you could not even print it. Today, of course, our lexical opprobrium has shifted to a different word, which you all know but I am not going to write here. This represents a shift in values, from a society concerned with religious morality to one whose highest value is social justice.
Racial slurs come from all sorts of colourful provenances. South Africa’s equivalent of America’s most forbidden word is “kafir,” originally an Arabic slur for heathens. Because the Arabs often levelled it against black Africans, Europeans assumed it was meant for them (apparently without realising that they were kafir as well).
Racial slurs used to be less stigmatised. There are movements today to heap the same burden of opprobrium on insults for other marginalised groups. British media now refer to “paki” as “the p-word.” “Cunt” has been pushed to the fringes of American vocabulary, though it is perhaps the most versatile and widespread word in colloquial speech in Britain, Ireland, and Australia. Likewise, “fag” is now a very impolite thing to say in some places, but more common elsewhere. Maricón (or marica), its Spanish equivalent, is ubiquitous in Latin America. (As a profane fun fact, the English slur did not originate from medieval punishment of homosexuals. It was common for poor widows to support themselves by selling faggots of wood door-to-door, so the term became a term of abuse for women, and thence the gay community.)
Outside the West, racial sensitivities tend to be less inhibited. Persians and Arabs routinely call each other “lizard-eater” and “fire-worshipper,” respectively. (The latter is a reference to the Zoroastrian faith of pre-Islamic Persia.) When I worked in China, my coworkers ribbingly called me guizi, “white devil.” (The word is also levelled against insufficiently patriotic Chinese.) The better-known Cantonese cognate is gweilo. Hong Kongers jokingly call wealthy expats living in hilltop villas “Gweilos in the Mist.”
Of course, whether something is forbidden or not is culturally subjective. Words can be stigmatised, destigmatised, or even laundered into respectability. Perhaps the best example of the latter can be seen in many cities in Britain and the Eastern US. Medieval redlight districts were often called “Gropecunt Lane.” Prudish Victorians decided that had to change, but to avoid confusion, they renamed these lanes things like “Grove Street” or “Grape Lane.”
Once, during a rare English snowstorm, I was biking through Oxford when I slipped on ice and crashed on Magpie Lane, which turns out to be a more creative renaming for the same sort of street. When I learned its history, I felt a little more appropriate for what I shouted when I smashed my elbow on the sidewalk.