I find the subject of swearing extremely fascinating from a language lover’s point of view. When you travel abroad to a country speaking a different language than yours, swearwords are among the first words you pick up as they are overwhelmingly present in nowadays everyday life.
The way those swearwords are used and combined with ‘regular’ language reveal a lot about the culture of a country, especially when you start looking at their etymology.
Warning : As the subject of swearing will be discussed in the rest of this post, you will come across some offensive language.
I stumbled upon a very interesting podcast on The Guardian last Friday focusing on swearing, the way bad language is used in the medias, and a survey on the worst swearwords in the English language.
Find out what a library curator, a senior lecturer in linguistics, a newspaper editor, a broadcasting regulator, a political satire and a writer have to say on the subject :gdn.art.101112.ad.Guardian-Focus-swearing.mp3
I researched the subject a bit more and found a talk by Canadian-American experimental psychologist, cognitive scientist and linguist Steven Pinker.
Steven Pinker looks into the different categories of swearwords, discusses the reasons we are swearing, looks into the neurologic aspects of swearing and into the reactions swearing triggers.
I really enjoyed listening to Steven Pinker‘s talk as it looks into all the aspects of swearing and as each point is illustrated with amusing anecdotes.
Steven Pinker – The Language of Swearing Part One :
Steven Pinker – The Language of Swearing Part Two:
The podcast and the above mentioned videos made me think about French swearing compared to English swearing. If you try to match French swearwords to English swearwords, you’ll find that words with similar meanings don’t carry the same weight in French or in English.
Here are some examples that spring to my mind :
‘con‘ in French has the same definition as ‘cunt‘ in English, ie a reference to the female genitalia. I would however have no trouble using the word ‘con‘ every other sentence in an informal context whereas I definitely wouldn’t use the word ‘cunt‘ thoughtlessly.
You can tell someone ‘T’es con‘ with a slight headshake after he/she has said something stupid or has just teased you about something. The original meaning of the word is then completely forgotten and the person will just usually smile when you say this. But I wouldn’t smile at all if I were to be called a ‘cunt’.
‘arsehole‘ in English would translate literally as ‘trou du cul‘ in French but doesn’t carry the same meaning. A ‘trou du cul‘ in French is usually used to refer to someone (usually a male) who thinks very highly of himself and who tends to look down on others. ‘Connard‘ or ‘Salaud‘ would be closer to the meaning of ‘arsehole‘.
We’ve heard in the podcast and videos that one category of swearing is referring to bodily functions, and more specifically human feces.
Some words falling into that category from various languages which have stuck to my memory are :
– The German (Schwäbisch) word ‘Scheißebach‘ : if you think the word ‘shit‘ is too mainstream to convey anything anymore, you will not deny the effect of ‘Scheißebach‘ which translates literally as ‘stream of shit’. The impact of this word is twofold : the meaning is obviously stronger than just a plain ‘shit‘ or ‘scheiße‘ but, at the same time, the sheer sound of that German word is powerful enough to enforce a strong repulsive feeling in anyone.
– The idiomatic expression ‘to be scared shitless‘ : this is an expression I heard during my stay in Hull and I found it, well… rather self-explanatory and straight to the point. Somewhat inelegant perhaps but still, dead on !
– A word I heard a lot in Ireland : ‘Gobshite‘. I just love this word. It is used to describe people who talk complete rubbish for an endless amount of time. In other words and to remain on the subject of human dejections, people who are full of wind and who suffer from verbal diarrhoea.
For a proper demonstration of Irish swearing, watch the following extract from the Father Ted series. Thanks to Al.
– the Norwegian ‘Faens dritt !’ : literally translated as ‘The Devil’s shit’. Or you may prefer ‘Faen i helvete‘, both expressions meaning something like ‘Fucking hell!’ I wonder has anybody thought of using the compound ‘Faens dritt i helvete‘ for extra emphasis?
Enough rambling, if you’d like to learn more about Norwegian swearing, I strongly recommend this hilarious video :
As you will hopefully not have failed to notice the subject of swearing in various languages is one that I find particularly inspiring.
I’d love to hear your feedback on the subject, so don’t hesitate to share creative swearwords from your own language, funny anecdotes and your own thoughts on the subject. Please refrain from swearing at me though!