Ukulele & Languages

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The language of swearing : Language Fun

15 2010

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 :

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!


  1. Al on the 15th of November 2010 @ 18:24

    Excellent post, Armelle.

    A couple of things that cross my mind:

    – I think the hardest swear word to pin down in English is ‘twat’. The Prime Minister didn’t mind using it on the radio. But the definition is indistinguishable from cunt and there’s a debate over whether it’s misogynist to use it.

    – Following on from that, slang for female genitals seems to be regarded as stronger swearing than for male genitals. I wonder if that’s the same in other languages.

    – Something I meant to say when we were discussing ‘feck’ before. I think there is a place for not-really-swear-words. Believe it or not, I don’t swear on the blog unless I need to. But sometimes a sentence needs a swear word for emphasis or rhythm. In my last blog post, for example, I used ‘frickin’ adorable’ because the sentence needed that sort of ending.

  2. Armelle Europe on the 16th of November 2010 @ 19:07

    – a politician with a sense of humour, how refreshing…

    – I have been thinking about whether French slang for female genitals was stronger swearing than slang for male genitals but I can’t say that’s the case.
    I find that French swearwords referring to male genitals are more vulgar although not necessarily stronger in meaning. I think I’ve already used my yearly quota of swearwords in just this one post so I will not add more swearwords to the list ;)

    -Your point on not-really-swearwords is a good one. I hadn’t thought of this. I have been trying to think of French equivalents to ‘frickin’or ‘chuffin’ but I haven’t found any so far.

  3. Alf on the 18th of November 2010 @ 02:16

    I’m not sure it’s necessarily the case that female genitalia outswears male; I think it may just be that ‘cunt’ trumps pretty much everything else in strength. Certainly, it beats ‘cock’, ‘dick’, or ‘bollocks’, but they all outrank the curious case of ‘twat’, so perhaps it’s just that female genitalia sits more on the extremes, with male genitalia lodged somewhere in the middle. As it were. Still odd, in any case.

    There were a few German kids at school, and they all spoke more or less perfect English when they arrived, except for not knowing how to swear properly. I remember one who never did quite get the hang of it; he would keep saying, in moments of annoyance, “This is very fucking!”, despite everyone’s best efforts to convince him that ‘fucking’ functioned as an adjective. Ah well.

  4. Armelle Europe on the 18th of November 2010 @ 18:47

    Alf: Thanks for sharing your view with your usual sense of humour.
    Looks like we will not be able to reach any conclusion as to whether female genitalia outswears male and whether it is misogynist to use swearwords referring to female genitals.

    I find inappropriate use of words(not only swearwords) by non-natives quite funny as it usually is a great source of double-entendre.

  5. Ukulele Zizi on the 19th of November 2010 @ 02:30

    A sort of casual mysogyny has been creeping across the United States in recent times, seen and heard especially in some of our popular entertainment – paticularly in our music. But perhaps not just over here…

  6. Armelle Europe on the 19th of November 2010 @ 21:36

    Ron: casual misogyny is not a US-only type of thing and is rather common around here too. And this is not a very new trend either…

  7. carreg on the 29th of February 2012 @ 17:54

    wazock- no idea what it means and I like putain as well, it makes me think of the bloke in blazing saddles spitting.

  8. Armelle Europe on the 4th of March 2012 @ 18:49

    carreg: I didn’t know wazzock, that’s a nice one. According to the Urban Dictionary it means ‘An idiot or daft person’.

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