Dirt on your head! Son of an owl! Hit your head on a corner of tofu and die!
If you clicked on this article, you’ve probably already surmised that the above phrases are – at least some place on earth – considered swear words in different languages. They would, in fact, probably be censored if written in the original Farsi, Hindi, or Japanese. Relieved of their cultural weight, however, they sound about as serious as if they’d been lifted out of a Monty Python movie. For English speakers, after all, owls are generally considered symbols of wisdom, a much different interpretation than the laziness and stupidity that they are ascribed throughout the Indian subcontinent. Similarly, in much of America, tofu is rapped as the food of animal-loving vegans and vegetarians. It’s tough for an English-speaker to hurl a hard-hitting insult with a soy product at its center.
How Expletives Are Made
Around the world, swear words have a tendency to invoke cultural taboos, which is part of the reason there is a lot of overlap in subject matter across languages (think body parts and defecation). But how exactly does a word become a swear word?
Rebecca Roache, a lecturer in philosophy at the University of London, suggests that the answer might be found in a phenomenon called offense escalation. She first defines the term with an example. Let’s say that after introducing myself as Janet, Joey begins to call me Jennifer. At first, I assume that he’s made an innocent mistake, so the next time he calls me Jennifer, I politely correct him. At our next meeting, however, he calls me Jennifer again. At this point, I start to get annoyed. I remind him again of my name, and when he persists in calling me Jennifer once more, that annoyance morphs into anger. What I first assumed to be an innocent mistake now begins to look like an intentional display of disrespect. And each subsequent time that Joey calls me Jennifer, I become even more offended by his lack of consideration for my feelings. This is offense escalation.
The naming example is a good one because it shows that, rather than there being anything inherently offensive in the language used – the name Jennifer, after all, is just a name – the offense is rooted in the fact that the speaker is being inconsiderate of the audience’s desire.
Swearing is an example of the same thing. In every culture, there are topics that are taboo, and it can thus be taken as a given that certain words produce discomfort. But the offensiveness of speaking a particular word usually lies not in the word itself, but in the speaker’s disregard for the audience’s dislike of the word. This explains why swearing carries different weight in different social contexts. Swearing amongst friends that habitually use expletives will not offend because it’s been established that all group members are comfortable with the words used. In an office or in public, however, both the speaker and the audience know that certain words are generally dis-preferred, and thus swearing is considered offensive because it violates a social contract that marks their usage as inconsiderate.
Still, this doesn’t totally explain why some words are swears while synonyms for those words are not – think of the anatomically correct terms for genitalia versus a whole roster of equivalent substantives you’re unlikely to hear at the doctor’s office, for example. Roache has an explanation for this, too. She suggests that, given certain taboo subject matter, the words that emerge as swears tend to be the fiercest sounding. “The ‘quick and harsh’ sound of swear words…” she writes, “plausibly adds drama to the gleeful thrill of taboo-breaking, so it should not be surprising that it is the fierce-sounding references to taboos that are singled out to become swear words.”
But swear words are not only used to offend. According to renowned linguist Steven Pinker, once a swear word has been born, it can be used in five different ways: descriptively (we’re f***ed), idiomatically (tough sh**), emphatically (this is f-ing amazing), abusively (you’re an a-hole), and cathartically (damn it!).
International Swear Word Themes
Now that we have a better idea of how expletives come into being and what they’re used for, let’s leave off with some swearing tropes from around the world.
Hierarchy & Family:
Some of the most transgressive language in many cultures is characterized by taboos relating to hierarchy. Specifically, disrespect for the mother of the person insulted is quite common, especially in Latin languages (less so in French), as well as Slavic, Balkan, Arabic, and Chinese. Even Shakespeare used mother-disparaging language, as shown by this exchange that takes place in Titus Andronicus:
Demetrius: Villain, what hast thou done?
Aaron: That which thou canst not undo.
Chiron: Thou hast undone our mother.
Aaron: Villain, I have done thy mother.
Though English does have a few hierarchy-related expressions, they are more common in extended-family centered societies rather than nuclear-family ones. Oftentimes, they get spread out to the more distant family members as well: Bosnian (“screw your father”) Albanian (gifsha robt “screw your family”), Turkish (sülaleni sikeyim “screw your extended family”), and Mandarin (cào nǐ zǔzōng shíbā dài “screw your ancestors to the 18th generation”).
Body parts & Sex:
Swear words related to body parts are probably the most prolific across languages. This is certainly true of English, where body-part invoking profanity ranges from relatively harmless to the highest levels of offense. In China or Russia, uttering the name of the male or female organ expresses irritation; in Italy, the phrase “che cazzo,” which you might shout out after being cut off in traffic, can be roughly translated as “What the [male genitalia]!” Where there is swearing about genitalia, there is also bound to be swearing about sex. Harsher equivalents to ‘screw’ are prevalent around the world.
Many cultures consider invoking religious terminology or imagery blasphemous. As the United States has grown more secular, swear words like ‘damn’ and ‘hell’ have lost the charge they once held, but in places like Quebec, which was heavily dominated by the Catholic church until a few decades ago, the strongest language includes the equivalents of words like tabernacle, Christ, baptism, and chalice. Similarly, some of the rudest words in Finland include Satan, devil, and Hell, which are of comparable offense levels in Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish.
Cleanliness & Health:
For most societies, some form of the old adage “cleanliness is next to godliness,” has made its mark at some point. It follows that excrement is quite often banished to the realm of the taboo, such that equivalents are popular around the world.
Interestingly, the fixation on cleanliness occasionally carries over to a special horror of disease. In Polish, “cholera!” is a cathartic expletive, and in Thai, you can wish cholera onto someone. In Dutch, cancer, cholera, and typhus get invoked quite frequently. If you’re really looking to offend someone, you might call them a “cancer sufferer.”
Learn more about ALTA’s language services, such as language training – we promise to keep it clean.
Janet Barrow writes about the places where language meets history, culture, and politics. She studied Written Arts at Bard College, and her fiction has appeared in Easy Street and Adelaide Magazine. After two years in Lima, Peru, she recently moved to Chicago.