Behind the Dictionary
Lexicographers Talk About Language
The Universality of Swearing
Earlier this week we spoke to Stephen Dodson, co-author of Uglier than a Monkey's Armpit, a compendium of curses and insults from around the world. By way of introduction to this lively and engaging book, here is a (lightly expurgated!) letter to readers from Stephen, musing on the boundless creativity of the "gems of abuse" he has collected.
In Shakespeare's Tempest Caliban tells Prospero, "You taught me language; and my profit on't is, I know how to curse." Every language I know of has curse words, and most people, however much they may disparage them in theory, use them enthusiastically when the occasion demands it, whether the occasion is being cut off in traffic or slamming a finger with something heavy. I will never forget my shock, as a boy forbidden to utter even a "darn it" around the house, at hearing my father holler "S--t!" while working in the attic, nor will I forget my amazement on my first day of college in California at hearing a passing trio of girls carrying on a loud and profane conversation as I lolled on the greensward. My father was in the Foreign Service, so I had grown up abroad (giving me an early immersion in languages), and as anyone who has lived in an expatriate community can attest, it is culturally years behind the home country, so even though the year was 1968, this was my abrupt introduction to the Sixties. I literally did not realize women were capable of swearing!
Some might have been put off by the discovery; I was thrilled and liberated. To me swearing, far from being an embarrassing remnant of primitive humanity to be overcome by civilized peoples, is an exhilarating means of direct contact with something basic, a way of bypassing the elaborate circumlocutions, rationalizations, and hypocrisies of literate discourse and plugging into some sort of cultural and psychological electricity. To find that women could do it as well as men was a significant step on the path to realizing that women are not so different from men after all, that we are all human, all too human. (My nonagenarian mother-in-law is fond of exclaiming, when the world displeases her, "Oh, for s--tting in the sink!") And as the British journalist Holbrook Jackson once said, "Profanity, like virtue, is its own reward."
Of course, this has never been a popular position with authority figures. Scotland was perhaps the first country to try and make swearing illegal, in 1551; a century later the English puritans, undeterred by the complete failure of the Scottish law, made swearing at one's parents a capital offence. Mussolini is said to have had notices put up with the injunction "For Italy's honour, do not swear", but it didn't do any more good than it had in Scotland or England. To curse is, in a sense, to reject authority — and that, too, was a lesson of the Sixties, the decade that saw the barriers against the inclusion of profanity in books crumble along with so many other barriers.
The classic example of this aspect of cursing is the Soviet Union, which was far more puritanical than even pre-Sixties America. The irony is that the Russian language is rich in profanity and the Russian people are supremely adept at using it, so the whitewashed picture given by the official media was highly misleading. In fact, the Russian equivalent of Shakespeare, Alexander Pushkin, not only loved curse words, he put them in his poetry; a stanza of his poem Telega zhizni [The wagon of life] ends Krichim: poshol! ebyona mat! [We cry: Drive on! F-- it! (literally 'f---ed mother')], but editions of Pushkin always substituted a row of dots for the last two words, even though any Russian reading the poem knew exactly what was being omitted. The collapse of the Soviet state brought about a flood of obscenities, in literature, in slang dictionaries, and in the speech of even many middle-class people who had avoided it earlier; this is often deplored, and of course obscenity like anything else can be overdone, but I see it as a healthy development.
To demonstrate the primal thrill of taboo words, I will quote a wonderful post by linguist Mark Liberman in the blog Language Log, reporting a conversation among three 4-year-olds in the back of a car:
A: Do you know the bad words?
B: Yes. My mom says them all the time.
C: Mine too.
A: I know the S word.
C: [covering her ears] Don't say it! Don't say it!
B: [trying to put his hands over A's mouth] That's the worst one! Don't say it, we'll get in trouble!
A: I'm going to say it! "STUPID." There, I said it.
C: No! No! You can't say that! Don't say it again!
Their (admirably kind and caring) preschool had a strict rule against calling people names, and stupid was high on the list of proscribed insults. The kids had assimilated this prohibition into the natural class of lexical taboos.
It is indeed a natural class; we seem to need the prohibition as much as we need to break it. It is, of course, each person's choice what to use and avoid in their own speech, but we should avoid the temptation to make others' choices for them. As Keith Allan and Kate Burridge say in their book Forbidden Words: Taboo and the Censoring of Language, "There probably are people who don't swear; but you can bet they have passive knowledge of almost all swear words. Everyone knows how to insult. With insulting, the in-group is defined by the use of ritual insults. It is insecure outsiders who taboo and would censor jargon, slang, swearing and even ritual insult."
So enjoy the gems of abuse we have collected for you from languages and cultures around the world, and remember that these are only a tiny sampling; humanity's creativity, in this as in other areas, is boundless, and even as you read this, kids on the streets of Brooklyn, workers in the factories of China, soldiers in Siberian barracks, and athletes in the heat of competition the world over are coming up with new and improved ways of putting each other down or expressing their outrage at life in general.
Uglier Than a Monkey's Armpit: Untranslatable Insults, Put-Downs, and Curses from Around the World, by Stephen Dodson and Dr. Robert Vanderplank, is published in the U.S. by Penguin and in the U.K. by Boxtree.