Behind the Dictionary

Lexicographers Talk About Language

Curses and Insults Around the World

Want to insult someone in Japanese? Try misokakku ('scum of soya paste'). In Polish, try motyla noga ('butterfly's leg'), and in Turkish, muhallebi çocuğu ('child of pudding'). These and hundreds of other colorful put-downs from around the world can be found in the delightful new book, Uglier Than a Monkey's Armpit by Stephen Dodson and Dr. Robert Vanderplank. We spoke about the book with Dodson, known to many language lovers by his nom de blog, Languagehat.

VT: How did you get involved in this project?

SD: Originally I got involved in it simply as a copy editor.  I had worked on a couple other books for Elwin Street [a British book packager] and they said, "Oh, here's this book on swearing. Would you like to work on that?"  I said, "Sure, sounds like fun."  And then they said they would like to get a co-author with Dr. Vanderplank and asked if I knew of anybody.  So I stuck up my hand and said, "I could do it!"  I sent them a couple of entries and they said, "Oh, we love it!  Very lively!"  And then there I was, a co-author. 

I had a call for contributions at Languagehat, and people sent me some interesting stuff.  Fortunately, I know speakers of various languages, so I was able to check.  I'm sure there are still mistakes in the book, but I was able to check a fair amount of stuff with native speakers, which was nice.

VT: Was it difficult finding material in some languages because of the taboo nature of so much of the vocabulary?

SD: Not so much these days.  Online, you can find vile insults in just about any language you can think of.  The problem, of course, is determining to what extent they exist and to what extent they're correctly rendered, and that requires some checking.  But certainly, this sort of research is much easier these days.

The great worry in this kind of thing is putting down something that turns out to be wrong or not used, so I tried to pin it down as much as possible to make sure that these were actually things that people said.

VT: After having looked at insults and curses in so many different languages, how would you say English compares to these other languages that you've looked at?  In general, is English very rich in insulting language?

SD: I would say so, and I think a lot of that is due to America and its rich frontier and working-class culture of imaginative vituperation.  But the pre-modern Brits were no slouches, themselves.  I just think there was a stifling blanket thrown over it all in the Victorian era, which, to some extent, they're still struggling to get out from under.

VT: Do you see English cursing as a grand tradition going all the way back to Anglo-Saxon times?

SD: Absolutely, and farther back.  I assume, just as a matter of course from my knowledge of history and human nature, that there's basically always been swearing everywhere of one variety or another. I would seriously doubt there was ever a society where everybody from top to bottom went around expressing themselves decorously.  When people dropped a large stone on their toe, slammed their hand in the door, or had a spear stuck in them, they would probably express themselves pretty vigorously. 

There's a whole underground tradition — just as there is, for instance, of childhood culture, of skipping rhymes, playground insults, all that kind of thing — which bubbles along for centuries.  We occasionally pick up a reference to something from centuries ago that seems very familiar and we realize that this has been a continuing tradition.  But since grown-up people don't remember it or write about it, it doesn't get covered.  One thing that's come out of the interest in the last few decades in the history of private lives is that historians have taken more of an interest in digging out this kind of thing.

VT: So what you have access to may be more ephemeral literature, diaries or other things that might capture that type of use of language?

SD: Diaries are a good example of the kind of thing that used to be available only if you went to some archive, or had access to somebody's attic — unless, of course, there was a diary of somebody important like Byron or Pushkin.  But now with this interest in private life, these things have been published or have been put online.  You have much more access to the kinds of things that a few decades ago would have been very hard to get to.

VT: When people say, as they often do these days about English, that there's been a coarsening of the language, would you say that this coarseness has always been there? Has it just been more prominent now because of the lifting of the restrictions on taboo language?

SD: Absolutely. There has always been a culture of cheerful or indignant cursing and insulting. The verbal equivalent of jostling, head-butting or just jumping up and down and hollering "Whoopee!" has always existed and has always been a part of daily life. And part of lifting yourself above the lower classes involves forgetting and ignoring that whole unpleasant, sweaty, noisy layer of life.

You get yourself to a place in life where you're living in a nice house.  Maybe you have a servant to bring you your dinner.  You don't have to wash dishes; you don't have to do your own lawn.  You don't have to go out and jostle with people on the street.  You don't have to hear people calling you names.  And that's the level of life that historically has been represented in so-called literature.  Mind you, I'm not knocking it. Upper-class culture has produced wonderful things.  I'm just saying that there's a whole spectrum, and we're used to only looking at part of it.  I personally take delight in the whole thing. 

Furthermore, I don't think that the best examples of upper-class or respected literature could exist without being fed by these currents from below. Pushkin, universally considered the greatest Russian author, took delight in using obscene expressions.  They'd get bleeped out, of course, by prudish publishers.  Shakespeare, too, was very much aware of and alluding to the vulgar, the obscene, the lower level of life.  I think the more you try to divorce literature and art from that crude vitality, it becomes effete, and it becomes not likely to last.

VT: Nowadays, do you think that the coarse and rude elements of linguistic interaction are just harder to avoid, especially with online discourse?

SD: It's pretty easy to avoid: stay off the Internet.  Nobody's forcing you to watch these exchanges where people call each other names on some forum.  In the old days, if you walked down to the streets by the old port part of town, you'd hear just the same kinds of things. It was just as much there, but it just wasn't, in some sense, published.  People would say these things and they'd vanish into the air and be forgotten.  Now they're preserved in the immortality of the forum discussions.  But it's the same stuff that's always been there.

VT: Have you tried to focus on the cream of the crop, the most imaginative, the most evocative types of expressions and left out the more prosaic insults?

SD: Sure. Sturgeon's Law applies to this, as well as to everything else: 90 percent of everything is crud. I've tried to find the best examples, and there are plenty more where those came from.  The Internet is truly a goldmine of all kinds of things, including imaginative cursing.  But if you're just browsing at random, it does tend to get drowned out by the unimaginative kind, which is almost expected.

VT: Can you leave us with one of your favorite insults from the book?

SD: There's the Icelandic word prumphænsn, which means 'fart-chicken.' Its glorious unexpectedness is half the fun. Fart-chicken!

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.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday August 11th 2009, 5:22 PM
Comment by: Patricia D. (Santa Clara, CA)
The sheer and unexpected inventiveness is a great delight! Almost takes the sting out of the insult. The strange attributes and juxtapositions reflect the sputtering disgust of someone put upon, thwarted or just plain mad. It's so human.
Wednesday August 12th 2009, 4:29 PM
Comment by: Raju Kalampuram
Quite an interesting conversation; I am sure the book will be an interesting read too. I will try and grab it soon.
Wednesday August 19th 2009, 5:29 PM
Comment by: david O. (san francisco, CA)
I posted a couple of thoughts about the f-word American obsenity on the NYTimes "Fail" article in the Sunday paper by Ben Zimmer thread. In short a new expression meme is proposed, substitute fail for the f-word.

One thing is for sure, and I say it to promote world peace, "we all sneeze in the same language."

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