In the course of trying to find an online reference for the Great Hungarian Curse (for a MeTa comment), I came across a funny and occasionally informative National Review article by John Derbyshire that starts off with some dismissive remarks about Lenny Bruce that would have infuriated me a few decades ago and continues with some much more interesting stuff about Chinese, which I’ll quote here:
In Mandarin Chinese, the only foreign language I know much about, the all-purpose expletive is tamade, pronounced “tah-MAH-duh,” which translates as “his (her, its, your) mother’s.” His mother’s what? The great 20th-century writer Lu Xun — he was a sort of Chinese Orwell in his broad outlook — wrote a witty essay on this topic, which somehow manages not to be offensive at all. You hear tamade all the time in Chinese street talk. Often it is just used in isolation. After hitting your thumb with a hammer, for example, it would be appropriate to say Ta-MA-de!! — “Oh, pop!!” The expression can also be heard in more complex forms, sometimes truncated, as in Shei tama zhidao? — “Who the pop knows?”
Lesser Chinese dialects are usually much more foul-mouthed than the official national language. Dogs, mothers, popping, and, for reasons it would take much too long to explain, turtles feature largely in various combinations, some of them physiologically very improbable. In South China, where you can get three mutually incomprehensible dialects within ten miles of each other, the locals tweak their neighbors with expressions that sound obscene on this side of the mountain but harmless on the other. Taishan people, for example, will mutter Kip ma-go hoi! among speakers of “regular” Guangzhou Cantonese, to whom it sounds like “Go ride a horse across the river.” To a Taishanese ear it is actually much more potent than that.
(I guess I should add that he’s using “pop” as a euphemism for what he calls “the common f-word.”)