OKH BLYA!

The excellent Russian-Israeli blogger Avva has a great story about a taxi ride with a driver he’d used several times before: “Judging by his face and Hebrew, a typical sabra (native Israeli), an Ashkenazi, about 45… He tells me he lived in America a long time; sometimes he switches to quite good English.” They had just exited from a tunnel and were behind a car that refused to move; the driver was turning into the next lane to pass when a bus shot out of the tunnel and sped past in that very lane. “The driver leans on the brake with all his strength and hollers” a stream of Russian obscenity, “without any accent whatsoever.” (I won’t bother reproducing the mat because anyone who could read it might as well read Avva’s whole entry—it’s short and funny.) As one commenter said, “It’s always like that—we speak in one language, switch to another, and curse in Russian.” I have to say that Russian is the best language for cursing I know, bar none.

Comments

  1. Russia is certainly one of the best, but I have to consider Mexican Spanish a serious competitor. And English isn’t too shabby – any language that comes up with things like “ass-crack of dawn” and the TV series “Deadwood” certainly is rich in profanity.
    I would nominate Japanese as the worst language for cursing. I have been told over the years by various Soviet fraternal peoples (Kazakhs, Latvians and Kyrgyz) that their native languages have no native swear words, instead they resort to Russian.
    For that matter how would modern Hebrew have developed any swear words since it was resurrected from mostly sacred literature? Were they imported from Yiddish? Arabic? Russian? All three?

  2. English isn’t too shabby
    Oh, I agree — it’s a fine language for cursing (and poetry — the two seem to go together). But Russian is the all-time champion.
    I’ve heard the same about Japanese, and wondered the same thing about Hebrew. (I’ve been told by another Russian-Israeli that ebyona mat’ has become naturalized in Israeli Hebrew, so Russian is obviously a prime source.)

  3. Michael Farris says:

    I haven’t gotten up (down?) to that level, but supposedly Hungarian isn’t too shabby for cursing. German cursing, on the other hand, is just lame.

  4. But you know the Hungarian National Curse, right? Lófasz a seggedbe!

  5. Rick Grimm says:

    And what of Québécois French? It is harsh, crude, beautifully anti-ecclesiastic and superbly poignant. To me, c’est de la poésie, crisse!

  6. I have heard that the Finnish curses are very good.
    Contra Vanya, I think that a language with a religious literature would be especially good for deriving curse words.

  7. janes_kid says:

    “Soviet fraternal peoples” claim their languages have no native sear words. I knew a Siberian Yupik translator who claimed his native language had no swear words. He too used Russian for cursing.

  8. For example, the story of Noah and his daughters.

  9. I consider european Portuguese a very serious contender. Eight centuries as an independent country gave us plenty of time to fine-tune our cursing and swearing. Go have a look…

  10. Firstly, I have always considered a good rhythmic language, with strong consonants interspersed with simple vowels, to be of prime importance for providing the necessary oomph to swear words, so top marks go to Spanish, Italian and Greek (Portuguese is too closed mouth for swearing to be an unfettered joy).
    And secondly, grammatical flexibility is of paramount importance so that one can be inventive and pepper even the most common of phrases with blasphemy. English, as far as I know, is the winner on this count.
    Combining the two criteria however, I find Greek to be the best. It’s more flexible grammatically than the other rhythmic languages I mentioned, and shits on English for rhythm and oomph.
    How does Russian compare on these counts?

  11. Russian is tops. It has extremely strong consonants and all the flexibility you could want. Just try saying the basic Russian swear word khuy ‘cock’ (rhymes with “phooey!”): go on, give that kh a big juicy gargle, round your lips for that satisfying oo sound, and finish up with that derisive relaxation of the lips into the terminal -y. Felt good, didn’t it? You probably want to say it again. Fuck is a good word, but it’s over too soon — to draw it out you have to artificially say “fu-u-uck,” or you can emphasize it by shouting it, but it doesn’t have the easy grace, the self-prolonging naturalness of khuy. And that’s just one word. It’s the combinations that reveal a true master. To quote Edward Topol (from his classic Dermo):
    “I don’t know how it is in other languages, but in Russia the operative word when it comes to cursing is tier, as in a three-tier or triple-decker curse, which consists of three levels of different curses stacked one on top of the other. (For example, хуем пизданутый мудак, khuyem pizdanuty mudak, jerk-off fucked by a prick…)”

  12. khuy… yeah, that was enjoyable and I wasn’t even angry!
    Have started learning French. Swearing in French I imagine would bring comparatively little joy because of the stressless nature of the words and the lack of decent consonants.
    Am very tempted to move to Russian with all this talk of triple-decker blasphemy.
    And just because it’s so good, here’s my favourite swear word in Greek. It’s ϲϜ958;ϲϜ949;ϲϜ954;ϲϜ959;ϲϜ955;ϲϜ953;ϲϜ940;ϲϜ961;ϲϜ945; or ksekoliara. It means a female whose arse has come unstuck from anal sex. Ksekoliaros or ϲϜ958;ϲϜ949;ϲϜ954;ϲϜ959;ϲϜ955;ϲϜ953;ϲϜ940;ϲϜ961;ϲϜ959;ϲϜ962; is the male colonic equivalent.
    Did you hear Greeks invented sex?
    Yeah, and it was the Romans a little bit later that started doing it with women.

  13. Oops, that should be ξεκολιάρα and ξεκολιάρος respectively.

  14. I don’t speak or read Catalan, but from this example, it ought to be in the running.
    From Maledicta: The International Journal of Verbal Aggression:
    Mecagum Deu, en la creu, en el fuster que la feu i en el fill de puta que va plantar el pi,
    “I shit on God, on the cross, on the carpenter who made it and on the son of a whore who planted the pine.”

  15. Michael Farris says:

    Polish used to hold its own with the best, but the last ten years or so have seen an enormous vulgarization of public life and obscenities have become so common in even (especially) children’s speech (thank you American movies!) that they’ve mostly lost the power to provide shock or awe.
    A side effect of this is that no one works at swearing anymore – they just keep up a unimaginitve barrage of the common words and their derivatives (kurwa, (c)huj, pierdolić, jebać, dupa) dropping them in a few times every sentence. A sad state of affairs considering the graphic power of older usage.

  16. “Have started learning French. Swearing in French I imagine would bring comparatively little joy because of the stressless nature of the words and the lack of decent consonants.”
    Oh, I’m going to have to take exception to that. While I agree that it’s not as satisfying as Russian (I have a little theory about curse words and the sensation of spitting/horking), the French definitely hold their own, what with the ability to draw out syllables putain-ain-ain.. which could be followed by the immensely satisfying: quel con!
    To name but two.
    Though it’s true that the absence of aspirates, particularly a lovely phlegmy ‘xh,’ is clearly a drawback.

  17. Nick, I asked a Catalan friend, who is also fluent in Castilian, French, English and Italian, what language he would swear in if somebody came up behind him and stuck a knife in his ribs.
    Without hesitation, he told me he would say, “Oh Fuuuuuuuuck!” So, no discredit to Catalan, but when push comes to shove, perhaps the simplicity of the anglo-saxon prevails.

  18. Michael Farris says:

    I can think of two possibilities regarding the Catalan speaker.
    Swear words in foreign (no matter how fluent you are) languages are easier to use since they are, after all, in a foreign language and don’t have the visceral impact that offensive words in your native language have.
    This goes double if you’re living in a foreign language environment. Where did you ask him and where was he living then?
    That’s why I find myself tearing into the Polish word kurwa (literally ‘whore’ but used like ‘fuck’ in the US) with a long trilled r (kurrrrwa!) when I’m upset, much more satisfying than a simple fuck! or shit! with none of the guilt (my parents discouraged casual swearing as low class). A win win situation.

  19. “For that matter how would modern Hebrew have developed any swear words since it was resurrected from mostly sacred literature? Were they imported from Yiddish? Arabic? Russian? All three?”
    That’s exactly right. I can’t think of any purely-Hebrew curse words (that is, with an inherent negative connotation) except “zayin” (penis) and “zona” (whore; they might even be from the same root, I’m not sure though and it seems unlikely — “zona” being a biblical word and “zayin” modern).
    “I’ve been told by another Russian-Israeli that ebyona mat’ has become naturalized in Israeli Hebrew, so Russian is obviously a prime source.”
    Yep. Although it’s pronounced “kibinimat” (which may be my misinterpretation of your transliteration, as I don’t know a thing about Russian :)
    (Misinterpretation of a transliteration…Man, am I arrogant)

  20. Theoretically, Poland should be on top, being a) heavily Catholic and b) Slavic, with all the same basic words as in Russian. Why do you think it hasn’t happened, Michael?
    Actually, “blasphemy” doesn’t apply to Russian, there is no tradition of religious cursing; dirty words, no matter in how many tiers they are, never touch on the Virgin, Jesus and the rest of the Christian Pantheon.
    I remember being shocked when first encountered (in Little Italy, Manhattan)an expression “Jesus F*cking Christ!”; and I’m not even a Christian, let alone Catholic. Something like “Porca Madonna” is inconcievable in Russian.
    You’re quite right, Michael, about native language cursing. One of my former bosses, Polish-American, born and raised in MidWest, would periodically swear in Polish, but never in English: Polish was a foreign language for her. I, on the other hand, couldn’t control blushing when hear her casually mention …um … doggie-style activity in the middle of the meeting with national account’ client.

  21. Michael Farris says:

    Tatyana, I wrote earlier in the thread that Polish cursing used to be pretty impressive but has faded badly in recent years due to unimaginitive overuse of a few key terms. I remember when a single loud instance of the k word would send an entire streetcar into tut-tut disapproval (young and old alike) now 8 year olds talk about kurwa this and pierdolony that and chuj the other and no one bats an ear. Very depressing.
    Now that you mention it, blasphemous obscenity is extremely rare in Poland too (though I think obscene language combined with Jesus would be considerably less shocking to Poles than would combinations with either Mary or the Pope).

  22. Poland is not the only Catholic area where there is little blasphemy. Germany also has large Catholic areas that have never really been strong with blasphemous curses. I think this has to do not with piety but with the amount of control the Church traditionally had over daily life. In areas where the Church, until recently, played a strong political role in people’s everyday lives and behavior – Italy, Spain, Ireland, Quebec, Mexico – the tradition of blasphemy is very strong. In Catholic countries where the Church was in opposition to state power, or at least not directly aligned with it – Germany, Poland, France – blasphemy was less effective, maybe because there was less resentment towards the Church in people’s daily lives. Note how blasphemy has almost vanished in France, a trend that began, I believe, after the Church was displaced in 1789, while blasphemy still remains strong in Quebec where the Church was powerful until the 60s. Is it possible that the traditional political weakness of the Orthodox Church explains the absence of blasphemous obscenity in Russian?

  23. Rick Grimm says:

    Strange indeed.
    “Just try saying the basic Russian swear word khuy ‘cock’ (rhymes with “phooey!”)”.
    The French also – although not a swear word, per se – have couille [kuj], which just so happens to rhyme with ‘phooey’.
    Y’know, I love this site. I can read/talk about Greeks having sex, balls and cocks… all within the context of academic discourse. Man, I can’t WAIT to be a prof!

  24. You know, I don’t think that had ever occurred to me — I must keep French and Russian in completely different parts of my brain!

  25. My guess on Hebrew cursing (based on five years in Jerusalem, though I never got anywhere with either Hebrew or Arabic [to my everlasting shame], but these are the words you learn quickly) is that most of it is Arabic. But that might also depend on the community. Watch as everything turns out to be a laugh for the Arabic speaker. Do you breathe air (dick)? I’m just being a tease (ass). And finally, though you need to be speaking German, küß (cunt) mich. It never ends.

  26. I’ve heard my Russian friends and colleagues (at least half of them female) use “fuck” freely while speaking Russian. It’s foreign and thus relatively mild and socially acceptable. “Факи так и сыплются” is how one might describe such a conversation. “Fuck-up” is particularly useful: “На работе случился большой факап,” “Я сегодня крупно факапнулся.”

  27. My impression is that “fuck” and “shit” are fairly widespread in Hebrew as well, and also quite a bit milder than the commonly-used Arabic obscenities. Speaking of blasphemy (very interesting comment, vanya!), I wonder why Israeli Hebrew doesn’t have much anti-rabbinic blasphemy (or at least not that I’m aware of), given the not inconsiderable power there of the rabbinate. Maybe it’ll arise in the next 50 years or so.
    I think I’ve mentioned in a previous LH comment my lexicographic fantasy of a Hebrew-Yiddish-English dictionary of obscenities. One can always dream.

  28. Michael Farris says:

    I haven’t heard the kind of uses mentioned by Alexei in Polish but fuck (usually in the form fuck you) and shit are common enough. Sometimes they are written phonetically fakiu and szyt. A friend claims to have heard “fakiu się” (się is reflexive) but I’m sceptical.
    A colleague/former student told me a student named Alicja got the nickname “who the fuck” (hudafak? hudefak?) after the song about Alice (European reference those in the US probably won’t get).
    Only tangentially related (in other words not at all). There’s an up and coming tv/film actor in Poland with the unfortunate last name Szyc (pronounced “shits”). I almost hope he manages an international career …..

  29. I don’t speak russian, but – as far I can tell – “fuck” seems to feature a couple of times here:
    http://moscowgraffiti.blogspot.com/
    And personally, I find finnish extremely useful for swearing while trying to keep your cool. In all other circumstances dutch will be used.

  30. I know a certain Israeli who is very knowledgeable in the Gmara. From time to time he curses in the most exquisite (Talmudic) Aramaic. The Hebrew-speaking listeners turn literally green: they understand they’re being cursed, some get what is said, but none respond in kind!

  31. Hi,
    I live in Australia and found this site while doing some searching on languages. I’m Polish born, but came to live here at a young age. As you probably all know, Australia has all sorts of people here, and there are plenty of Slavs that’s for sure. It’s a bit different here, when someone uses the work Kurwa (it’s known here well because of the large amount of Slavs obviously) and say at schools mostly if you’re heard saying it, you will probably get more punishment than swearing in English. I’d say it’s because it’s foreign, but the fact that most people know that it also means Whore, more than anything else. Which is why the female’s hate it.

  32. Here in New Zealand all the young people use Korean swear words

  33. Really! How does that happen? Are there a lot of Korean immigrants?

  34. new zealand? cool….
    im korean and i now have a new respect for new zealanders….XD
    hmm maybe its becase our swear words are fairly simple and there are so many~

  35. Arcipreste says:

    When talking about spanish curses and bad words, it’s useful to know thah not only mexican spanish is worth to be studied… In Chile we have a lot of funny words. The most used are:
    Huevón!(also used in mexican spanish): you’ll never find a word wtih so many meanings, from ‘guy’, ‘old friend’ or simply ‘any person’, to ‘jerk’, ‘asshole’ or ‘completely moron’. Also the verb ‘huevear’ can mean ‘to dance’, ‘to flirt’, ‘to bother/disturb’, ‘to do stupid things’… a wide etc.
    Pico!: dick! cock! (as when you say ‘oh, s**t!). Also can be used like ‘nevermind!’, ‘it doesn’t matter’.
    Conchatumadre!: your muther’s pussy (used like ‘motherf***er’).

  36. I wonder why Israeli Hebrew doesn’t have much anti-rabbinic blasphemy

    We don’t swear by our fellow human beings unless they are somewhat sacralized, like the Prophet. Nobody in America, for example, would say “Reagan, I just dropped my cell phone”, or “Obama, it’s hot today.” Here’s Mark Rosenfelder on the strange oaths in Asimov’s Foundation series:

    By the spaceways! The stars forbid! Galaxy! All those science-fictional oaths never convince me. This is a culture that’s been spacegoing for 12,000 years; why would it swear by such banalities? It’s as if we swore by airplanes or supertankers. People swear by what they hold sacred (so the occasional swearing by Seldon does make sense).

  37. In Russia, there is an ongoing debate on whether blya/blyat’/blyad’ is a (swear) noun or an interjection. The reason being, I suspect, is if it is recognised as an interjection it might be exempted from a ban on ‘mat’ in the press.

    I was once playing volleyball in Pisa, Italy, and everybody was swearing in English (f, sh etc). Incidentally, you can’t say Pisa in Russian without people around blinking nervously, it sounds so close to c* in Russian.

  38. Incidentally, you can’t say Pisa in Russian without people around blinking nervously

    Native English speakers get similarly edgy when Germans utter a certain word.

  39. you can’t say Pisa in Russian

    Well, if you pronounce it in English fashion as [pizə] I can see why, but in Standard Italian it’s [pisa], which would rather suggest to me писать, a harmless sort of verb. I don’t know how the Pisans pronounce it.

  40. John Cowan says:

    Paul: Never mind that, what about the philosopher? That got Sidney Morgenbesser (he of the famous “Yeah, yeah” double positive) into trouble once:

    [An] unfortunate encounter with the police occurred when he lit up his pipe on the way out of a subway station. Morgenbesser protested to the officer who tried to stop him that the rules covered smoking in the station, not outside. The cop conceded he had a point, but said: “If I let you get away with it, I’d have to let everyone get away with it.” To which Morgenbesser, in a famously misunderstood line, retorted: “Who do you think you are, Kant?” Hauled off to the precinct lock-up, Morgenbesser only won his freedom after a colleague showed up and explained the Categorical Imperative to the nonplussed boys in blue.

    I wish I could have been a fly on the wall in that precinct.

    Other Morgenbesserisms not on the above page:

    On being beaten by the police during a protest march in 1968: “It was unjust but not unfair [...] unjust because they hit me over the head, but not unfair because they hit everyone else over the head.” (This is often quoted with “unjust” and “unfair” transposed, including on the Wikisource page, but it makes no sense.)

    A question on a philosophy exam he set: “It is often said that Marx and Freud went too far. How far would you go?”

    To B.F. Skinner: “You think we shouldn’t anthropomorphize people?”

    On theories of everything: “To explain why a man slipped on a banana peel, we do not need a general theory of slipping.”

    On dualism: “It was Lovejoy, I think, who once wittily suggested that Dewey hated the number 2, implying that Dewey was opposed not merely to dualisms but even to important distinctions.” (Computer folks, like me, only deal in the numbers 0, 1, and ∞, thus putting us one-down even from Gamow’s Hungarian aristocrats.)

    On Morgenbesser (by Robert Nozik): “I majored in Sidney Morgenbesser.”

    On Morgenbesser (by Art Danto): “Someone recently asked me what Sidney Morgenbesser was known for, and I had to say that he was known for being Sidney Morgenbesser.”

    On John Cowan, after he had suggested that lying on one’s resume was a Bad Thing (by Geoffrey Pullum): “What are you, some kind of Kantian guidance counselor?”

  41. Anatoly had a post (almost a decade old now!) in which he (convincingly, to my mind) proposed бля(дь) as the best Russian equivalent of fuck; both can be used in virtually any syntactic circumstance. (I once knew a Russian who used блядь in just about every sentence.)

  42. It’s sexist but, strictly linguistically, I agree, it is.

  43. See what refurbishing you site does to you, you have a nr 10 year old post revived and discussed with relish, b-t!

  44. Yes, it’s great!

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