The Seemly Intensity of the Curse.

Stan of Sentence first has an enjoyable post on the linguistic aspects of Luis Buñuel’s autobiography; the first quote, on finding a title for The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, is well worth reading, but I want to pass along the second one. The scene is the Spanish Civil War; Buñuel has left Madrid for Geneva on official business, but he is stopped at the border by “three somber-faced anarchists” who refuse to accept his identification:

Now the Spanish language is capable of more scathing blasphemies than any other language I know. Curses elsewhere are typically brief and punctuated by other comments, but the Spanish curse tends to take the form of a long speech in which extraordinary vulgarities – referring chiefly to the Virgin Mary, the Apostles, God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit, not to mention the Pope – are strung end to end in a series of impressive scatological exclamations. In fact, blasphemy in Spain is truly an art; in Mexico, for instance, I never heard a proper curse, whereas in my native land, a good one lasts for at least three good-sized sentences. (When circumstances require, it can become a veritable hymn.)

It was with a curse of this kind, uttered in all its seemly intensity, that I regaled the three anarchists from Port Bou. When I’d finished, they stamped my papers and I crossed the border. (What I’ve said about the importance of the Spanish curse is no exaggeration; in certain old Spanish cities, you can still see signs like “No Begging or Blaspheming – Subject to Fine or Imprisonment” on the main gates. Sadly, when I returned to Spain in 1960, the curse seemed much rarer; or perhaps it was only my hearing.)

I’d like to see a contest between a traditional Spaniard and a Russian master of the triple-decker curse.

Comments

  1. As a gringo living in Colombia, I can confirm that there really is a common impression (among middle- and upper-class Colombians) that Spaniards are crude and vulgar in their speech. And I’m sure many Spaniards would find Colombian culture to be hypocritically puritanical.

    I’ve wondered about the sociogenesis of these attitudes, and how much they are really based on linguistic facts… undoubtedly a Madrileño would be shocked by some of the things a Colombian low-life would say, as well.

    But Spaniard swearing (like the Quebecois) does seem to be more blasphemous… whereas Colombians don’t seem to ever say things like “me cago en Dios.” The strongest Colombian curses involve saying that one is a son of a whore, infected with gonorrhea, a homosexual, or a a miscarried baby (or some combination thereof).

  2. Cursing three anarchists into stamping your passport is impressive, but not as impressive as cursing heavy machinery into getting to work (heard from an old woman who was sent for her sins to work as a farm hand in 1950s USSR).

  3. GeorgeW says:

    “the Spanish curse tends to take the form of a long speech in which extraordinary vulgarities”

    But what does a Spaniard say when they accidentally hit their thumb with a hammer?

  4. John G.: In this context, me cago en el coño de la Santísima Virgen María is more like it, says my Castilian informant.

  5. And that may well also be what a Spaniard says when they accidentally hit their thumb with a hammer.

  6. “Hungarian is essentially the noise one’s dad makes when he has accidentally hit his thumb with a hammer.” —And Rosta (who would be Rosta András if he weren’t English) in “Essentialist Explanations”

  7. des von bladet says:

    We yearn to know what essential noise his father makes when he hits his hand with a hammer deliberately.

  8. Jeffry House says:

    “Me cago en la leche de tu mamadera”; heard in Alicante.

  9. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    It’s not true any more (though probably still understood), according to my wife, but until a generation or two ago the everyday Chilean term for a Spaniard was coño, derived from the belief that a Spaniard was unable to utter a sentence that didn’t contain the word. It was used at all levels of society without any sense of vulgarity. My wife says that in her generation people don’t say it, but she can easily imagine it being said by her aunt, a very respectable schoolteacher born in 1902. Apparently coño is regarded as vulgar elsewhere in Latin America, but not in Chile.

  10. marie-lucie says:

    JG: Spaniard swearing (like the Quebecois)

    I am not very familiar with either type of swearing, but while both types involved the Catholic religion there is a big difference between the two: the Spanish curse denigrates the significant persons of the religion:

    the Spanish curse tends to take the form of a long speech in which extraordinary vulgarities – referring chiefly to the Virgin Mary, the Apostles, God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit, not to mention the Pope – are strung end to end in a series of impressive scatological exclamations.

    while among the Québécois the mere mention of one of the cult objects constitutes a curse. (There may be more to it, but Etienne would be a better consultant on this topic).

  11. among the Québécois the mere mention of one of the cult objects constitutes a curse

    A source of much amusement among Canadian anglophones.

  12. Rodger C says:

    @Athel Cornish-Bowden: I’m told that once the Spanish national soccer team arriving in Santiago was greeted by a huge banner reading BIENVENIDOS A LOS COÑOS. Reportedly they stormed down the gangplank and it wasn’t pretty.

  13. In NYC and environs, I am told, there is a contrast in force between el coño, which is taboo, and ¡(Ay) coño!, which is hardly stronger than (Oh) damn!. I suppose this is because NYC is an area of dialect mixing.

  14. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    Rodger: I hadn’t heard that, but it sounds very plausible. The people responsible for such a banner probably knew perfectly well that it would cause some offence, but the ordinary people seeing it probably regarded it as no more offensive than, saying “Welcome Yanks” would be for a team from the USA arriving in England would be — not polite, certainly, but quite low on the scale of offensiveness. Another word that varies greatly in offensiveness in Latin America is “gringo” — not very polite, as I understand it, in Mexico, but used without hostile intentions in Chile for anyone with a more or less Nordic appearance. My daughter, who as a small child looked more English than Chilean, was often described as as “muy gringüita”.

  15. Gringüita, not gringuita? Surprising.

  16. Rodger C says:

    What Hat said. Also I once saw a parody 16th-century-style map of the Americas, drawn in Mexico, in which the US was labeled GRINGORVM REGIO. (Argentina was labeled PEROCHÉ.)

  17. speaking of “coño”, it is a well kown fact that in the Midi of France (thats is to say, the lands of langue d´oc), and specially in Toulouse, the word “con” has become the main interjection. A frequent joke about toulousains says “Qu’est-ce qui commence par un F et termine avec un N et tombe à l’automne?” – “Des feuilles, con!”

    As for us, catalan people, we are very scatologic when speaking but very euphemistic as well, and we say “coi”:

    http://www.diccionari.cat/lexicx.jsp?GECART=0031263

  18. Argentina was labeled PEROCHÉ.

    Thanks, that gave me a much-needed laugh after la albiceleste came terrifyingly close to ruining my birthday. I think Pope Francis interceded at the last moment to make sure they beat the Swiss.

  19. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    Gringüita, not gringuita? Surprising.

    Surprising only to people who think I would not make an error! I realized after posting that the diaeresis had no business to be there, but too late.

  20. “The Moon was shining sulkily / Because she thought the Sun / Had got no business to be there / After the day was done; / ‘It’s very rude of him’, she said / ‘To come and spoil the fun!’”

  21. The strongest curse I’ve never heard is: « me cago en el infarto del Sagrado Corazón de Jesús”. Actually, I read it in a book written by Manuel Rivas.

  22. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    it is a well kown fact that in the Midi of France (thats is to say, the lands of langue d´oc), and specially in Toulouse, the word “con” has become the main interjection. A frequent joke about toulousains says “Qu’est-ce qui commence par un F et termine avec un N et tombe à l’automne?” – “Des feuilles, con!”

    In the French-speaking circles in which I move (mainly Marseilles, but a bit of Paris) it seems to me that con has lost whatever offensive character it may once have, and is just an adjective meaning stupid, to such an extent that it has acquired a feminine form (though an Anglo-Saxon like me may wonder why it was masculine in the first place, like its clinical synonym vagin). No one turns a hair on hearing a respectable young woman say Que je suis conne ! on realizing she has said something silly. I was quite surprised to find Catherine Millet using con with its literal meaning in her book La vie sexuelle de Catherine M..

  23. marie-lucie says:

    Athel, the evolution you describe is hardly new or limited to one region. The adjective con/conne ‘stupid’ has never been part of my active vocabulary but I have known it since elementary school, as many of my classmates (in an all-girl school in Normandy) used it in their ordinary speech, like the “respectable young woman” you quote. I understood it was frowned upon (by my mother, for instance), but no more than many other words or phrases. It was much later that I learned the primary meaning of the masculine noun.

  24. marie-lucie says:

    p.s. The word descends from a Latin masculine noun.

  25. Yep, it´s the latin name that determines the romance language´s gender, but it´s funny how con/coño/cony is masculine and many terms for penis are feminine (polla,picha/titola).

    As for Italian fica, it´s feminine too, but only when referring to the sexual organ, and in some of the regional languages the term keeps denoting only the fruit:

    Nei dialetti e nelle lingue in cui fica non ha assunto il senso primario di “vulva”, il frutto è rimasto al femminile (ad esempio francese la figue, nel napoletano, nel genovese, nel dialetto reggino e nel salentino fica o figa).In tali linguaggi il significato osceno è espresso da altri termini. (http://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fica )

    (I´m cheking it out and now I see that in Sicilian the fruit is la ficu http://scn.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ficu_%28fruttu%29

    Catalan “figa” keeps the feminine gender for both meanings.

    I once wrote a briek post about that, pardon the spam:

    http://llengualigur.blogspot.com.es/2012/08/mossa-riot.html)

  26. During the 19th century in San Francisco, when drunken or drugged sailors were frequently shanghaied as crew aboard less desirable ships, it was a common scam among boarding-house keepers to collect money for corpses with rats sewn into their clothing (to provide the twitching). A legend goes that one first mate had such a powerful way of cursing that he got his crew of dead men up and manning the capstan.

Trackbacks

  1. […] discussion on this at Language Hat, who would like to see a swearing contest “between a traditional Spaniard and a Russian […]

Speak Your Mind

*