UGLIER THAN A MONKEY’S ARMPIT.

I was going to wait until the US edition came out before doing this, but Grant Barrett writes me that he read about the Australian edition of the book (published by Allen & Unwin) in a column by Dianne Bardsley of The Dominion Post, and within the hour Slavomír Čéplö (who was an extremely helpful informant) wrote me that he’d actually seen a copy in a Bratislava bookstore (unfortunately it’s the UK edition, which doesn’t have my name on it except in tiny type on the copyright page), and I figured I might as well let it all hang out. So:
My name is Steve Dodson, and I’ve coauthored a book of “insults, put-downs and curses from around the world” called Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit which was packaged by Elwin Press in England; you can see their page for the book here. The US edition will feature my lively introduction, in which I quote Pushkin, Mark Liberman, and my nonagenarian mother-in-law; the editions available now carry an introduction by my coauthor, Robert Vanderplank. I will, of course, make an announcement when the US edition comes out, but for now I will leave you with a couple of choice tidbits from the book:
pissant
This satisfying word came over from England as a mere name for an ant, but Americans made it a contemptuous epithet for an “insignificant, contemptible, or irritating person”. From H.L. Davis’s 1935 novel Honey in the Rock, about pioneer Oregon: “Anybody who called owning horses disorderly conduct was a liar and a pissant.”
Icelandic:
prumphænsn (PRUHMP-hine-s’n)
This delightful insult literally means ‘fartchicken’.
And a Slovak one they cut from the manuscript:
Pojebali kone voz! (POH-yeh-buh-lee KOH-nyeh VOHZ) (Slovak)
This lively expression, ‘May the horses fuck the carriage,’ illustrates the fact that Slovak cursing makes greater use of sexual terms than that of the Czechs.
If you’re in Australia or New Zealand, look for it at your local bookstore; if you’re in the US… hey, if I can restrain my impatience, so can you!

Comments

  1. This is great, well done LH! I’ll look for it next time I’m at the bookshop. And thank you for including “munter”, one of the most-used words of my entire vocabulary.

  2. oooh, shiny! I wants it!!!!

  3. I’d probably have bought it out of brand loyalty no matter what it was about, but it’s a relief not to have to wade through a weighty tome on the subject of mentions of hats in Russian literature. Thanks for that. :)
    P.S. don’t forget MeFiProjects…

  4. Steve,
    “the Monkey” is available on the Allen and Unwin website in the land down under (OZ) for those clever drongoes who want to get it! I’ve ordered it as a Chrissie present but no bludger is going to get it now!! Cost:$24.95 AD.
    Good Luck Cobber.
    Tunku (Mr.)

  5. A prolific blog, a job to keep together body and soul, and a published book to boot. Where do you find time to do all this?

  6. No wuckers, Tunks. They’ll be in it like a rat up a drainpipe. Robe mate: chewy on yer boot! Are you suggesting LH isn’t as slack as the rest of us? He’s no scab; he’s orright. Fair suck of the sauce bottle, China.

  7. John Emerson says:

    “Honey in the Horn”. “Sweet Honey in the Rock” is a musical group.

  8. John Emerson says:

    Wait — this is you. Sure, I’ll buy it.

  9. What about the UK? I’m over here on business – any chance of finding it in a bookshop over here?
    I like the Slovak expression. Would it be fair to say in terms of insults the Slovaks are more like Ukrainians/Russian (lots of gross and violent sexual imagery) and the Czechs are more like Germans (lots of fascination with shit)?

  10. Wow. Congratulations!

  11. michael farris says:

    I think the slovak expression seems more influenced by Hungarian swearing (which involves a lot of horses and fucking)
    I was also under the impression that along with shit, German-speaking peoples tend to use a lot of animal labels in swearing (I’m told that bloeder Esel is far worse in German than the bland translation ‘stupid donkey’ would imply).
    And yeah, congratulations!

  12. Hey, Noetica, mate – that LH must be flat out like a lizard drinking.

  13. Christmas came early this year :)
    I’m not even angry about the one with the horses, although that one should have been a keeper.
    vanya,
    absolutely.
    michael,
    the bit about horses, maybe. But as for the prevalence of swearwords based on reproduction and copulation in the eastern part of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire (as opposed to insults and curses based on excretion which are much more common in Austrian and Czech lands), it’s quite difficult to determine who influenced whom. In any case, “jebať” is an ancient Indo-European word.

  14. Monkey’s armpit? I used to think that curses always have some sexual imagery, because that’s how this is in our part of the world. See http://tinyurl.com/2yeojh.
    Best of luck with your book, and psia krew*.
    * dog’s blood – a Polish expletive, pronounced “psha krev”.

  15. Congratulations! Can’t wait for it to be available here.

  16. Congratulations!
    The Spanish have a variant on the horses fucking carriages, which is “so-and-so is fucking our pig” (“Fulano de Tal nos jode la marrana”). Pigs and pork feature prominently as insults in a culture that expelled Jews and Muslims…

  17. Siganus Sutor says:

    What’s wrong with my armpit, hey, Steve?

  18. Excellent, that’s my plans for my lunch hour taken care of.

  19. michael farris says:

    Did you include the Polish collective non-virile forms (like pany?) a unique and totally untranslatable way of dissing groups of people (or groups that include men at least)

  20. No, but if there’s a sequel I’ll bear it in mind!

  21. w00t!

  22. Bonza. I’ll pick one up as soon as I can, Stevo. Has been spoken of on Australian ABC radio, a couple of months back.

  23. I wonder if you’ve heard the proverb quoted by Mack Walker in his superb book about small towns in early 19th-century Germany, German Home Towns. The townsmen felt themselves to be superior to the peasants surrounding their towns, and had a saying that expressed that sentiment: “Keine Misthenne fliegt über die Stadtmauer,” “No shit-hen flies over the town wall.” You can see it in Google Books.

  24. mollymooly says:

    Currently reading For Whom the Bell Tolls: “I obscenity in the milk of their engines”.

  25. Word UP, Mr Hat!

  26. I may just have to get my Ozzie friend to find that for me. Though, I guess it’d do better to wait for the genuine foreword.
    For what it’s worth, “pissant” (for the longest time I assumed it was French when I saw it in writing …) works as both the name for the common ant and an insult in Danish (“pissemyre“).
    Tillykke med bogen!

  27. Interesting. Did you consult Reinhold Aman’s ‘Maledicta?’

  28. Most excellent news, Mr. Dodson. Also, w00t!

  29. Well done sir!

  30. Did you consult Reinhold Aman’s ‘Maledicta?’
    Not only did I consult it, I cited it as “an invaluable journal for anyone interested in the topic of this book.”

  31. Excellent! :-) . Shame to miss the Christmas market, though; this would have made giving presents significantly easier.

  32. Congrats!
    Book tour in the works?
    Interview on NPR, signing at Brentano’s, sort of thing?

  33. But does it include “Your mother has a smooth forehead”? :)

  34. Congratulations, Steve!

  35. María Teresa (Tess) Taylor says:

    Congratulations! :D Just added your book to my wish list!
    “Más feo que el sobaco de un mono” (is that the actual wording? I can’t find it by googling it) I think it’s mostly used in Spain. Here in Panama, the saying goes “más feo que la patada de una mula” (uglier than the kick of a mule). Pretty ugly, ain’t it? :P

  36. For what it’s worth, “pissant” (for the longest time I assumed it was French when I saw it in writing …) works as both the name for the common ant and an insult in Danish (“pissemyre”).
    And pissemyre is of course cognate with the archaic English pismire:
    I saw a pismire swallow up a whale…

  37. Book tour in the works?
    Interview on NPR, signing at Brentano’s, sort of thing?

    We can only hope!

  38. And a traversal of the southern-hemisphere lecture circuit? May we hope that also, SD?

  39. Congratulations.

  40. I have checked all the main bookshops in central Wellington (Parsons, Unity, Borders, Dymocks), and they don’t have it yet. It’s in Whitcoulls’ catalogue but not on the shelves.
    This makes me cross.
    Steve, phone the distributors and give them the hurry-up.

  41. Wow, congratulations, LH! I will keep an eye out for it. “Prumphænsn” is my new favorite insult.

  42. Well done – sir! It’ll be on my list.
    Australians cuss a lot, and so do certain others, but Filipinos don’t and nor do Jordanians, except for the odd ‘devil!’ or ‘donkey!’
    Lebanese do though, and when I mixed things up and said “kus akhte ibn sharmuta!” (your mother’s cunt, son of a prostitute!’ instead of ‘sakhtein!’ (good health!) when I met my fiancee’s family, and they offered a drink, she became my fiancee no more.

  43. Did you also consult a pre-war paper by Robert Graves called, if I remember “Lars Porsenna(?) – the Art of Swearing” ?

  44. The Future of Swearing. The ’36 2nd edition dropped the Lars Porsena part.

  45. In my experience it seems like the Czechs are much more obsessed with swearing by comparing people to animals. There is some swearing involving shit, but I don’t think nearly as much as in German.

  46. I am happy to report that while in Christchurch with my fiancee’s family I found a copy at Scorpio, which by the way is one of the best bookshops in New Zealand. Said fiancee is being progressively annoyed as I read the best bits out loud.
    I have to ask though: is there a citation for this word “boho”, reported as a common insult? I have never heard it before in my life, except maybe as a borrowed American shortening of “bohemian”. We are puzzled as to where this might have come from.

  47. Okay, I dug the Graves book out of the appropriate pile of books (getting completely out of hand) to refresh my memory.
    Apparently, in 1926, while Graves was teaching at Cairo University, the students had gone on strike and the French faculty had taken to meeting in secret without him. I am not sure whether the former was the famous row over Taha Hussein’s On Pre-Islamic Poetry, which IIRC he alluded to in The White Goddess. The latter was evidently the usual. So he took up swearing again like in the Army, but having no one to swear to, he “sublimated” it into a monograph.
    Of material like what is apparently in LH’s book, there is the discussion of the insult “brother-in-law,” which Graves took to mean “that a man has a liaison with his brother’s wife.” But Admiral Kelly set him straight, “Brother-in-law is a common expletive in Urdu, Arabic, and Swahili. I have always understood it to imply: ‘I have been familiar with your sister, ergo, you are my brother-in-law.’” But almost everything is in English, and primarily about England.
    John Emerson, if you’re around, this may interest you:

    Mr. W. H. Davies’ odd story will be recalled. An old hedge-schoolmaster one day came as a stranger to the inn in South Wales where the poet was drinking, and sat down at a corner table. Presently he cried out twice in a loud voice: “Aristotle was the pupil of Plato.” After a moment’s silence the men at the bar protested: “Keep silence, you there!” Their wives caught their skirts tightly to them; “We are respectable married women and did not come here to be insulted.”

    Mr. Fred Hale of the Nelson Inn, Merryvale, Worcester, then clears things up for Graves that Aristotle is bottle and bottle and glass is “guess-what.” Further on that and one of the samples LH gives above, I’ll remind you, Bruce, that, “Immanuel Kant was a real pissant.”
    As for the future, (remember this is 1927),

    There is record of an Irish tenor named Joyce, with a flair for polyglot obscenity. His works, though published in a foreign country, probably France, were smuggled into England, read behind locked doors, and even regarded as ‘modern classics’ by a debauched literary minority: Joyce appears to have defied all taboos in his writing, even to the extent of making an obscene reference to the private life of Queen Victoria I, an ancestress of the reigning Sovereign; and it is a thousand pities that the great Buchman Cleanliness Crusade of 1939 destroyed every copy of his most salacious work Ulysses, which would have been a mine of information for our present inquiry. Many words seem to have been spelt out fully in it that we now only know by their initial letters.

    Apparently Kegan Paul had a whole series of reissues / revisions of interbellum prognostications called “To-day, To-Morrow and After.”

    Each 3/6 net.
    The Future of Woman sounds particularly promising from the blurb in the endpages:

    The author has not been idle since this book appeared in its original form. He is now able to show how inevitably the commercialization, intellectualization, masculinization and artificial sterility of modern women arise out of our diseased society, built upon distorted values.

  48. How do I get in touch with Stephen Dodson? I’m interested in interviewing him about “Uglier than a Monkey’s Armpit”.
    Mr. Dodson, please contact me at Carol.Hills@bbc.co.uk (though I’m based in US) and let me know how to contact you and where you’re based.
    Many thanks.
    Carol Hills
    Producer, The World
    BBC/WGBH
    One Guest Street
    Boston, MA 02135
    617 300 2717 direct
    617 300 2750 hotline

  49. Matt Levin says:

    Hi!
    Just heard your NPR interview on “The World” and thank you! Putting in an order for your book right away… and a jolly ‘vacation camera’ to you!
    best wishes!
    Matt Levin
    Hatfield, MA USA

  50. Glad you liked it! Maybe this will spur the appearance of an American edition.

  51. Hi!
    I heard your interview on “The World”. When is your book coming out in the States? Where can I find it? I’m a linguistics student, and I must have it!
    Vacation camera to all!

  52. Dr Bert Miller says:

    Those who know Biblical Hebrew are aware that this language (the first language of the Bible) contains no “swear words.” Words for body parts? Yes. Words for body excretions? Yes. A vocabulary to describe carnal knowledge? Yes. It is possible for any modern man to speculate what G-d meant when he told the Children of Israel 3200 years ago, “Do not take the name of the L-rd, your G-d, in vain.” However, unless one has studied Biblical Hebrew and ancient Jewish culture, his speculation would be worthless. It has been said, “If you have not read the Bible in Hebrew, you have not read the Bible.” Now, go and study!

  53. I’m also hoping to find a copy of your book. My husband is a linguistics student and would absolutely love it! I checked a number of UK sites and they don’t ship to the US. Do you have an ETA on the US edition? Other options?
    Thanks

  54. Heard your interview on The World tonight, and couldn’t wait to look you up and see how to order your book for my father! Swearing is his most creative pastime (really) and, being in America, I’m sorry I can’t buy your book for him! I know he’d love it.
    BTW, during your interview you mentioned that if anyone knew of a language with no swear words, to let you know. Well, this past summer I visited a Cherokee reservation in North Carolina, and learned that the Cherokee language has no swear words, according to the tour given at Oconaluftee Indian Village. At first I thought that was cool, but after hearing your interview I think a language without swear words is probably missing something vital.
    I Look forward to your book in America!

  55. I visited a Cherokee reservation in North Carolina, and learned that the Cherokee language has no swear words, according to the tour given at Oconaluftee Indian Village.
    You mean you were told that the Cherokee language has no swear words. People will tell you that about all sorts of languages (Japanese is popular in this regard); that’s pretty much like people saying “In my country we have no homosexuals!” I’d be willing to bet cash money that when a Cherokee hits their finger with a hammer they don’t say “Oh dear, that hurt” in Cherokee.
    I’m glad you liked the book, and I hope your father will have the chance to read it soon!

  56. Heard your interview last night on the World. loved it. the things you said about cussing were fascinating, especially for an Italian that finds cussing absolutely liberating :)
    When is the book coming out in the USA? I can’t wait to read it!

  57. Cherokee hits their finger
    Someone has anticipated your objection.
    (There is a Tsalagi page on Swearsaurus, but who knows where the entries come from.)

  58. Biblical Hebrew … no “swear words.”
    I’m not sure it’s going to be fruitful to work out the non-obvious meaning of שוא with only a knowledge of the language and culture and not a specific religious perspective. Or the negative sense of ברך and in particular ברכת אלהים ומלך.
    But this does get me wondering whether the book includes Aramaic ῥακά ‘empty-head’ (ריקא), which we get directly, as opposed to the circumstantial evidence of cursing above.

  59. My Graduate Art professor emailed me your excerpt on “The World” from NPR, 90.3 because my recent artwork is based on the words fuck and cunt. Hopefully your book will clarify the history and origin of these two words.

  60. Well, it has a little, but probably not enough to be useful for your purposes. You should find a copy of Jesse Sheidlower’s The F Word; for cunt, there’s a nice online resource, Cunt: The History of the C-Word. (The Wikipedia articles have further references: fuck, cunt.)

  61. Jan Vromant says:

    I heard your NPR interview – very interesting!
    I am taking exception, however, to your statement that the Dutch insults mostly deal with illnesses. (I am originally from Belgium and Flemish – or Dutch – is my mothertongue.) My experience with other languages is that there are no more or no less illness-related curses in Dutch then in French, English, German, or Spanish.
    Another thought: I don’t speak any Russian, but I would bet that the typical Spaniard beats any Russian in average number of curses used per sentence …! The hispanic community in Latin America is much less prone to using curses, however.

  62. Jan, is it that you don’t really use Kanker-, Kolere-, Pest-, Pokke-, Tering-, Tyfus-lijder as regularly as all these lists would suggest or that you’ve found speakers of other languages using similar expressions?

  63. Yeah, I’m confused too. I literally don’t know of any other languages where disease-related cursing is still alive and well.
    You may be right about Spaniards; I’m only familiar with Latin American Spanish.

  64. There’s a distinct difference between Northern and Southern Dutch vernacular, better known as Netherlands and Flemish Dutch. The Netherlands Dutch are particularly prolific in referring to diseases as a metaphor for a lack of appreciation. And indeed, Spaniards are far more prone to byzantine curses than Latin Americans are. One of my favorite expletives is “I shit in the salty sea,” which rather elicits bewildered stares on this side of the big drink.

  65. Alan Fisher says:

    My wife heard about this great sounding book on npr in the States, (Uglier than a Monkey’s Armpit), when is the US edition coming out and when is Steve going to get a proper credit. I will if I need to but really don’t want to pay the price of the book again, in shipping it from the UK or Australia.

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