Remember my curses and insults book? It still hasn’t come out in the States, but last month the “international radio news magazine” The World did an interview with me about it that will be broadcast today. The show is created by WGBH in Boston; on my local station it’s on at 3 PM. If you’re not in the US, or if your local public radio station doesn’t carry the show, or if you just don’t feel like being glued to the radio for an hour, as of 5 PM Eastern time it will be available on their website (and they are kind enough to link to individual segments, so you don’t have to listen to the whole show).

I did not use any English obscenities, but I mentioned some in other languages, one of which was Greek maláka ‘jerk, dumbass’ (or, more literally, ‘wanker,’ to use the handy British insult); my wife was listening in the anteroom (I was connected to GBH via the studio of my local station, WFCR, where everyone was exceedingly nice), and she tells me a guy who happened to be in the room smiled when he heard it and said that he once worked in a Greek-run pizza place and that was the first word he learned.

Addendum. On the subject of “bad language,” Avva posted the results of a Google search for “enbreasties.” Take a look at the results and see how long it takes you to figure out why this non-word occurs so often (e.g., “President Bush identified eight enbreasties operating in North Korea, Iran, and Syria…”). I’ll post the answer below the cut.

Some sort of nanny software is automatically replacing “tit” with “breast.” Other examples mentioned in the Avva thread: penisroach, peniser spaniel, buttessment, mbuttacred, buttbuttination… and someone found the excellent sentence “I know the difference between a transvesbreaste and a homoloveual”!

Another addendum. Just got to this, on p. 317 of The Book of Ebenezer Le Page:

I was scared he would get onto the subject of the ancient monument; but it was our patois he was interested in now. Its roots. He had discovered it was really the language of the religion of the witches of old, and all the dirty words in it was holy words. He said ‘Baise mon tchou!’ [‘Kiss my ass’] was a royal salute. I had never thought of it that way, me.


  1. There is a certain juvenile pleasure in finding those nannyware replacements.
    Found: “Only two people signed the Declaration of Independence on July 4th, John Hanpenis and Charles Thomson. Most of the rest signed on August 2, but the last signature wasn’t added until 5 years later.”

  2. Regarding the cause of swearwords, curses and bad language I would like to remind you of Maledicta and of Reinhold Aman. The latter had quite a bad time because of his professional interest in offensive language.

  3. The first time I encountered this phenomenon was on a laguage forum when I referred to Rembrandt’s ”The Nightwatch.” It took some time before I understood why it appeared as the Nigh$%!@ch…
    Some quotations from that forum:
    ”In future, I shall be careful to say ‘kittyfooting around’.”
    On loanwords in Japanese
    ”- kiri@%!&an (does it mean christian or catholic)?
    [edit: silly filter, it’s ki ri shi tan]”
    And some Japanese pronouns for ”we”, similarily mutilated, ”Wataku@%!&achi, Wata@%!&achi, Ata@%!&achi”
    ”’The Welsh character is an interesting study,’ said Dr $#&an”
    Who? Dr. Fagan.
    The point is lost when you read ”In English onomatopoeic creations include “thud,” “crack,” “whack,” “tinkle,” “hiss.””
    Several following posters said that they were tinkled off by “the Filter”, and discussing ”p***ed (off)”, one poster added
    ”(Apologies for the coy asterisks, but I will not have “tinkle” inserted in anything I write that isn’t to do with bells!)”

  4. “Yes, insbreastutionalisation has played havoc with the human mind, and drained it out of true creativity and idealism” and “Embarbuttment of Riches: The Times declares clbutt warfare”

  5. waltraut: I mentioned Reinhold Aman and his excellent publication in the book, and I kicked myself for having forgotten to do so in the interview. He deserves much credit for his pioneering work in this field.

  6. Scunthorpe.

  7. Hostie! Just heard the interview–great fun, and thanks. Have you let the Pepys folks know about this?

  8. beetle in dung says

    maláka so similar to “too much malarki”,games played by a one in the dunces corner.

  9. Congrats, sir. I think this is the first time I’ve heard your voice.
    Also, ha: “oh, well, haven’t you ever SEEN a monkey?”

  10. Also, ha: “oh, well, haven’t you ever SEEN a monkey?”
    The funny thing is, of course, that I had nothing to do with picking the title and wasn’t familiar with the expression (it was one of Doc Vanderplank’s contributions), so I had to do some quick hand-waving when she asked me about the “monkey’s armpit” thing as if it was the most obvious thing in the world for me to discourse on.

  11. I explain my potty mouth by telling my non-Greek friends that I grew up from a very young age hearing both my parents saying regularly in Greek, not just wanker, but “I f— your holy mother” or “I f— your village”.

  12. OT, but this is a LH-type post:
    The etymology of “Dord”

  13. Mr. Dodson,
    I am a writer. The last screenplay I’ve been writing the last two and a half years is about a guy who gets into a car accident and when he wakes up he can ONLY SPEAK SPANISH.
    I can’t seem to get a neurologist to advise me on this to save my life.
    I know that this is physiologically possible. I’ve heard reports of it happening, but IS this classified as aphasia? Is it Broca’s aphasia with a twist?
    As the story progresses, he can understand English, he just can’t speak it, (turned out he knew Spanish when he was a kid, then forgot it.)
    Loved in the interview on NPR today when you said that those with aphasia can still say swear words.
    Can one’s language (in a case like this, where the mind rewires itself to the secondary language) return suddenly? Or does that never happen?
    I beg of you to respond to this. I won’t bug you ever again. I just can’t seem to find any more info on this. You’re my only hope, Obi-wan!
    Nate Jones

  14. I heard you on the radio today. I was listening to NPR in Georgia. I was wondering about the different part of the brain bad words were kept in. Is that when I travel around the world the only words that stick in my head are the ones that I know are bad, or that I think sound naughty? When I started picking up Japanese, I tried to associate anyword I had trouble with a bad word, and then I remembered it much easier.
    I’m glad I chanced on your interview!

  15. Can’t seem to find the broadcast. Where am I supposed to look?

  16. Siganus Sutor says

    Me neither. Maybe Steve can send it to us in mp3 format? I would listen to it while being stuck in traffic jams, and it would then certainly improve the general mood…

  17. Direct link. Be warned, it’s Windows Media Audio. If you want mp3, try this.

  18. Peripherally relevant,I have a friend with a shihtzu who delights in calling it a shit-zoo. Being able to swear in polite company makes him happy. I’m so assimilated to Wade-Giles that I can only see it as something like “sherdzuh”. In truth my Chinese pronunciation is pretty bad — just not as bad as shit-zoo.

  19. Nate: I’d love to help, but I’m afraid I don’t know anything about that. You’ll just have to keep bugging the neurologists, I’m afraid. (Of course, it may be that one of my learned commenters will be able to point you to a good resource.)

  20. Enjoyed the segment very much.
    Just a point of clarification: “The World” is a co-production of Public Radio International (PRI), the BBC and WGBH. For those looking for it, you can find the interview at
    PRI is not the same as NPR. PRI is a producer/distributor of programming, just like NPR.

  21. Right, thanks—I always get that confused (as I suspect do most people).

  22. I’m amused by the results for poopzu and poopake mushroom. (I know those result from misspellings, but it’s still funny.)

  23. Interesting; I had a provisional assumption that you sounded like William Buckley, as my mental archetype of the overeducated American. But, no, not remotely, and I find myself in the vaguely surprising position that I can imitate your accent and that of your interviewer quite reasonably, despite that I had thought that these accents were stagey and unrealistic. I suppose that’s how the entertainment industry being focused on the west coast works out, haha.

  24. I heard your show on the radio and came here to see if you had anything to say about it. It was great!

  25. Aidan: If I sounded like Buckley, I’d have to kill myself.
    Matthew: Thanks!

  26. I just found “The identification and buttessment of existing disparities are critical in selecting and implementing interventions to buttist populations at high risk”.

  27. Terrific interview. Now I know why my local Borders couldn’t find your book… although I had kind of a hazy citation.
    It seems to me that the part of the brain that remembers “naughty” words must be related to Tourette’s syndrom and perhaps basic fight/flight instincts.
    As for the person wanting info on only speaking Spanish? I’d be trying to contact either Oliver Sachs, Steven Pinker or some of their graduate assistants.
    Can’t wait to see if Amazon US has your book!

  28. I had a provisional assumption that you sounded like William Buckley
    Zing! And yo mama too!
    Put it in the second edition of the curse book.

  29. Speaking of WFB, here’s an interesting piece on “why he talked like that.”

  30. Siganus Sutor says

    > Bulbul
    Thanks for the link to the mp3 file. It was quite an experience, last night, to hear LH’s voice.

  31. Hi Robert! I heard you on NPR yesterday and really enjoyed the interview – I’m ordering the book through Amazon. I was really curious to see if you included Arabic insults. You did speak about Europe and a little on Japan/China, but I was curious if your studies encompassed Egyptian-Arabic insults. It seems pretty specific, but I am curious nonetheless. I’m Egyptian by birth and went back after 23 years of being away last year (going back again next month), and I also know the brand of insults in Egypt can be pretty colorful. Some are traditional Arabic fare (Ibnil-kelb, bintil-kelb – Son of a dog, daughter of a dog), while others are just odd. I guess you can call me ‘Westernized’ because Arabic is no longer (unfortunately) a fluent language. I’ve heard things in Egypt that literally translate from “May your house be destroyed” to “O the news is in white ” (bad news) to “O the news is black” (really terrible news). A few other weird ones I recall…
    Anyway, I am rambling. I enjoyed hearing your interview, I’m sure I’ll enjoy your book as well!

  32. Ooops, I meant to say PRI, not NPR …but you know what I mean 🙂

  33. Well, I’m finally listening to the broadcast.
    Funny to put a voice to the name! Or more precisely, a voice to your writing. I always used to read languagehat while envisioning, if anything, a fairly standard kind of English (neither British nor American). From now on it will definitely be in Steve’s natural speaking voice.
    One point. About Bakachon camera. My understanding is that ”bakachon” is short for “baka demo chon demo tsukaeru” — i.e., so simple that “even idiots and Koreans can use them”. So the name is not quite as straightforward as saying “stupid Korean”. If anything it sounds worse.

  34. Also, ‘bakachon’ would never be taken for ‘vacation’ in Japanese. The Japanese pronunciation of ‘vacation’ is ‘bakēshon’. ‘Bakachon’ is definitely a term meaning ‘simple to use’.

  35. I listened to your interview with great pleasure. It was fun.
    But I was intrigued to hear that people keep their swear words in another part of the brain.
    Perhaps that’s why they don’t construct a full sentence when they hit their thumbs with a hammer. And why they remember a language’s swear words after they forget everything else.
    Do you think Homo habilis swore before he said anything else? What might he have said when he chipped a rock and f***ed his finger?
    Perhaps his wife invented real language when she complained about his bad behaviour.
    Further, though, I’d always thought you were English English, because you mentioned familiar town names in your posts, but now I suddenly realise that you are part of a colony (which we should have had the sense to hold onto).
    Keep up the good work.

  36. handy insult, huh?

  37. Also, ‘bakachon’ would never be taken for ‘vacation’ in Japanese… ‘Bakachon’ is definitely a term meaning ‘simple to use’.
    Dammit, I knew I was going to screw that up. I got that from somebody who actually knows Japanese, and I loved the anecdote, but obviously got mixed up on that detail. Oh well, think of it as the flaw that keeps the carpet from a perfection offensive in the sight of the gods.

  38. Funny, you sound like you write. Now I wonder if you look like you sound. Is your photo on the book flyleaf?

  39. No, but I’m the one on the left in this photo (wearing a Greek sailor cap).

  40. And could the other be Songdog?

  41. Why yes it could, it clearly says so.

  42. Very cool! I can’t wait till the book is available here.
    You have a great voice, by the way.

  43. I was a reporter in Lincolnshire for a while, and I remember the story that Scunthorpe city council were having trouble attracting investment – because web screening software was blocking the name of the town….

  44. strangeguitars says

    Interesting voice! Quite a lot of resonance. And you ash-tense in “that”.

  45. Andrej Bjelaković says
  46. Many thanks; I’ve added it to the post.

  47. John Cowan says

    If you scroll down from that you get to “When an American says ‘sure’ to a Brit, does it mean yes or no?”, which is an interview with Lynne Murphy and her husband and daughter.

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