Strong Language.

I’m happy to announce the appearance of Strong Language, a new group blog about swearing created by linguist James Harbeck and Stan Carey of Sentence first, one of my favorite language sites. The About page says, “This blog gives a place for professional language geeks to talk about things they can’t talk about in more polite contexts. It’s a sweary blog about swearing.” If that sounds like your cup of tea, head on over and check it out. And while we’re on the subject of swearing, here‘s a seven-plus-minute video consisting almost entirely of swearing in Hungarian (with English subtitles) so thrilling that it makes me want to resume my study of that fine language; thanks for the clip go to the many-languaged bulbul, who says “The obvious highlight is 2:16, but the rest is eminently watchable as well.” (Serendipitously, I just found this post at Poemas del río Wang, which begins: “The baggage cart advances with a painful squeal in the deep, bottomless mud and drizzling rain. An old blue-shirted soldier drives it, while smoking his pipe. The one sitting next to him, unshaven, in gray uniform, is urging the cart on by cursing in three languages. He’s a Hungarian…”)


  1. Jeremy Wheeler says

    Thanks for the clip from Fekete Ország – quite brilliant. This reading of Mihály Babits poem of the same name might be the one to show one’s mother, though… (and if you are leaning that way anyway it might just get you studying Hungarian)

  2. As the classical quote goes:

    “Baszom az anyát, baszom az istenet, baszom a Krizstus Márját, baszom az atyádot, baszom a világot!”

  3. AJP Mary Christmas says

    I love the post Synonyms for Prostitute which is mostly taken from The Sot-Weed Factor, by John Barth. (It’s not perfect: a comment points out some machine-made mistakes.)

  4. I can’t believe you didn’t go for “Dracula cum” (6:16) as the highlight…

  5. Dave,

    fair point, it’s my fault, since Hat followed my recommendation. What can I say, as half-Slovak and half-Hungarian, I found the use of “drótos Tót” as a modifier beyond hilarious. In case anyone is wondering, this is indeed the way us Hungarians cuss, especially while working – the liberal use of “geci” = “cum, jizz” and the animal references (giraffe, squirrel) almost made me nostalgic for Sunday school and the brief period working construction. On the other hand, there are some pronounced differences to what I’m used to, such as the low frequency of “picsába” as simple expletive – these guys seem to rely almost entirely on “bassz meg”. Also, the ethnic modifiers are virtually unknown where I come from, with the possible exception of “cigány” = “Gipsy”. The use of the verb “ugatni” = “to bark” for “say, speak” is new and so is the use of “geci” as a verb (“Santikám, ne gecisz te is velem…” = “Sanyikám, don’t you fucking start with me…”), but neither was entirely unexpected.

  6. Stefan Holm says

    It may seem odd but Swedes have never really used terms from the sexual domain for cursing. Those words were rather whispered into the ears of innocent young boys by older naughty ones. Instead we expressed states of outrage or excitement using a variety of names for the devil and the place where he is supposed to dwell (together with words for domestic animals).

    Ditt helvetes djävla svin!, ‘You hellish devilish swine!’.
    Djävlar i helvetes förbannade faan!, ’Devils in hell’s damned devil!’.
    Satans fårskalle!, ’Satan’s sheep-scull!’

    Perhaps this has something to do with the traditionally strong position of women in Nordic history. When it came to foreigners though it was different. In my young(er) years people from southern Europe could be described as åsneknullare, ‘donkey fuckers’ (together with svartskallar, ‘black skulls’ or fikontrampare, ‘fig trotters’).

    In recent years things have dramatically changed. Probably as a result of immigration words and expressions from the sexual area are rapidly gaining ground. School girls today have to grow up with being called names and boys must listen to, what treatment their mothers are to expect. Our feminists are outraged and call for legislation against discriminatory language. At the same time they emphasize the ‘enriching of our culture’ as an argument for immigration…

    (Don’t misunderstand! I’m definitely in favour of immigration of poor and persecuted people to our country – we are wealthy, we’ve got plenty of room, we are demographically and economically in absolute need of immigration. I just want to use these arguments instead of naïve worship of a culture from medieval societies.)

  7. As I said in my book, “even after the recent secularization of the Nordic countries, religious curses retain a strong foothold.”

  8. Stefan Holm says

    From the very day I found this blog I knew that you are a true космополит. Of course cursing in Nordic is one of your skills. 🙂

  9. Trond Engen says

    cursing in Nordic

    Back in May I linked to this North Norwegian tirade.

  10. Trond Engen says

    Back in May I also messed up a link.

  11. Stefan Holm says

    Wonderful, Trond! But maybe we should pay some respect to those poor people folllwing this thread, who from incomprehensible reasons don’t understand our language?

  12. Trond Engen says

    Back in May I offered a glossary.

  13. Trond Engen says

    Back in May the calendar said August.

  14. Back in May it was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

  15. Back in May it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

  16. David Marjanović says

    Perhaps this has something to do with the traditionally strong position of women in Nordic history.

    Unlikely. Czech and German are all about shit and ass.

    With a little bit of diversity here and there. A Viennese bully once inquired about what I had said by asking what I was puking. 🙂

  17. Traditional swearing in Quebec is all (or at least mostly) church-related. From what I know about swearing in France, it’s more about body parts and their functions. No idea how the difference arose.

  18. Mongolian cursing has relatively little sexual component and has a lot to do with blood and death.

    The one exception is a very common borrowing from Russian – “p*zda” (vagina)-, but Mongolians generally are not aware of its real meaning in Russian and just use it as a strong interjection. (I suppose they wouldn’t use it if they knew what it meant)

    Some Mongolian traditional curses give me shivers (and they are intended that way). A case in point – very strong and common curse in Mongolian involves emphatic use of word “khuur” (corpse, cadaver, dead body).

    I get very uncomfortable hearing this word every time.

  19. David Marjanović says

    No idea how the difference arose.

    The Revolution, or perhaps 19th/20th-century laïcité, deemphasized the Catholic Church in France but not in Québec, where it used to be a part of national identity?

    I get very uncomfortable hearing this word every time.

    I’m sure that’s in part because of how it sounds. 🙂

    Blood and death as a theme for cursing is interesting, though. It sounds fairly obvious, and yet the whole West seems to avoid it, unless we count the Dutch use of illness-sufferers as insults.

  20. The English, at least, used God’s blood and death as oaths in early modern times.

  21. Død og pine “death and pain” is an old-fashioned-sounding curse in Norwegian. Pokker “(orig.) pox, syphilis” is still cromulent a mid-level curse.

  22. Also, as in English, body parts are useful as descriptions of people. Rauva (more often spelled ræv(v)a) “the arse” is an adjective meaning “bad or boring as hell”.

  23. If Jared Diamond is to believed, Easter Island civilization went through a period of collapse when cannibalism unfortunately became very common.

    And now the strongest curse in their language is “The flesh of your mother sticks between my teeth.”

    Now, that’s really scary….

  24. – Rauva (more often spelled ræv(v)a) “the arse” is an adjective meaning “bad or boring as hell”.

    Married woman is called in Finnish “rouva”.

    But that’s of course a pure coincidence…

  25. A Germanic loan:
    rouva ranta, glas -> lasi, skruv -> ruuvi, etc.)

  26. A second go (some of the words have mysteriously evaporated in transit):
    Finnish typically used to drop the first consonant(s) in a borrowed word if it began in a cluster, so, for example, frouwa ended up as rouva, strand as ranta, and skruv as ruuvi.

  27. There is a river in the Karelian isthmus called Sestra in Russian, Systerbäck in Swedish and Siestarjoki in Finnish. When Finland gained independence, the government decided to rename the river which sounded too Russian.

    So they renamed in into Rajajoki (border river).

    They didn’t realize that Finnish “raja” was actually a borrowing from Russian “kraj” (edge, border)!

    Typical of Finnish borrowings, the initial consonant was dropped which resulted in “raja”

  28. the whole West seems to avoid blood and death as a theme for cursing

    Bloody is one of the most popular swearwords in England. On a scale of rudeness fifty years ago it was about where fuck is today (I wasn’t allowed to use it in my grandmother’s presence). ‘Drop dead’ was a popular old American exhortation, if not actual swearing.

  29. I don’t know how old they are, but some death-related insults on the web are so common they have standard abbreviations everyone knows so you don’t even need to spell them out: FOAD = fuck off and die, DIAF = die in a fire. Of course, most such abbreviations (e.g. LOL, ROTFLOL, TANSTAAFL) are neither insults nor death-related.

  30. Trond Engen says

    fuck off and die

    ‘Fuck off’ has a rough equivalent in Norwegian drit og dra, lit. “shit and leave”. I suspect that drit is from drite i (noe) “give (sth.) up; couldn’t care less about (sth.)”, so “give (it up) and get out”.

  31. Trond Engen says

    I’ve been trying to find an etymology of Systerbäck etc.. “Sisterbrook” sounds like a folk etymology.

  32. Trond Engen says

    I should add a link to this charmingly auto-translated site on Ingria. Figuring out which languages it has been through could be a nice Christmas quiz.

  33. Trond Engen says

    I correctied a misspelling in my search string and found this: Pauli Rahkonen: Finno-Ugrian hydronyms of the River Volkhov and Luga catchment areas. On page 21 he gives the Finnic etymology Siestarjoki “currant river”. (I was about to go on a spree about how this might be a borrowed IE reduplication when I noticed the ‘a’. So genus Ribes. It must have been named after particularly thriving wild black currant along the riversides. Unless that’s another folk etymology…)

  34. David Marjanović says

    I’d count the English curses about God’s blood & wounds as religious curses rather than blood & death, but I should not have forgotten about this kind:

    FOAD = fuck off and die, DIAF = die in a fire

    Or indeed FOADIAF, fuck off and die in a fire.

  35. I don’t know if Finnish siestar “black currant” has an internal etymology. There’s an interesting and not completely explained Swedish word tistron “black currants” that looks as though it might be related, although not as a regular borrowing one way or the other. Hellquist says it might be elliptic from tistelbär “thistleberries”. This is interesting, since an older þi- would have been borrowed into Finnish as si-, but it wouldn’t explain the vowels.

  36. Stefan Holm says

    I searched Finnish dictionaries and ethymological wordbooks as well and couldn’t find the word siestar anywhere else than in the compund Siestarjoki, i.e. the name of the river/brook. Blackcurrants in Finnish seem to be directly translated from Swedish svarta vinbär, lit. ‘black wineberries’ and goes either mustaviinimarja or mustaherukka.

    The Sw. form given by Hellquist ’tistelbär’ isn’t attested so his guess about the origin of dialectal (Roslagen) ’tistron’ is – a guess. Why should a well tasting berry anyway be semantically associated with thistles? Already Matthew knew (7:16), that Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?

  37. Trond Engen says

    If indeed the Finnish word was borrowed from Swedish, the -r- would seem to be part of the stem, with the ending -on parallel to e.g. lingon, so suggestive of an unattested OSw. *þister n. “black currant” or maybe rather “shrubbery”. But that still wouldn’t account for the vowels, I think.

  38. Trond Engen says

    Another thought: Þeistará “Black guillemot brook” > Fi. Siestarjoki > Sw. Systerbäck. But that leaves the relationship of tistron and siestar unaccounted for.

  39. I used to leave near Smorodinka (Currant) Creek, exploring its “urban wilderness” far and wide as a kid. In the epic legend of Nightingale the Robber, his battle with Ilya Muromets takes place on Smorodina River too.

    I searched Finnish dictionaries and ethymological wordbooks as well and couldn’t find the word siestar anywhere else than in the compund Siestarjoki, i.e. the name of the river/brook.

    Well, Estonian has sõstar “currant”, Komi, сэтӧр, and Udmurt, сутэр. Veps has sestrikaine “red currant”. Erzya Mordvin has шукшторов (for berries) or шукшторукс (for bushes), Mari шоптыр… In Soosaar 2013, the Estonian word is considered Finno-Mordvin w/o further explanation.

  40. Trond Engen says

    Thanks, that settles the etymology of siestar. Since the Swedish word is limited to the dialect of the Ros, I guess it might be borrowed the other way and reshaped by folk-etymological association to þist-, but I’m not even convincing myself.

  41. Stefan Holm says

    Good research, Dmitry! A Finno-Ugric berry can’t of course be excluded but the small river was for a long time the Russian-Swedish borderline and both idioms use the cognates сестра / syster in their respective names for it. And as SFReader mentioned, the Finns themselves found siestar sounding too Russian (instead of reminding them of a domestic berry).

    Nothing from Karelia can though be taken for sure. After all Elias Lönnrot collected most of his supernatural stories in the Kalevala from there.

  42. Trond Engen says

    Wait, is that list of FU currant words anywhere near regular? How are they reconciled into a single etymon?

  43. Trond Engen says

    They aren’t, apparently. Starostin’s database:

    Number: 84
    Proto: *ćVkčV (-kkV)
    > Nostratic: > Nostratic
    English meaning: black currant
    German meaning: schwarze Johannisbeere; Ribes nigrum
    Estonian: sitik (gen. sitiku, sitike) ‘schwarze Johannisbeere, Bocksbeere; Ribes nigrum’
    Mordovian: šukštorov, čukštorov (E), čukštoru, šukštoru, čukštoru (M) ‘Johannisbeere’ ?
    Khanty (Ostyak): čowčǝk (V), čapčǝ (DN), šǫmšĭ (Kaz.) ‘schwarze Johannisbeere’ ( > Nen. toptat)
    Mansi (Vogul): šošǝɣ (TJ P), sosiɣ (Sö.)
    Addenda: Lüd. č́ihoi̯, č́īhoi ‘schwarze Johannisbeere’, Veps. čičik ‘Johannisbeere’, č́iǵič́äi̯ńe ‘schwarze Johannisbeere’ ?
    References: FUV; SKES; DEWO 297-8; Coll.CompGr. 90, 167, 413

    Number: 1224
    Proto: *ćVkčV-tVrV
    > Nostratic: > Nostratic
    English meaning: currant
    German meaning: Johannisbeere; Ribes
    Finnish: siestar (gen. siestareri) ‘schwarze Johannisbeere’, (SKES dial.) siester(i), siestain, siehtar (marja), hiestain ?
    Estonian: sõster (gen. sõstra) ‘Johannisbeere; Ribes L.’, 615 (Eesti-saksa sõnaraamat 1964) sõstar, (SKES dial.) sostàr, sēster (> Lett. sustarenes, zusteri, zusteres, sustris id. > Liv. sustritt ‘schwarze Johannisbeere’)
    Mordovian: šukštorov, čukštorov (E), M čukštoru, šukštoru, ćukštoru ‘Johannisbeere’
    K. Redei’s notes: Mord, ov und u sind Suffixelemente. Im Finn. ist *k in ursprünglichem *kč über *ɣ geschwunden. Im Urfinn. wurde unter dem analogen Einfluß des anlautenden *ć im Inlaut *kč > *kć. Die inlautende Affrikate assimilierte im Mord. – mit Ausnahme der Form čukštoru – den anlautenden Konsonanten. Das zusammengesetzte Ableitungssuffix *t3r3 trat möglicherweise in FW Zeit an den Stamm. Andere, ähnlich klingende Benennungen von ‘Johannisbeere’ s. unter *ć8kč3(-kk3) ‘schwarze Johannisbeere; Ribes nigrum’ FU und *sapt3-r3 (*sopt3-r3) ‘Johannisbeere; Ribes’ FP. Möglicherweise haben diese Wörter gegenseitig ihre Lautform beeinflußt.
    References: Ahlqvist, MMdGr. 175; Anderson, Stud. 100; Munkácsi: Ethn. 4:172; Setälä: JSFOu. 14/3:38, FUF 2:258; Genetz: VähKirj. 23/2:38-9, Suomi 1897/3/13:38-9; S-Laute 85; Ojansuu: Vir. 1909:54; Wichmann: FUF 11:240-1; Toivonen: FUF 19:102; Ravila: FUF 20:113; Kiparsky: AASF. 42(1939): 166; Hakulinen, SKRK3 114, 254; SKES

    Number: 1555
    Proto: *saptV-rV (*soptV-rV)
    English meaning: currant
    German meaning: Johannisbeere; Ribes
    Mari (Cheremis): šaptǝ̑r (KB), šoptǝ̑r (U), šoptǝ̑r (M B) ‘Johannisbeere’
    Udmurt (Votyak): suter (S K) ‘Johannisbeere, Krausbeere’
    Komi (Zyrian): sete̮r (S), sete̮.r (P), se.tør (PO) ‘Johannisbeere; Ribes’
    Sammalahti’s version: *saptVrV

  44. AJP Grismass says

    Do tyttebær fit in anywhere with tistron[d] or þist-?

  45. Trond Engen says

    No. Apparently tyte- is derived from tut “protruding part”. There’s also a tyt– “something small and hard” which may or may not be the same. Either way, I think it might be related to one contributing sense of Eng. ‘tit’.


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