Swearing around the World.

James Harbeck has a BBC.com article on a subject dear to my heart:

You might think that the definition of ‘bad’ words would be similar around the world. You wouldn’t be entirely right. Strong language – swearing, profanity, whatever you want to call it – is special.

If everyday language is like the earth’s crust and the soil we garden our lives in, strong language is like volcanoes and geysers erupting through it from the mantle below. Our social traditions determine which parts of the crust are the thin points. It’s not enough to feel strongly about something; it has to have a dominating societal power and control structure attached to it. Strong language often involves naming things you desire but aren’t supposed to desire; at the very least, it aims to upset power structures that may seem a bit too arbitrary.

There’s nothing groundbreaking, but it’s a nice writeup with examples from all over:

Faeces is preferred in strong language in fewer places than you may expect. It does show up here and there: Fijian and other Austronesian languages, Arabic, and Albanian, to name a few. In the British-French-German circle, shit, merde, and Scheiße are bad words thanks to cleanliness-focused social controls (should we say anal retentiveness?). But in Sweden, while you might say skit when you’re annoyed, you can even say it in front of your grandmother. Other cleanliness taboos figure in some languages. The cloths you use to clean your backside are especially bad language in Jamaican Patois.

A few places have a special horror of disease. You can use “cholera!” as a cathartic expletive in Polish (if you’re of an older generation) and you can wish cholera on someone in Thai. Much of the Dutch strong language makes use of cancer, cholera, and typhus; if you want to make something offensive in Dutch, just add kanker to it. – “cancer sufferer” is an extremely coarse insult. Poor health seems to upset the Dutch more than violations of the moral code.

Don’t click if you’re offended by strong language or cultural generalizations!


  1. For an excellent history of swearing in English, I recommend the book “Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing: by Melissa Mohr.

    She says that, in English, words for bodily elimination became taboo when toilets became private. And, there has been an evolution of taboo words from swearing (literally) > obscene > racial epithet where today, the most taboo words are ethnic slurs.

  2. Despite it being a BBC website, it is apparently not accessible from the UK

  3. ” Poor health seems to upset the Dutch more than violations of the moral code.”

    That’s a function of living in a swampy, over-crowded region.

    George, that’s a very good point she makes.

    There seems to have been a historical progression from religious expressions to shit/sex words on into ethnic-based slurs.

  4. AlanB: You can see it by putting it into Google Translate.

  5. W. C. Fields, in his films, would wish blood poisoning on people. What was the root of that, I wonder?

  6. It may have been a Hays-code-acceptable reference to syphilis; Google returns several examples of “blood poisoning” as a euphemism for the pox or excessive drink.

    See http://www.bartleby.com/185/pages/page150.html for a page from Mencken’s “American Language.”

    (Search term was “blood poisoning euphemism”.)

  7. Trond Engen says

    Pox or ‘pokker’ is a mid-level curse in Norwegian. It’s supposed to have meant “syphilis”. It’s often used to translate English ‘bugger’, but that may be for phonetic similarity (although we don’t lip-synch TV here).

  8. John Emerson says

    My experience of this is that scatology seems more Germanic and blasphemy more Catholic, perhaps because the Virgin Mary was downgraded.

  9. In a brief follow-up at Strong Language, James added a few items cut from the published article, and listed his sources.

  10. A good example of the relative taboo-ity of racial slurs is the recent incident at the University of Oklahoma in which racist comments resulted in a fraternity being permanently closed down and several students expelled from school. These actions would not even be considered had the speech been obscene or swearing.

    In fact, I would bet that some obscenities were expressed by school officials when they learned of the incident. I can imagine a “Holy sh*t, what the f*ck were those SOBs thinking.”

  11. >John Emerson
    What about eschatology ? Sorry for this digression due to the fact that Spanish has the same word for both meanings: “escatología”.

  12. GeorgeW, I doubt the actions would have been taken just for using the word. It was the combination of the word and the context, saying that blacks should not be allowed in the fraternity and should be lynched.

  13. Keith Ivey: Good point.

  14. I’m puzzled by “blood poisoning” as a euphemism for syphilis, (although Mencken only lists the slightly more reasonable “blood-poison”) because “blood poisoning” has a long history as a term for septicemia. Although the term is dated, it still seems a small amount of use in the current medical literature. Looking over Google Books, however, it appears that there is a long history of people misunderstanding (which evidently continues to this day—one 2008 source recommends treating blood poisoning by immediately going on a liquid diet) what was meant by “blood poisoning,” no doubt significantly based on its not very illuminating name. (Of course, the name dates back to before the nature of sepsis was at all understood. Understanding of how septicemia could be acquired through contact with dead material came first, followed by an understanding of the bacterial character of septic infections later in the nineteenth century. The pioneer of modern infection control, Semmelweiss, may have actually committed suicide by intentionally cutting himself with a dirty knife, shortly before he was to be committed to a psychiatric institution.)

  15. Jay sterling says

    Despite it being a BBC website, it is apparently not accessible from the UK- WTF is that all about?The Daily Mail won’t believe this.

  16. @Brett: Well, a euphemism is a euphemism; its real meaning depends on context. In Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (1879), tertiary syphilis is called (something Norwegian usually rendered as ) “tuberculosis of the spine.”

  17. Michael E. says

    Jay: in the comments on his blog entry on Strong Language that Stan links to, there is a link to Google translate which is supposed to work in the UK.

    I’m in Canada, so I couldn’t tell you if that helps.

  18. Trond Engen says

    Ibsen: «Han har tæring i ryggmargen, stakkar. Jeg skal si deg, hans far var et vemmelig menneske som holdt elskerinner og sånt noe, og derfor ble sønnen sykelig fra barndommen av, forstår du.»

    Another word for something syphilitic having something to do with the spine is radesyke “spine disease”, a uniquely Norwegian diagnosis of a condition thought to be a result of living in a generally syphilitic environment. There were special hospitals built to treat the victims, single patients or whole families, in all but the smallest Norwegian towns. When modern diagnostics was introduced, the disease disappeared.

  19. Remarkable! I love learning about these forgotten folkways.

  20. Trond Engen says

    Probably not a completely accurate account. I googled “radesyke” a few weeks ago. This is what came back with the Ibsen quote.

  21. Trond Engen says

    I forgot to say that Ibsen’s tæring i ryggmargen looks to me just as a convoluted way to say radesyke. That would also fit his idea of spread by (moral and physical) contamination of the environment.

  22. AJP 'Scribbler' Gibbon says

    Trond, I know a public-health doctor who gave me this, below. She says the radehospitaler were just ordinary sanitoriums (sanitoria?) that were common in Europe for treating TB before antibiotics (there’s an architecturally famous one at Paimio, outside Turku, in Finland, by Alvar Aalto).

    Syfilis som kjønnssykdom var ukjent i Europa før oppdagelsen av Amerika i 1492. En spiroket som likner den som forårsaker syfilis, var svært vanlig i Europa i middelalderen. Denne sykdommen kaltes frambøsi og smittet primært gjennom hudkontakt. Hudmanifestasjoner var vanskelig å skille fra lepra og sammen ble disse sykdommene ofte kalt spedalskhet. Syfilis spredte seg raskt som en seksuelt overført sykdom i hele Europa på 1500 – og 1600-tallet, trolig som en konsekvens av kriger, økende befolkningstetthet, endret seksuell atferd og mer omfattende handelsvirksomhet. Fram til 1830-tallet betraktet man gonoré og syfilis som én sykdom med ulike symptomer. De forskjellige stadier av sykdommen ble beskrevet i 1831. Spiroketen ble første gang påvist i 1905, serologisk test (Wassermanns reaksjon) ble tilgjengelig i 1907. Ulike behandlingstilbud har vært benyttet gjennom tidene fra kvikksølvbehandling på 1500-tallet, behandling med arsenikkpreparater, feberbehandling ved å smitte pasienten med malaria til mer effektiv behandling med sulfonamider på 1930-tallet og penicillin på 1940-tallet.
    Første tilfelle av seksuelt overført syfilis i Norge ble beskrevet i 1518. Venerisk sykdom og kopper ble den gang kalt pokker. Fra 1710 til 1850 så man i Norge en oppblussing av spiroketinfeksjon, og sykdommen ble da kalt radesyken. Radesyken rammet hovedsakelig den fattige del av befolkningen. Sykdommen ble den gang oppfattet som en seksuelt overførbar sykdom, men også smitte innen familien var vanlig p.g.a. trangboddhet, urenslighet og generelt dårlig hygiene. Radesyken var spesielt utbredt på Sørlandet og Vestlandet, og 15 radehospitaler ble opprettet i større byer. I Norge var det et betydelig oppbluss av syfilis under annen verdenskrig. I 1943 ble det registrert 2773 tilfeller av ervervet syfilis og 79 tilfeller av medfødt syfilis. Obligatorisk testing av gravide ble innført i 1947 og ble i praksis opphevet i 1995. Siden 1950-tallet har insidensen falt gradvis med unntak av mindre utbrudd blant menn som har sex med menn.

  23. Venerisk sykdom og kopper ble den gang kalt pokker.

    That came through the translator (not GT) as “Venereal disease and smallpox was at the time called the heck”, which is pretty funny. Heck is an 19C euphemistic alteration of hell. Our friend the Zompist on Peanuts: “Schulz mentions that he’d never do some of the early strips again; he found them too cruel. But the genius of the strip lay in its very cruelty; it’s as if Dante had decided to write a tour of Heck.” And I myself referred on this very blog to heckfire-and-darnation preachers.

  24. Schulz mentions that he’d never do some of the early strips again; he found them too cruel. But the genius of the strip lay in its very cruelty

    Indeed. The early strips are sheer genius; Schulz lost his way in the early ’60s (just a guess, without doing actual chronological research) when he made Snoopy the central character and it degenerated into tedious Red Baron jokes and the like. But, like they say, comedy is hard, and thanks to Fantagraphics, may their tribe increase, we have gorgeous reproductions of the good stuff.

  25. Zompist Peanuts review. Like all his comics reviews, it’s excellent. He postdates the downfall of the strip to about 1975, and I have to agree that the “suffering” strip (1967) is great mid-period Schulz.

    And yes, kids do still write reports on the Nile. Here‘s a lesson plan for grades 6-8.

  26. He postdates the downfall of the strip to about 1975, and I have to agree that the “suffering” strip (1967) is great mid-period Schulz.

    It is an excellent review, and I agree that particular strip is great, but I still maintain that the decline began long before that. It’s not like up to a certain date everything was great and after that date it was crap; it was a long slow sad decline that kept being interrupted for occasional (but ever fewer) outbursts of the original genius. I think Zompist is going easy on Schultz because he loves the strip and respects its creator, which is understandable, but my morning paper has been rerunning early-to-mid-’60s strips, and I can tell you they mostly make painful reading.

  27. AJP Screbe-Greebling says

    Venerisk sykdom og kopper ble den gang kalt pokker

    Venereal disease and smallpox were at that time called the pox.

  28. AJP Grebe-Screebling says

    Language, if they were no good in the early to mid-sixties, when were they good? I remember liking them in the late sixties, in the Observer, in England. They’d arrived with a big fanfare as a cool import, like Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In.

  29. I’m not saying they were no good in the early to mid-sixties, I’m saying they were in decline from their previous greatness. In those years I read them with pleasure, only occasionally finding them dumb, it’s just that later on when I went back and read the earlier stuff I realized how much better it was. Similarly for Mad, which I loved in the ’60s but not as much as I loved the earlier more anarchic stuff from the mid-’50s. (Cue Woody Allen’s hated “I liked your early, funny films” response.)

  30. Sure, the great pox and the small. But machine translators don’t get the context, and interpret pokker only as a mild swearword. I fed a Chinese article about the 1911 revolution through $EMPLOYER’s translator and got a reference to Abu Ghraib. The principal author told me it was because the translator merged two sentences and then misinterpreted a particular compound in fact meaning ‘Summer Palace’.

  31. David Marjanović says

    ” Poor health seems to upset the Dutch more than violations of the moral code.”

    That’s a function of living in a swampy, over-crowded region.

    Probably more of having believed in predestination, where those destined for hell already get a taste of what they deserve in this life.

    And I myself referred on this very blog to heckfire-and-darnation preachers.

    “I don’t believe in God, I believe in gosh. If you don’t believe in gosh, you’ll be darned – to heck!”

    My favorite is “aitch ee double hockey sticks”.

    “tuberculosis of the spine.”

    Rather “consumption in the spinal cord”, judging from German Rückenmark “spinal cord” (literally “back marrow”).

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