I’ve been accumulating books I want to write about, and I might as well start with two that helped me with this curses-and-insults book I’ve been working on.
The first is In Other Words, by Christopher J. Moore. I was unfairly disparaging to the book in a post a couple of years ago making fun of the non-word “razbliuto” (which Moore had taken from another source and which, as he pointed out in the comment thread, had been removed in the next edition of his book); being now in the position of working on a similar book, I fully realize how impossible it is, given less than infinite time, to verify every entry, and having actually used Moore’s book I find it immensely enjoyable. One can quibble about particular definitions, and there’s too much emphasis on “untranslatability,” but it’s a nice selection of foreign terms; alongside the more obvious Arabic baksheesh and hajj, for example, is hilm il-utaat kullu firaan ‘the dream of cats is all about mice,’ meaning “to have a one-track mind.” And in the introduction to the Eastern European section Moore gave me great pleasure by quoting the final section of this essay about Budapest by the Serbian writer Dragan Velikić, with its riff on the name of Pillangó utca:

I translated that name to myself as Pillangó Street, in other words, I did not translate it at all, convinced that it was a name, a street bearing somebody’s name. I walked through Budapest as if I had just arrived in Babylon where, by the grace of a god who had yet to become angry or disappointed, everything had a personal name, untranslatable, and thus immediately understandable… Nothing about that feeling changed even when my friend explained to me smilingly that pillangó means — butterfly. You are talking about the Street of Butterflies, she said, about Butterfly Street. But the word pillangó was ever after engraved in my mind as the name of a butterfly. There was a “Pillangó butterfly” and it lived in Budapest.

The second book is Forbidden Words: Taboo and the Censoring of Language, by Keith Allan and Kate Burridge. The authors are academics (at Monash University), which means the book has a fair amount of jargon (of course, in Chapter 3 they insist that “although some [jargon] is vacuous pretentiousness, and therefore dysphemistic, its proper use is both necessary and unobjectionable”), but they are also linguists, which means the discussion of “bad language” is well informed and should enlighten readers who turn to the book to understand what linguistic taboo is all about. For the curse/insult book I naturally leaned on the chapter on “Jargon, slang, swearing and insult,” but directly relevant to a prime mission of Languagehat is Chapter 5, “Linguistic purism and verbal hygiene,” which in its opening paragraph says “We focus not on formal acts of censorship… but on the attitudes and activities of ordinary people, in letters to newspapers or comments on talkback radio. In these contexts, ordinary language users act as self-appointed censors and take it upon themselves to condemn language that they feel does not measure up to the standards they perceive should hold sway.” The authors discuss Australian resentment of “ugly Americanisms,” how standard languages come about (noting that “prescriptive grammarians seeking to establish the Standard often failed to conform to their own prescriptions”), the attempts of the “self-appointed protectors” of English to hold back language change, and Mary Douglas’s theory of pollution and taboo in relation to language. They conclude the chapter by saying:

Standard language is an ideal that speakers have, and which everyday usage never quite matches up to — not even in the performances of ‘good’ speakers and writers… For as long as records go back, people have complained about the degeneration of the language used in their own time. Feelings about what is ‘clean’ and what is ‘dirty’ in language are universal, and humankind would have to change beyond all recognition before these urges to control and clean up the language disappeared. An integral part of the language behaviour of every human group is the desire to constrain and manage language, and to purge it of unwanted elements: bad grammar, sloppy pronunciation, newfangled words, vulgar colloquialisms, unwanted jargon and, of course, foreign items. Next to the shamans are the self-appointed arbiters of linguistic goodness: ordinary language users who follow the ritual, and taboo those words and constructions they see as ‘unorderly’ and outside the boundaries of what is good and proper.

A thoughtful and sensible analysis; I hope the book is widely read.


  1. I misconstrued the title of this post at first, understanding the Roman numeral as the first person pronoun I, thinking that you were saying something along the lines of “the bookshelf is my true self.” It was an entertaining misunderstanding.

  2. Yeah, me too. Maybe that should be the title of my autobiography: “The Bookshelf, I”.

  3. Roger Depledge says

    So did I, along the dignified lines of Robert Graves’s I Claudius, now, alas, fatally undermined for me by the knowledge that the French title of the book is Moi Claude!

  4. marie-lucie says

    Is the translated title Moi Claude or Moi, Claude ? The second one is OK, the first one sounds like baby talk or some kind of pidgin, like Me Tarzan. Without the comma, perhaps the translator (or editor choosing the title) thought of the poor speech that made everyone think that Claudius was a fool.

  5. Apparently the latter.

  6. Bit dumpy the area round Pillango utca. There’s a big 60s housing estate and metro station there.
    Confusingly, Hungarians sometimes call prostitutes “nighttime butterflies” (ejszakai pillangok), even though they have a word for “moth” – presumably moths are too drab to conjure up brightly-dressed prostitutes. All very rum.

  7. Where you find hookers, you’re likely to find rum.

  8. David Marjanović says

    Are you sure it corresponds to English “moth” = “nocturnal lepidopteran”? German Motte is restricted to those small species the larvae of which eat food that has been lying around accessible for too long, or clothes (depending on the species), and people not cognizant of entomology don’t know that moths are butterflies (or actually… in English the reverse makes more sense). Nobody would get the idea to apply Motte to a macroscopic nocturnal butterfly (like those we have instead of hummingbirds).

  9. BTW, the Russian equivalent of the lovely phrase “the dream of cats is all about mice” is “(people speak about different things, but) someone who has lice only talks of the bath house.” Gives a kind of urgency to the notion of a one-track mind, doesn’t it? And prostitutes are also “night butterflies.”

  10. Well the Hungarians have a separate word for ‘moth’ (‘lepke’), which I think means the fat-bodied, drab-coloured insects we call moths which land and rest with their wings at full span. While the thin-bodied, brightly-coloured insects we call butterflies which land and rest with their wings folded vertically they call ‘pillango(k)’.
    Now I think about it, I’m less confident that moths only hang around at night and butterflies only by day, but they must mostly be like that surely – otherwise more moths would have bright, daytime colouring?

  11. They do also have a word specifically for the little chaps that eat your clothes in the wardrobe. ‘Moly’, as far as I recall. So perhaps ‘lepke’ _is_ the fat, nocturnal thing after all?

  12. Yes, the lepkes are the big ones, the moly are what eat my wool sweaters (pronounced “moy” but the same word in Romanian for the same critter is “moli”)
    Incidentally, I was over on Pillangó utca (near the red metro stop) last night because it is where the big 24 hour Tesco hypermarket is located, next to a couple of other hypermarkets and a butt ugly housing project from the 1950s. It may sound good, but it sure does not look good.

  13. michael farris says

    “I was over on Pillangó utca (near the red metro stop) last night because it is where the big 24 hour Tesco hypermarket is located”
    I used to shop there when visiting Budapest. I don’t remember other hypermarkets in that area, but it’s been a couple of years. The old housing development wouldn’t be that bad (run of the mill eastern european kind of place) if they ever picked up the trash that the people who tromp thru to get to Tesco threw everywhere.

  14. nintendo ds low price says

    Nice site. Thanks.
    [Spam deleted, but don’t worry — zaelic thoughtfully translated it into Hungarian below! -LH]

  15. Let me translate… until you get some kind of bot-free web host…
    olcso aron dsl
    2004-es olcso aron p…
    nintendo ds olcso aron
    kocsi olcso aron
    olcso repulo jegy
    olcso jat ar
    olcso ar az aru
    olcso aru web szolgatatas
    olcso ar a talpacskak
    And I have to go back to the ugly tesco tommorow to get more cheap hamburger and chicken. It’s my nabe.

  16. Cryptic Ned says

    I translated that name to myself as Pillangó Street, in other words, I did not translate it at all, convinced that it was a name, a street bearing somebody’s name.
    This reminds me of an unrelated phenomenon. When I was a studyer-abroad in Lithuania, our American teachers/advisors pronounced the names of the local streets properly, without translating them. Tilto, Kalvarijų, Juozapavičiaus, Gedimino, Savanoriu, Laisvės, etc. But they never said “Vokiečių”. They always referred to it as “German Street” (the English translation). People found it odd, since it’s not like “Vokiečių” is more unpronounceable than the average Lithuanian name.

  17. Andrew Dunbar says

    Since you mention by C. J. Moore’s In Other Words, this is as good a place as any to mention the Spanish word I joyfully discovered here in Mexico last night.
    In a bar on the beach one lad having had a few beverages decided to try doing handstands with the help of fellow imbibers and much tumbling resulted. Later at the bar it was seen there was blood leaking from his forehead and I heard the bar staff use the word borrachazo.
    This word isn’t in my RAE or Grand Larouuse but it gets Google hits including Google News. It seems to cover at least the following senses:

    • A drunken escapade, caper, or stunt.
    • Extreme drunkenness
    • A car crash caused by a drunk driver.

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