Strong language is common to most cultures, but what makes a word profane, and how does cursing vary from place to place? James Harbeck explains.

Warning: This article contains very strong language that may offend some readers.

Devil! Cancer-sufferer! Chalice of tabernacle!

The reason I can say this is because I am writing in English, not Finnish, Dutch, or Québécois French.

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.

We tend to think of swear words as one entity, but they actually serve several distinct functions. Steven Pinker, in The Stuff of Thought, lists five different ways we can swear: “descriptively (Let’s fuck), idiomatically (It’s fucked up), abusively (Fuck you…!), emphatically (This is fucking amazing), and cathartically (Fuck!!!).” None of these functions require swearwords. In Bikol (a language of the Philippines), there’s a special anger vocabulary – many words have alternative words that refer to just the same thing but also mean you’re angry. In Luganda (an African language), you can make a word insulting just by changing its noun class prefix – from a class for persons to a class for certain kinds of objects, for instance. In Japanese, you can insult someone badly just by using an inappropriate form of ‘you’.

Not all taboo language counts as swear words. Some taboo language is still strong language, even if we don’t think of it as ‘swearing’ – racial epithets, insults based on disabilities and sexual orientation – but some relates to things you avoid naming because of their power. Our word ‘bear’ comes from a word for ‘brown’ that was used in place of the ‘true’ name of the animal; nobody wanted to say its name lest it appear. In southern Africa, some cultures have a ‘respect’ speech that is imposed on women in regard to their in-laws: for instance, their father-in-law’s name is taboo, as is any word that sounds like it – but that doesn’t turn the father-in-law’s name into an expletive they shout when they hurt themselves.

Mother of all insults

Words for genitalia are the most common focus of preferred strong language, the kind used by default for Pinker’s five functions. You may utter the name of the male or female organ when irritated in China or Russia; in Italy, if someone cuts you off in traffic, you may shout “che cazzo”, which could be translated as “What the cock!” But the word for the female organ is usually the more forbidden one. Penises are keys to power; vaginas are to be kept locked shut except to the man with the right key. As strong as vittu is in Finnish, however, French con and its derivatives connard and connasse are no stronger than English’s 'jerk'. And in Rinconada Bikol, a language of the Philippines, buray ni nanya (mother’s vagina) is used commonly as we might use “Nuts!”

Sex, though desired, is – in the angry, aggressive part of the mind – a dominating act, something performed upon a weaker recipient. Functional equivalents to the F-word are found in many languages. This is quite evidently linked to male aggression. Females are cast in a submissive role. But men are also attached to their nurturing mothers (let’s just take the Freudian stuff as read, shall we?). Thus the most transgressive language in many cultures involves sexual acts on a person’s mother (sometimes specifying her genitalia). Cultures in which the mother figures most strongly in the go-to bad language include Latin ones (less so French); also Slavic, Balkan, Arabic Chinese and neighbouring ones. As it happens, these cultures also tend to be extended-family rather than nuclear-family societies. Some of the F-word swears spread more broadly, onto father (Bosnian ), grandfather, even the whole set of relatives: Albanian (qifsha robt “your family”), Turkish (sülaleni sikeyim "your extended family"), Mandarin (cào nǐ zǔzōng shíbā dài "your ancestors to the 18th generation").

Morality is a control system maintaining male dominance but also some level of security for a wife. Prostitutes defy a wife’s exclusivity and a man’s ownership, which is likely why words for ‘whore’ are also very common strong language in many parts of the world – and in some languages (such as Luganda) why words for genitalia are avoided: prostitutes use them. In fact, the cultures that swear the most about mothers tend to swear about prostitutes a lot too. They don’t really figure in Chinese, but throughout the Slavic world the word for ‘whore’ is a key strong word; Polish kurwa is the all-purpose equivalent of the F-word. Spanish has puta and hijo de puta, Italian has puttana, and French loads up on prostitutes and brothels – and faeces.

Dirty talk

Among Christian cultures, the line between those that swear a lot about mothers and whores and those that don’t looks quite like the line between those where Mary is a co-star with Jesus and those where she’s part of the supporting cast. Mention a man’s mother in Finland, for instance, and he’ll more likely assume that you have a personal quarrel with her than that you’re trying to offend him. Yes, in Finland the term for female genitaliais one of the rudest words available. But the other rudest words are saatana (Satan), perkele (devil – converted from the name of a pre-Christian thunder god), and helvetti (Hell). These are also the go-to set in Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish.

The fire-and-brimstone missionaries burned the fear of evil into them. Similar direct evidence of church control shows up a little in English (centuries ago, swearing by various parts of Christ’s body was as bad as you could get; now “damn” and “hell” are still iffy). France may like its putains and cons, but in Quebec, which until a few decades ago was heavily dominated by the Catholic Church, much of the preferred strong language is formed from words for things you’ll find in a church: hostie (consecrated communion wafer), tabernacle (where you store it), ciboire (what you carry it with) and calice (the chalice of wine).

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.

Animals can be dirty too, and are used in many insults, but animals are not normally near the morality-based social control structures, so they’re not usually what we think of as swear words – except when they come from veiled references, as with Mandarin guītóu (turtle’s head, standing in for penis). Likewise, mental deficiency is widely looked down on, but while insults the equivalent of ‘idiot’ are common enough, it’s only in a culture such as Japanese that it makes one of the most popular ‘bad words’ (baka). Social control structures differ somewhat from country to country, but they are, after all, developed by the same human animal on the same planet. It’s the same magma bubbling up.

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