Thursday, July 10, 2008

What Swearing Can Teach Us

See, ever since I learned in French class that most of the worst swears in French involve curses on the church and holy things, I've sort of paid attention to the way you can learn something about a culture by what people talk about when they hit their thumbs with hammers. While France today is fiercely proud of being intentionally secular, the fact a lot of French curse words invoke God, hell, church-doors and such, gives an interesting clue to French heritage, and the development of the language.

Conversely, most of the English swears that are used most often, and considered most crass, involve body parts, and body functions. I'm not going to list them off here, but you know the ones. (Swears on the comment board for this page shall remain up only if they are discussed academically, rather than simply posted for the fun of writing potty mouth on the internet, thanks.) I think those very bawdy words provide an interesting clue to understanding the focus on things, and a tendency toward materialism evident in English speaking cultures.

I asked Girlfriendoseyo about this once -- Korean culture developed in a very different place and along very different lines than them western cultures, and asked her, not to rattle off all the Korean swear words she knew, and teach them to me, but to clue me into the general subject matter of Korean curses.

She said that most curses in Korean involve bringing someone down -- calling somebody a wiener-suckler (you know the word I mean) or an Oedipal-incest-practitioner (you know the word) is about as harsh as you can get in English, and crazy's pretty mild (maybe a 3 out of 10) but in Korean, the word crazy is an 8 out of 10 -- the simple word "crazy" in Korean is a bit English to calling somebody "totally batshit in-'f-word'ing-sane" in English. In Korean, Girlfriendoseyo told me that the most commonly used words bring a person's status low -- you're a dog, an idiot, you're a fool, you're dirty and low -- that's the general gist of most Korean curses.

(comic by

"But Girlfriendoseyo," I interjected, "from what I know about Korea, and Korea's emphasis on filial piety and family obligation, wouldn't the worst swears in Korea involve insulting somebody's family? Wouldn't "your mother wears army boots" be more offensive to a Korean than "You sleep in a gutter"?

She flashed me a "oooh, careful, buddy!" face, and said, "Yeah. It would be. But if you insulted a Korean's family, it would be war between your families."

That's right. Family loyalty's so important here in Korea, that it's actually a taboo for swearing! I can't really think of ANY taboos in English swearing, though there are some topics, for example, cannibalism, that don't come up very often, simply because most cursers aren't creative enough -- but if a good creative curser tossed a reference in, nobody'd say "Whoa, man. That's too far." People would probably just shake their heads in wonder, impressed that Joe Crass managed to pull such a creative curse out of the air.

Swearing is a funny thing. Swear words are the most onomatopoeic words in almost every language -- that is, of all classes of language, they're the words whose sounds most perfectly match their meanings (other than real onomato- poeias, like "bang, crash, splat, boom"), and frankly, they're delightfully fun to say -- just forming the words with your mouth can be a good catharsis, because a good swear requires your whole face to say it. The Korean "worst word" (18 -- you know the one) requires your whole face to say it properly, as does the English "worst word" (the F-word) as well as the new "worst English word"s -- the ugliest racial slurs.

And you know, listening to a really good curser, is a kind of poetry of its own -- I'm told Trainspotting is a great movie to hear some good cursing, though I have to watch it again. My own two favourites are "South Park, Bigger, Longer, and Uncut" -- the movie that first gave me an appreciation for a good, colourful, blue streak -- and "Full Metal Jacket" -- the first half of which might never be topped, which goes so far over the top it's absolutely hilarious.

(uhh. . . swearing warning)

(Any others I'm missing?)


Anonymous said...

Oooh interesting topic. :)

My favorite Korean swear (because it's funny for some reason) translates into English something along the lines of, "You big baby, go back and suck your mother's tit"

Which I find hilarious =D

bradj said...

Interesting post. You sure do gain a unique anthropological insight into culture through what it considers crass. Taboo, even.

However I think it's vaguely sad that you find that scene from Full Metal Jacket funny. In that scene the drill sergeant is laying down a verbal carpet bombing that's carefully designed to leave recruits shell-shocked, and eventually dehumanised. Kubrick wasn't into including vulgarity for the sake of humour. And to assume that the drill sergeant is the least little bit of an over-the-top caricature is to entirely miss intention behind the film. It's an honest, ugly look at what it takes to go to war. To me it's sobering, sad and sickening. Not funny.

I suppose that's the interesting thing about swearing. It's all about shock. Sometimes shock darts in the direction of humour. Sometimes it's just appalling. I wonder what the difference is?

melissa v. said...

Anyone or anything Irish kicks ass on anyone or anything non-Irish in the swearing dept. The Irish seem to take swearing and make it almost classy...and def. uber cool!

Unknown said...

I read about a swear word that means something like "I'll kick you in the balls". The direct translation is "Penis Kick" (My computer here can't do Hangeul, but it is Jot-Ga"

I've been told this is a VERY bad things to say, but every time I think of it I get an image of a new Street Fighter character saying "Hadoooooooooget, Jotga!"

In South Africa quite a few of the insults are, not surprisingly, race related, but it is interesting that those same word can also be laughed at, depending on who you speak too.

Roboseyo said...

mmm... dont get me wrong, Brad. The scene is ALSO shocking, and disgusting as Sgt. Hartman debases every conscript, and the humiliations he metes out DO make their point about the dehumanizing nature of war. . . but despite that, there are moments in this scene, I think, when you just have to shake your head, or laugh out loud in shocked surprise, and say "Did he ACTUALLY just SAY that?" and wonder where he (the character) comes up with these lines -- do they float in on inspiration, or does he stay up at night with a curse diary, jotting down new combinations of four-letter words? I also wonder how close this is to an ACTUAL drill sargeant -- did Kubrick find an actual SGT, and cut him loose on the soldiers, or did he write out every cuss?

It's pretty common for people to laugh when we don't know what else to do about our feeling of shock -- take, for example, the entire movie Fargo, so while I'm not sure if the drill sargeant is a caricature, I DO think that we can be allowed to laugh at him (and may even be meant to laugh at him), even as we say "holy cow! he's tearing these poor boys apart!"

Anonymous said...

I like to swear without actually using swear words. It requires creativity and really shocks people. Most swearing nowadays has lost its shock value.

Anonymous said...

The actor in "Full Metal Jacket," R. Lee Ermey, was (and is) the real deal. Accroding to the film's lore, he was hired as a technical advisor for the actor who was to play the drill sergeant, but he did such a good job at it that he was hired for the part.

John from Daejeon

Roboseyo said...

Thanks, for the film-lore, John. I knew somebody'd know the real deal, but I was too lazy to look it up myself, while blogging between classes this morning.

I'm still intrigued to know how much of it was scripted, and how much of it was stuff that Mr. Ermey actually used in on his conscripts.

For more "Full Metal Jacket" lore, check out this, the infamous
Stanley Kubrick audition, and the same actor, years later, in response to his original audition video going viral,
trying out for Sgt. Hartman.

Dad said...

Hmm, I wonder, since Korean swearing involves putting a person down, would your practise of refering to your friend as Girlfriendoseyo, instead of by her real name, actually be belittling her or cursing her?

Roboseyo said...

That would depend, Dad, on whether it's being done in order to deride and belittle her, or in order to maintain her privacy, by avoiding giving away hints about her name, specifics about her private life, profession, and place of work, or posting clear pictures of her entire face for the random strangers who visit my site along with those who know me.

In such a case, a nickname like Girlfriendoseyo, rather than using her real name, ******, could even be taken as a token of respect! (It's not like I call her that when we're together, except maybe rarely, for a laugh)

(and it has the added bonus of helping to give the blog the somewhat light, goofy tone I'm aiming for. -- which is also the reason sometimes I refer to you as "Poposeyo" instead of Dad, or "Firstname")

Now, if my nickname for her were "Bigface," "Thunderbutt," or "The, vapid one," then you'd be onto something. (though I'd never use THOSE nicknames, because they are both patently untrue.)

Roboseyo said...

oops. All three are patently untrue.

(also: keeping most of her private information off my page gives me the freedom to tell more stories, because I don't feel the need to run everything by her before posting, for the sake of carefully managing her online reputation.)

gordsellar said...

It's possible to do horrifying and disturbingly funny at the same time. That was how I read the scene: It's hard not to laugh at certain parts, but at the same time, you're thinking, "I could never deal with that kind of crap."

gordsellar said...

Whilst commenting on the most recent post at The Grand Narrative, it struck me there was one aspect of cussing you didn't mention that I've found amusing in Korea: that is, how people soften cusses.

You know, like how great aunt whoever used to say, "Sugar!" instead of "Shit!" or "Fiddlesticks!" instead of "Fuck!" I never saw the point, but many older people seemed to have grown up really wanting not to cuss, or something.

(Actually, my father used to say, "For Crying in a Bloody Bucket!" also as a substitute for "fuck!" which works as a substitute if you have a Brit-style accent with silent r-endings, like he did, so it really was "Fuh Cryin'...", hence, "Fuck!" That was his favorite cuss, so much so we had it put on the cake for the, er, family party we gave in his memory when he passed away, but I only realized then, when a Canadian brother-in-law of mine said it, how he was really, sneakily, saying "Fuck!" all those years.)

In Korean, that's common too, right? 아이씨~ leaves off that final syllable that would make it supremely offensive, while "된장!" ("Soybean paste!") is sometimes used in substitute for the already mild "젠장!" ("Damn!") The latter case is one my fiancee uses with as much great aunt whoever zeal, but at a much more tender age. Odd...

gordsellar said...

Opps, the Grand Narrative post mentioned is here, but my comment there is still in moderation. :)

Rebecca said...

I agree with Brad, interesting post. On the school bus, I found that turning the "shock" value of swearing into humour stole all the hurtfulness out of it -- when I laughed at the cursing, as if it was imaginative poetry (which it was, in a sense), I was suddenly part of the joke instead of the butt of it. But I avoid movies with much swearing, and also those toned-down words, because swearing is a habit which can easily enter your vocabulary, and I don't want it to because of the circles I move in (it's not cool!). I teach the kids not to rhyme "duck" starting with "f", because it makes some grown-ups turn red in the face -- but not me. Words only have as much power as you give them. Debbie, my baby "swears" at me sometimes in unintelligible syllables--but I know exactly what she means!

The Korean said...

Speaking of cannibalism, a personal favorite -- in certain parts of Polynesia, the worst insult is: "I am still picking out your mother's flesh from my teeth."

Otto, Jokka actually means "go peel a dick", i.e. go fuck yourself.

Rebecca said...

I think there is a taboo in our culture (though I'm no expert on swearing). Violence toward children -- try substituting "baby" for "mother" in a few common phrases, and see if it provokes the "Whoa, don't go there" response in your gut. Sex and crimes toward children are the top two in our value system -- the one is the primary base for swearing, and the other is taboo.

bradj said...

I guess you have a point (rob & gordsellar) -- it can be both. And after I commented, I began to wonder if it isn't more human to laugh than not to. Can't tell. Don't know. But while not using the same vocabulary, the intent was very present in my high school experience (dehumanising conformity). So maybe that explains why this is so close to home for me. You can quote me on this: War is high school on steroids.

While we're on this subject, I got a kick out of this.