Four Hilarious Differences in Swearing Around the World
It’s a universal constant: No matter who you are or where you come from, when you get bonked on the shin, it’s cursin’ time. In fact, swearing across all cultures tends to have a lot of linguistic similarities because, on a human gut level, certain sounds just feel more profane. What’s more interesting, though, are the ways in which the way we swear is different. Some cultures have hilariously specific means of insulting and outbursting.
Dutch Swearing Is Weirdly Disease-Based
“Get cancer” is honestly a pretty good insult, and you’ll probably hear it as a tourist doing touristy things in the Netherlands. You might also be called a “cancer sufferer” or “cancer whore,” which are both more confusing and downright upsetting for entirely different reasons, or hear someone yell at their outdated cancer phone or tell you to quit your cancering about tulip prices. It’s not just cancer — you might also be told to “get cholera” or “typhoid off” — but man, those people really hate cancer.
And it’s not all that clear why. Of course, there’s plenty of cancer in the Netherlands, but no more than many other European countries. Sure, they suffered the Plague along with everyone else, but not uniquely so. Dutch linguist Dick Smakman (the origins of whose interest in why things are called what they are can only be guessed at) chalks it up to a fairly inexplicable national obsession with cleanliness and fear of germs, which notably don’t cause cancer. We’d try to explain that to some Dutchmen, but they’d probably just tell us to get whooping cough.
Quebec Is All About the Catholic Church
English speakers enjoy a good “goddamn,” but French Canada has turned it into an art. In fact, an entire category of profanity common in Quebec would skate on by every censor outside the province. For instance, tabarnak is equivalent to the fuck-word, and you got to hand it to them on that one because “tabernacle” would be really fun to scream when you stub your toe. Other sacres, as the obscenities related to the Catholic Church are called, include câlisse (chalice), osti (host, or communion wafer) and ciboire (the container that holds the host). They can even be modifiers; for example, calling a guy a jagoff is one thing, but calling him a jagoff of the host means he’s a serious jagoff.
So what does Quebec have against the Church, aside from the obvious stuff? It actually has more to do with their affinity for the Pope than animosity, at least in the past. The province used to be one of the most Catholic places in the world, with more than 90 percent of the population regularly attending Catholic services, in large part because the Church was there for them when they couldn’t stop rebelling against the government in the 1800s. That doesn’t do a lot to explain why Catholic terminology would be considered bad, but hey, everyone loves genitals, and those are considered indecent, too. It all changed in 1960, when a competent government was finally installed, so many young Quebecers today don’t even know what a tabernacle is, much less why your mother is one.
The Japanese Swear With Pronouns
Japanese is unique among world languages in that it doesn’t contain a lot of profanity. Fortunately, that’s because it doesn’t need to. Japanese culture places such a heavy emphasis on politeness and respect that there are all sorts of ways to be passive-aggressive that wouldn’t even register to a foreigner. Hell, bowing too reverently or not reverently enough could earn you a lifelong grudge.
One of those ways is with the second-person pronoun, i.e. “you.” It’s customary in Japanese not to use it all and instead call someone by their own name like they’re not even in the room, which sounds weird to us but is vastly preferred over navigating the minefield that is all the different ways to say “you” in Japanese. They all imply some specific degree of familiarity and relative placement on the social ladder, so if you goof up (or you’re trying to send a message), you might call your waiter “your royal highness” or the president “bro.” In either case, you’re making enemies.
Mandarin Curses Your Ancestors and… Turtle Eggs
We like to think we’ve perfected the “yo mama” joke (see above), but nobody does it like the Mandarin Chinese. They won’t just curse your mother, they’ll curse your father, your little brother, your second uncle, your grandmother-from-mother-side and so many more that you’ll start to wonder if they have your family tree copied onto the palm of their hand. It’s because of the Chinese reverence for one’s ancestors, leading one of the most popular insults to translate literally as “Fuck your ancestors to the 18th generation.” Eighteen! They’re coming for your peasant patriarch, plowing the medieval fields. That guy never hurt anyone.
A less comprehensible trend involves eggs — someone might be a “bad egg,” a “dumb egg,” a “poor egg,” etc. It might come from the term wángbādàn, which basically means “son of a bitch” but is also a pun about turtle eggs. Since turtle heads and thus turtles as a whole are euphemisms for penises in Mandarin, that’s an insulting double whammy. Give it a try sometime. Nobody will know what you mean by “penis egg bitch mom,” but it will confuse them long enough to let you get away.