Friday, May 25, 2012

Bilingual Cursing

As every kid, old and young, knows, cursing is fun.  It is emotionally satisfying both to express your feelings and grab the attention of the people around you.  The guilty pleasure of a shocked, unhappy face of an adult is the whipped cream to the already good feeling of emotional release. 
A good curse has three elements: content, sound, and context.  The content generally refers to sexual anatomy or God.  Sound is no less important.  Hard, accented sounds are the most effective, such as  sh, k, or an  accented u.  Finally, the cultural context is important. Cursing has to shock.  The F-word in English has become a banal modifier in many sub-cultures of the United States.  George Carlin’s brilliant comment about being able to say on television that your pricked your finge, but not the opposite is a classic demonstration of that.  On the subject of context, Umberto Eco of the Name of the Rose fame wrote a wonderful discussion of the art of translating a truly shocking curse in the various languages from the mild equivalent of God Damn in some cultures to explicit descriptions of sexual activity in other languages.  So, a good curse must have some meaning , sound forceful, and break rules of etiquette.
An interesting phenomenon is when curses are transplanted without translation into other languages.  Although the sound and maybe the context remains the same, the meaning is somewhat lost.  For example, in the Eretz Nehederet TV show, an Israeli satire program, in a series of skits on the Iranian nuclear treat, the scientists keeping on saying “pak it”, a clear reference to the English f-word.  However, the use of the word leads to laughter, not shock.  Israelis use a Russian curse K binimat to mean to go to hell.  The actual Russian is considered extremely crude, suggesting that a person return to his/her mother, physically.  My personal favorite of a bilingual and effective curse is my mother’s shit alors, which we both use on the tennis court after blowing an approach shot or overhead slam.  The French term merde alors neither sounds violent enough (d as compared to the t in shit) nor is understood by most people since French is not that much of an international language any more. The added alors raises a somewhat overused term to another level.  Best of all, we express our deep annoyance at blowing an easy shot and get the other players to look at us.  What can be better than that?

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