Profanity Superpower

The United States is not only an economic and military superpower, but also a superpower of profanity. That’s right, a profanity superpower, by which I mean American English swear words have spread to all corners of the world via our movies, music, and television, and have been adopted by many other languages. Take the Germans, who have a good base of swear vocabulary, yet you’ll often hear young Germans using English vulgarities. In pop culture, be it gangsta rapper B-Tight bellowing out the lyric “Halt die Fresse du Bitch” (“Shut your mouth you bitch!” though, honestly I think “pie-hole” would also be an apt translation of Fresse) or hearing something like “alles ist abgefuckt” (“it’s all fucked[-up]”), German has adopted these terms quite readily. The Russians, whom I will discuss on their own in a moment, have also embraced English curse words, especially “fuck.” Whether it is advertising an umbrella by the phrase “Фак дождю” (fak dozhdyu; “fuck the rain”) or making a statement like “На работе случился большой факап” (Na rabotye sluchilsya bol’shoi fakap; “At work a big fuck-up occurred”), the Russians have expressed an affinity for English profanity.

However, despite impressive American achievements in the field of profanity, Russia may just be the all-time achiever. There is an entire dialect of Russian called мат (mat), which has a vocabulary that is comprised almost entirely of vulgar words and their derivatives. The four primary words of mat: хуй (khui), пизда (pizda), ебать (yebat’), блядь (blyad’) mean “penis,” “cunt,” “to fuck,” and “whore” respectively. From this basis, entirely profane conversations can be spun. However, be cafeful with whom you use it—it can have dangerous consequences. One night in 2008 in Riga I was out drinking with friends when it began to rain heavily. We decided to take a cab, so we walked over to the entrance of the Reval Hotel Latvija, where several taxi-drivers were having a smoke while being accosted by a homeless guy. The hobo, scruffy and middle-aged, was insulting them all with an intense string of mat—I recall a fragment that went, “ёб твою мать…иди на хуй… хуёк!” (yob tvoyu mat’…idi na khui…khuyok!; “fuck your mother…go fuck yourself…little prick!”). After a pause in his rant I asked one of the cabbies for a ride (in Russian); in response, the cabbie nods and without saying a word starts walking with us to his taxi, but not before putting out his cigarette on the hobo’s neck[!!!!]. Needless to say, that taxi ride was spent in uncomfortable silence…

For some small peoples with more limited vocabularies, the import of foreign profanity is critical. The Latvian language has very few vulgar words and phrases that are native (“In Latvian, it's effectively abusive to tell someone to go take a crap” –Language Most Foul, p. 171) . Those words with Baltic roots are not particularly numerous: mauka (“whore”), pimpis (“penis,” though personally I enjoy how it resembles the word “pimp”), kuce (“bitch”), sūds (“shit”). Latvian profane phrases are not that impressive either: “Ej dirst!” (literally, “Go [and] shit”), “Velns un elle!” (“Devil and Hell!”), “Suņa bērns!” (literally, “Son of a dog!”), and “Nolādēts!” (“Damn it!”). The bulk of Latvian profanity—and certainly the most offensive thereof—is borrowed from outside sources, primarily German and Russian. Along with mauka and kuce, scanning the subtitles while watching trashy American shows (such as “Laguna Beach”) on MTV Latvija revealed slampa as another frequently used insult, which means “bitch” or “slut” (e.g. “She is such a stupid slut!”→“Viņa ir muļķīga slampa!”); slampa originates either from German (Schlampe) or Swedish (slampa). “Piss taisni” (“Piss off”) seems almost certainly to have been borrowed from the German verb sich verpissen. Pidars is borrowed from the Russian пидор (pidor) which in turn is a shortened version of the general European term “pederast.” Latvians, who often resort to mat for truly insulting language may become a little too used to it in everyday conversation; however, Latvians who have picked up the coarse Russian habit of ending every statement with “blyad’” (or its Latvian orthographical equivalents bļaģ or bļad) can soften it to bļāviens, which means “a yell” or “a scream.”

Before contemporary mass media allowed for the spread of English language profanity, Russian vulgarities had infiltrated well beyond the Russian frontier. By mid-twentieth century, the word suka had been adopted in Polish (suka), Hungarian (szuka), Kazakh (сука; suka), in addition to Ukrainian, Belarusian, and Yiddish. The word itself is still frequently used by speakers of Azeri, Uzbek, Tajik, Hebrew, as well as probably many others of which I am unaware. I have personally overheard use of this word across the Baltic States and the U.S. East Coast and even in small towns in Baden-Württemberg and the Irish Midlands. Unlike English slang, which relies on the enormous power of the American film and music industries to extend its reach, Russian slang has spread person-to-person, wherever Russians have ended up. The slang need not be profane: one of the most common international adoptions from Russian is “bistro,” derived—as the legend goes—from Russian soldiers in post-Napoleonic France demanding rapid provision of wine or food in street cafes by yelling “быстро!” (bystro!; “quickly!”) at their waiters. But even a number of speculative fiction sources imagine a further future adoption of Russian slang, most famously A Clockwork Orange’s “nadsat” dialect. Thus, though Russia is no longer an economic or military superpower, it may remain a profanity superpower for years to come…

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