Jack the ‘Bedside Manner’ Lass commented on my post about mein Mittelfinger that I am one of the least sweary people she knows. I find this quite amusing as I think I use some colourful language relatively often – and certainly more often than seems to be the norm in the church circles I move in.
I must assure my more refined and gentle readers that I do not go out of my way to swear and try to restrict my swearing vocabulary to the milder words. In the Mittelfinger episode, the swearing Richter scale was hitting a good 9/10 which is why I couldn’t understand why Maggie thought I wasn’t being forceful enough.
Swearing is an interesting subject as the likelihood of offending people is pretty high. And swearing in a foreign language is particularly tricky. Years ago, when I first met the Great Dane, he was helping with the church’s annual summer project for four weeks. (You will remember that the GD speaks near-perfect English – almost like a native.) One week of the four involved running a Kids’ Club. He was telling me all about a group of teenagers he was working with. At the end of their day, they’d had a bit of a discussion about something or other and he told them they’d better f*** off. My eyebrows shot up my forehead and my chin hit the floor.
Me: You said WHAT to them?
GD: I told them to f*** off.
Me: Er – do you know what that means?
GD: Yeah. It means to go away.
Me: Well, yes, in a manner of speaking, it does. Where did you learn it?
GD: From the subtitles on the films we get in Denmark.
I felt obliged to explain the finer points to him. In the circs, he agreed that the church youth club was perhaps not an appropriate venue for using this particular phrase.
Ever since then I’ve wondered if strong language in films is downgraded. As I can’t believe that Danish does not have an equivalent phrase, I imagine the language may be modified to allow the parental guidance ratings to be lower if there is less likelihood of children being corrupted.
There also seems to be an innate understanding of the nuances within swearing. There are phrases which when said amongst friends with a smile and friendly wink might be considered to be a matey bonding sort of statement. When said in different circumstances with different body language the same phrase could be interpreted as hugely offensive.
Some people like to learn a few swear words when the first learn a new language. There is nothing wrong with that in my view – it’s all part of the whole experience. But using them in the right context is a completely different matter and best to be avoided.
I had a French colleague at my last place of work who went to meet her English boyfriend’s parents for the first time. She was chatting happily with his mother when the mother said “Oh, and why didn’t you do that?” Corinne said “Because I couldn’t be arsed”. The mother’s face was a little shocked but she said nothing and Corinne wondered what the matter was. Later, her boyfriend said she should perhaps have said she couldn’t be bothered. It turned out that Corinne thought that the phrase was “I couldn’t be asked”* – and she thought it meant that ‘you shouldn’t bother asking her to do [whatever] because she wasn’t going to comply’. This example is pretty mild (in my view) and it didn’t entirely wreck her relationship with the boyfriend’s mother as she is now the mother-in-law but it goes some way to illustrating the minefield that swearing can be.
Translations of swear words are not always reliable for although they may be accurate on a word-for-word basis, they do not always translate the power or force or offensive nature.
Just yesterday, I was browsing in a bookshop when I came across a dictionary of German slang. I have various books on idioms, phrases, and colloquialisms so I wondered if it would be duplicating books I already possess. I picked it up and looked at it. It was an eye-opener. There before me were words which I would not use in polite society with their translations – and examples of alleged appropriate usage. Gentle reader, I bought it. Purely for research purposes, you understand.
* Southern English accents pronounce “ask” as “arsk”.