The Surprising Vulgar Expressions Used On Every Continent
One man's 'your mom' barb is another man's blasphemy. Here's a look at how obscenity varies from culture to culture — and how it stays the same.
You can’t talk about language without talking about the very pedestrian (and very impolite) ways in which it’s used.
It is my educated estimation that vulgarity is older than cave art, and even if obscenity standards change over time, the essential function of off-limits vocabulary has always been the same. Psychologist and linguist Steven Pinker has said that humans swear in five basic ways: Descriptively — when a curse word takes the place of a noun, verb or adjective. Idiomatically — when a curse word is part of a cultural expression. Abusively — when you hurl an expletive at someone. Emphatically — when we use bad language to underscore a point. Cathartically — when you stub your toe or get a parking ticket.
There’s a science to this. Swearing has been found to increase our pain tolerance, and our brain actually doesn’t register curse words the same way it registers "polite" words. Most language is stored in the Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas of the brain, but swear words are stored in the limbic system — also known as the "lizard brain" area that contains all our knee-jerk emotions and reactions. No wonder they’re so essential. They’re our only means of accurately expressing our buried caveman rage.
Of course, in order to function as "swear words," they have to be relegated to the "taboo," which means there are always cultural factors at play. But that doesn’t mean the cultural factors that originally spawned a term necessarily have anything to do with its current status as an emotional signifier.
In Swearing: A Cross-Cultural Linguistic Study, Magnus Ljung explains that the perceived strength of a taboo often changes over time, and that the offensiveness of an obscene word doesn’t actually depend on its taboo-ness. What’s more, obscene words can’t be replaced with literal synonyms and still retain the same impact or meaning. That’s because swearing communicates attitude moreso than it communicates semantics.
Additionally, you don’t always need "swear words" to fulfill the functions mentioned above. Bikol, a language of the Philippines, has a special set of "anger vocabulary," or words you use to refer to the same thing when you’re angry. Speakers of Luganda can hurl insults at each other by changing the noun class prefix of a word (essentially, changing a word meant for people to a word meant for inanimate objects). One of the worst insults in Japanese simply involves using an alternative form of "you."
Without further ado, here’s a brief tour of the world’s various and vulgar continents. Rule of thumb: genitalia-related words are pretty much universal in their status as the "bad words" of choice.
As of November 2017, the Canadian Broadcasting Standards Council ruled that the "f-word is now part of the common French spoken language." That means you can go to Canada and see French-language broadcasts where fucks fly freely. However, the word is still banned from English-language broadcasts.
In Puerto Rico, cursing is a privilege that you earn with age. One native said, "Us kids weren’t allowed to curse out of respect. The elderly cursed like sailors in comparison with adults. It was like an art form for my grandmother."
In Jamaican Patois, referring to the cloths used to clean one’s backside is considered especially coarse.
Here in the United States, the FCC sets the terms for how dirty our broadcasts can get, but the rules are often different for late-night programs, which suggests our cultural norms are more about protecting children than they are about shielding adults from offensive content. However, the Parents Television Council, a censorship advocacy group founded by a Catholic activist, found that profanity on primetime TV increased by 69 percent between 2005 and 2010. That’s a big change, and that’s also a real percentage, not a joke.
In either case, Americans certainly give a whole lot of fucks. One software developer came up with the "FBomb Map," which shows where in the world people are tweeting F-bombs in real time. Needless to say, the United States is by far the biggest hotbed of activity, but that could be attributed to the fact that other countries have other preferred curse words (and perhaps better things to do than hang out on Twitter all day).
At least one person who has lived in Argentina attested to the commonplace status of cussing on Reddit: "Old women, teachers, it didn’t matter. It was just another word to them." The notion that Americans censor words on TV and radio seems strange over there.
The Spanish language is peppered with colorful and delightful obscenities, and the same word can often have different cultural meanings depending on where you are in Latin America.
For example, "pichar" means "to ignore" or "to forget" in Puerto Rico and "to pay for something/someone" in Mexico. But in Colombia, it means "to fuck."
In Argentina and Colombia, "concha" has a much more anatomical meaning than it does in other Spanish-speaking countries, where it simply means "shell."
Meanwhile in Brazil, the wrong body language can get you into trouble. What we consider the "OK" symbol in America is actually one of the rudest gestures in Brazil. It’s equivalent to our middle finger, but maybe worse. Similarly, a fist slapped on top of one’s other hand once or twice means "screw you," and is often considered rude if used in any context other than when you’re among friends.
One American currently residing in Ghana says that cursing is much less common there, but when it does happen, calling someone wicked or foolish is much more offensive than saying "shit."
In Luganda, a Ugandan language, words for genitalia are considered very off-limits, because they’re used by prostitutes.
Obscenity laws tend to be strict in Africa, and in some conservative circles, modern music and homosexuality are often looped into the fray (and actively persecuted).
Back to Bikol for a moment, because this is one language where "your mom" insults don’t do as much damage as they would in, say, Arabic. "Buray ni nanya" (mother’s vagina) is thrown around fairly lightly in the Philippines.
If you really want to drive it home to someone in Mandarin, you could curse their ancestors to the 18th generation. These types of insults are more commonplace in societies that favor big, extended families (versus nuclear families). The same goes in Turkey.
In Japan, where societal pressures to succeed are strong, calling someone an idiot is considered fairly offensive. Obscenity laws in Japan are not as strong as they are in, say, Pakistan, but that didn’t keep one Tokyo artist from being charged with obscenity for her "vaginal" art.
Indonesia has been stepping up its internet censorship efforts lately, threatening to block apps like WhatsApp.
In Singapore, political dissidence can count as obscene. In 2015, a teenager posted a video criticizing Lee Kuan Yew, the founding father of modern Singapore, and was convicted on charges of obscenity.
Over in France, lobbing F-bombs is rapidly becoming the vulgarity of choice. French people are peppering their speech with the F-word as much as English-speakers do, and it appears uncensored in English-language TV shows and newspaper headlines in France. There’s even a TV show called What The Fuck France!. This can be partly attributed to the fact that English movies that are subtitled in French often lend a softer translation, so perhaps the French don’t find it as offensive. But French people are generally lax toward obscenity, so there’s also that.
The story in Denmark is similar, according to a Danish Reddit user. There isn’t very much cursing in Denmark, but neither is there very much ado over it either.
In Slavic countries, the word for "whore" is prominent, but that’s a trait shared by Poland, Spain, Italy and France.
Meanwhile, in Finland, "your mom" insults don’t necessarily register as much as terms for female genitalia (or the devil). One would suppose those two things are separate, but perhaps it depends on who you ask.
In Germany, attitudes toward sex and nudity are pretty relaxed, so sexual curse words don’t get used as much over there. This has the interesting effect of making these words even more cringe-worthy, however. You’re way more likely to hear casual poop slang like "Kacke!" and "Scheiße," which are considered as harmless as "darn it," according to one of Babbel’s resident German experts.
If it tells you anything, there’s a blog entry titled "Welcome to Australian English, where swearing isn’t swearing." The author points out that if swearing is defined as "offensive language," then calling someone an idiot is technically more offensive than saying "fuck" or "shit" in Australia. Additionally, it’s possible that Australians are not an angry bunch compared to the rest of the world, so "bad words" are frequently used descriptively (instead of abusively).
With all of that said, police recently began enforcing an old law that prohibits public swearing, issuing spot fines for "offensive language."
This is the same country that recently ruled that the F-word is now part of everyday vernacular in a court of law, so there’s also that.
Other things that just don’t have the same shock value in Australia: the "C-word." If you want to tell someone to get lost, you can tell them to "bugger off" or "get stuffed."
You didn’t think you were going to get through this article without getting a run-down of mostly weather and science-related vocab words from Antarctica, did you?
It’s cold and isolated down in Antarctica — the perfect climate for lexical creativity.
Predictably, a lot of the slang you’ll pick up in this southernmost destination involves basic survival terms like "toasty" (the mental fog you get from dark, cold and altitude), and "ice husband/wife," or the person who’s keeping you warm for the season.
Some of the more spicy terms include words like "fingy" (short for "fucking new guy") and "turdsicle" (use your imagination).