7 Days of Positive – Day 148: Oh sugar

One of the things which made me fall in love with my husband (not pictured above) is his swearing. In Serbian.

This is why the first words I learned in his language were ‘sexual intercourse with your mother…’ , although the exact translation would lean more towards the Anglo Saxon term for such congress.

We were up in Byron having our first weekend away together and when I thrashed him at pinball for about the tenth time he came out with a phrase which had over the short time we’d known each other, separated out from a torrent of gobbledegook into a series of words.

‘What does mamu tia yeben ya mean?’ I asked him.

His laughter must have been audible in Belgrade. It means what I said at the top there.

Now, I know that’s not a very nice thing to say, but once you start to analyse it, no swearing is ‘nice’. Using female genitalia as the very worst possible insult in the English language is a deeply offensive, so let’s just accept that – swearing is meant to be nasty.

Which is why saying ‘oh sugar’ when you really want to say ‘oh shit’ really doesn’t give you the required sense of release.

Once I’d grasped this basic Serbian swearing phrase, my ear started to tune into the variations of it. As situations got more tense I noticed he used the same outline, but with different words added in, such as tetku, pitchku and dupay (all spelling is phonetic).

Over time I established that the sexual congress with family members of the person you were insulting – or sometimes just the situation you were railing against, such as a traffic jam, a bar where it’s hard to get served, or a girlfriend who is unnaturally good at pinball – moved on in obscurity of relationship and anatomic area involved.

Until I understood that in moments of extreme frustration he would say: ‘Have sexual intercourse with your uncle via his back passage.’

Or to put it another way, fuck your uncle up the arse.

I find this hilarious. It’s so alien to swearing in English, where the family is never invoked, which is possibly a rather telling statement of the importance of family connections in different cultures.

I first came across this notion as a teenager when I read Ernest Hemingway’s novel For Whom the Bell Tolls, set during the Spanish civil war, in a cheap 1960s paperback edition I’d found lying around the house.

I was very impressed with his spare writing style, thrillingly different from anything I’d read up until then, but I was bewildered by the repeated use of the phrase ‘I obscenity in the milk of your mother…’.

It took me a while to understand that he was translating colloquial Spanish insults and I needed to replace ‘obscenity’ with a very bad swear word. I still wonder whether it should be shit or fuck and think I should read a more up to date edition of the novel to find out.

That irritating bit of censorship really slowed up my read and even once I’d worked it out, it seemed like a pretty convoluted way to tell someone to sod off.

If I’d been Mr Hemingway’s editor I would have advised him to translate it to an insult form more familiar to the English-speaking reader, to increase the impact and keep things moving, but I suppose he was trying to be authentic – and possibly showing off a bit about how personally involved he was in that conflict. (That would have been a fun conversation, wouldn’t it?)

Whatever the great writer’s thinking, I still reckon that unless you’re a Roman Catholic Spaniard, defiling the sanctity of your mother’s breast milk doesn’t have much impact.

In English swearing we just attack the person, so Hemingway-censored versions would be something like this:

Have rough sexual intercourse with you.
You are an unintelligent rough sexual intercourse haver.
Leave this place in the manner of sexual intercourse you unattractive women’s genital.
Leave this place in the manner of sexual intercourse and have sexual intercourse with yourself while you are doing it, you unintelligent and unattractive women’s genital.

Or in the case of one of my father’s favourite outbursts: intercourse via the back passage.

My love of swearing probably stems from my late dad. There was something so funny about the way he said bad things.

He never used the f word, it was old school terms such as bugger and bloody, combined with various blasphemous invocations of the Holy Redeemer, but his delivery and timing that used to make me hysterical.

He was such a mid-twentieth century gentleman in his dress, manners, education, speaking voice and interests (sailing, rugby, golf, cars, the Times crossword, boxing, wine, rose growing…) it was thrilling when he’d come out with a loud OH BUGGER IT, or MOVE YOUR BLOODY HEAD YOU IDIOT CHILD in a heated moment.

It was an earlier version of the kind of English middle-class swearing portrayed so well in Working Title films, of which Hugh Grant is the supreme master – one of the many reasons why I will always be so utterly in love with him.

In an interview I read with Richard Curtis, he said it was Mr Grant’s peerless rendition of the tricky opening lines of the film which won him the part, after they’d auditioned seventy other actors and found them unable to pull it off.

Hugh nailed it from the first attempt.

Shall we remind ourselves…?

  • lara
    June 3, 2015

    I LOVE that movie and had forgotten that hilarious scene. I had also forgotten how floppy his fringe was ha ha.

    I always knew when my late grandmother was swearing as she would mumble in her native Russian. As she was a mild tempered person and always incredibly kind and loving, I never thought to interrupt or ask for translation, merely allowing her to get it out of her system. A few seconds later it would be over and life would continue 🙂

    • maggie2015
      June 4, 2015

      ha – it was probably similar stuff involving the rels!

  • Deb
    June 4, 2015

    Love. My most favourite film.xxx

  • Anne At Home
    June 4, 2015

    F*ck, F*ck, F*ckity f*ck. It was love at first sight for me too. (He had me at the first “F*ck”) x

    • maggie2015
      June 4, 2015

      Same… although had already fallen in love with him after seeing him in Impromptu, playing my favourite composer Chopin…

  • Justine
    June 4, 2015

    I find myself saying to myself as a description of random persons who I’ve found quite annoying, “fuck stick”. It has made me feel a lot better about things, right away. I used that descriptor in a comment about a passer by whilst having coffee with my friend yesterday, and she said she liked that description quite a lot. I think it’s really funny!
    Ps Maggie I haven’t been able to read your comment to my “horrendous” spare room/excess Swedish Hasbeens situation reply, as it is positioned too far to the right on the webpage. I’m dying to know what you wrote. Pps have you bought a pair yet? The braided sky high, and the super high peep toes are the go. I checked for you.

    • maggie2015
      June 4, 2015

      Hi Justine – I’m bewildered by your problem reading my comment… what platform are you viewing on? I can see comments clearly on my computer and my iPad, and I’m really concerned you can’t. I haven’t bought them yet but I’m pretty decided on the second level heel, natural, but I need to try them on. Haven’t had a chance yet. Will report back. Please let me know about the comments thing.

      • Justine
        June 4, 2015

        Hi Maggie, I can’t see the comments on my iPad mini or by iPhone 5s, or, until just now, my desk top at work. I’m at work now and have managed to see them just now as, though I thought I’d tried everything, I maximised the page and, taa daa!, now can see your comments. I’ve got 2 screens and lots of programs open. Usually every program is not fully open on the screen. Unless I maximise the page, I can’t see all the replies/comments. Will send you a pic of my leaning tower of Swedish Hasbeens over weekend. We have a long weekend coming up, for the Queen’s birthday!

        • maggie2015
          June 5, 2015

          I don’t understand this. I’ve just checked on my regular iPad and my iPhone 5 and I can see comments on both. You just need to keep scrolling down and down underneath the post, underneath share this and ‘related’ posts. Could that be the problem (she asks hopefully, but possibly irritatingly…)

  • Jennifer
    June 4, 2015

    Magpie, my husbands favourite it fuck knuckle…it just cracks me up

  • Jennifer
    June 4, 2015

    Should have been maggie, fuck knuckle ipad

  • Janine
    June 4, 2015

    Amazing Maggie- reading this in Ronda, Spain, where “For Whom the Bell Tolls” was set! What a weird coincidence.

    • maggie2015
      June 5, 2015

      oooh! don’t cast aspersions on anyone’s breast milk!!!

  • bonniecat
    June 4, 2015

    Bet you’ve never heard “Gawd, strike me bloody racehorses!” as an(Aussie)expression of total surprise. One of my Dad’s favourites ( along with lots of bloodys & barstards!)

    • maggie2015
      June 5, 2015

      That’;s classic. You’ve reminded me, my dad was very impressed with Aussie swearing and general argot which he read about in Clive James’ column in the Observer. ‘I’ve got a throat as dry as a dead dingo’s donger after three days in the desert’ was a favourite he used to come out with.

  • Zayin
    June 5, 2015

    Interesting as hell! I’m currently irritated by the ubiquity of “nasty” words to the point where they have become commonplace. I blame globalisation, rap music and Americans. “Bitch” is a synonym for female. Many women refer to their friends as ‘my bitches’. Your best friend is your “main bitch”.

    Using swear words for swearing purposes actually feels quite respectable now! I want to heartily embrace colourful language for its intended purpose, not pepper my vocabulary with empty trash talk. The more creative the better. I may start invoking breast milk, raw-foodists and vegans in my curses, give it a modern twist, inspired by Hemmingway.

    • maggie2015
      June 5, 2015

      I obscenity in your low fat soya yogurt. I obscenity in your raw food salad and sugar laden juice fast. I obscenity in your neurotic medically baseless phantom gluten allergy.

      • Lili
        June 9, 2015

        Brilliant and so apt!

        Your father sounds a bit like my grandfather who was known to exclaim “G. D. it (insert name of person who frustrated him)!” I still love it this to this day and am dismayed by many people’s seeming inability to utter anything without cursing nowadays.

  • Bernadette
    June 9, 2015

    “Fuck a doodle do”… My fave from Four Weddings and a Funeral (from Hugh Grant in response to Andi McD’s vows while marrying the Scot). B

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