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…?