If I am REALLY angry, I always curse in Swedish.
Despite having lived and spoken English for over 15 years now (I dream and think in English, apart from when I talk about memories and things that are “stored” in Swedish), I swear in Swedish.
Profanity is experiencing a renaissance right now. A Profanaissance, if you will. There’s more swearing on television than ever before, and even cursing at work is considered acceptable in a lot of places these days (assuming you’re not swearing at someone). Increasingly they’re an integral part of almost everyone’s language.
Part of the reason for the increase in cussing is that psychologists keep finding benefits to swearing. An F-bomb can help you tolerate the pain you feel when you stub your toe. Repeating curse words when you’re performing an athletic feat can make you stronger. People who swear more even seem to lie less. Basically, swearing makes you a powerful human incapable of deception(!). It’s like a superpower!
Though swearing has a number of advantages, for me, doing it in English is disappointingly unsatisfying: since it is not my native tongue, it just doesn’t do the trick. Why? In part, the reason is obvious: if you weren’t taught growing up that a word is bad, then it won’t seem that bad to you. It’s like when a child runs around screaming the F-word because they recently learned it. They won’t realize why their parents are looking on in horror until they’re scolded. It is MUCH easier for me to use REALLY bad language in English than it ever can be using the equivalent in Swedish.
Studying Our Swearing Habits
Expletives seem to hold a very special place in the human mind. In one study, a patient had a severe case of aphasia — brain damage that causes someone to have difficulty with language — but he still had the ability to swear.
Another study looked specifically at swearing in other languages. The researchers had Polish students translate texts that were filled with curse words, both general swear words and ethnic slurs, to see how they would translate them. When they translated from English into their native Polish, they tended to tone down how offensive the words were. When the students translated in the other direction, they scaled their offensiveness up. If this teaches us anything, it’s that it may be ideal to avoid ethnic slurs in a new language (if that wasn’t already obvious).
I have a lust for dessert!
Straight translations can be both entertaining and dangerous… For example, one of the German equivalents of saying “I want to have dessert” would be Ich habe Lust auf Nachtisch, which literally translates back to “I have lust for dessert.” If a German were to say this to you in English, you might be a bit weirded out because “lust” has certain… connotations. Alternatively, the dessert may be of a different kind that you originally had in mind!
I have learnt to be more careful with swearing in other languages. If you’ve only learned a word by reading it, you might think it’s something light-hearted when it’s actually not. The French love to use “fuck” liberally because there’s some emotional distance there, which can cause English-speakers to recoil. I am always VERY entertained by watching the interactions!
Even within a language, there can be differences in swearing culture. The British use “cunt” with wild abandon, whereas in the United States, it is probably the most taboo word. I personally find it VERY offensive.
Swear words are culturally constructed, so to use them well, we need to learn about the culture that uses them.
Or should we just stop swearing in every language to stay safe? But fy fan, how boring would THAT be?!