Flat White

The joy of swearing

4 April 2017

8:50 AM

4 April 2017

8:50 AM

Proficiency in another language is always helpful, particularly when a discrete profanity is required.

In a life not always well spent mixing with soldiers of multiple nationalities in exotic locations, discovering new swear words has proved a valuable education.

What passes as unacceptably profane in one language may be acceptable in another particularly when the words are unfamiliar to the listener.

It’s also handy to have tucked away some alternatives when you need to vent and your surrounding audience may find such language offensive.

English words which were once considered to be no longer in polite usage may have gained some currency in an Australian setting, but that doesn’t mean they still can’t offend.

I recall as a teenager studying German when one of the engineers at the Queensland sugar mill where I grew up was a native speaker.

Twice a week I would take my German homework to my engineer dad’s office and Gunter and I would practice my pronunciation while he explained the complexities of that language.

Gender specific der, die das, capped nouns and ß, the long sibilant which was essential to understanding German dictionaries, as in Eßen, groß und Düßeldorf.

Despite my urgings, he would not teach me German swear words because he learned his English in that tough mill environment, creating considerable personal embarrassment.

He was unable to differentiate the universal adjective which apparently applied to tools did not then apply to such social conventions as a drink, particularly in mixed company.

While a ‘phucquing schpanner bitte’ was acceptable in the work place with the normal German courtesy applied, a ‘phucquing beer bitte’ was not. Danke.

Not to put too phine a point on it, he felt he was a phucquing social disaster and left soon after to return to Germany, a loss of professional if not linguistic talent my dad felt keenly.

My great-uncle Joe who had fought the Kaiser in World War I had no such inhibitions, teaching me a German poem he had learned in Belgium.

When I recited it to my German class in Year 9 it earned me a stern discussion with the headmaster.


Years later when I was posted to PNG with the army, I was required to become fluent in Melanesian Pidgin, a delightfully robust but complex lingua franca mostly derived from foreign influences

Take the English word buggered, in the familiar colloquial Australian sense, particularly as used by soldiers.

Not in the recreational sense as applied in David Morrison’s contemporary army but from World War II vintage when soldiers would describe their physical condition as buggered, which could range in degrees from mild exhaustion to a mortal wound.

That word then morphed into its Pidgin interpretation.

In Pidgin something which is broken is bagarap. Say it out loud.

Degrees of unserviceability are bagarap tasol (broken but repairable), bagarap bikpela (a challenge), or bagarap pinis (unrepairable).

People as well as things may bagarap.

Tuck that one away for future usage.

Then there are proper foreign vulgarities.

Like the one learned from the young Dutch migrant who joined us in primary school who at our urging confessed the worst Dutch swearword was ‘godverdomme’.

When expressed with the full glottal explosion of the first consonant, it was a word we infants tucked away for future usage.

In American patois it is the less offensive ‘goddamn’, although that nation manages to suffix even more offensive words and phrases.

In Dutch it is unforgivably offensive.

Imagine pre-dawn in Jerusalem, you have arrived to collect a Dutch Marine colleague to convey him to the Sinai for a week’s duty as a UN observer.

His alarm has not gone off so when you and your Dutch companion arrive to collect him, knock on the door and enquire to his readiness, his response is to shout at the top his parade ground voice, “Ggggerrrodverrdomme!”

Since this wakes both his wife and children, even when you are the only one who speaks no Dutch, his wife’s reaction inside the flat is quite clear.

Having tucked this away, there are times when good Anglo-Saxon profanities are not appropriate in mixed or polite company, like when you drop and break an expensive purchase in an Australian shopping mall.

Using this convenient Dutch expression makes you immediately feel better though you run the risk of being bashed about the ears with a clog by the only dour, Dutch matriarch who happens to be within earshot.

Finally from the Finns.

They have a wondrously expressive phrase, “saatana perkele vittu!”

Dr Google will give you the full emphasis of its pronunciation.

Roughly but politely translated it means, “Satan, Thor and ladies private parts”.

Late at night in a Swedish army soldiers canteen when the last to leave are you and the native Finnish speakers, a cry of “saatana perkele vittu!” and the sound of a traditional Finnish lapinleuku hunting knife being driven into a table top sends a clear signal and requires swift decision, if not expression.

“Godverdomme! Is that the time?

“We’d better leave right now or we’ll all be bagarap pinis!”

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