Cross-cultural communication can sometimes feel like a minefield. From English speakers muddling the tu/vous distinction to a cheery thumbs-up transforming into an ‘up yours!’ depending on which country you’re in, there are so many ways to get it wrong. By contrast, purposely setting out to offend people with a torrent of expletives should be pretty simple… right?
Cancerous chalices and other cultural differences
Not so fast! Swearing actually shows surprising variation around the world. While religious exclamations such as calice (‘chalice’, the object used in communion) and perkele (‘devil’) play a major role in Québécois French and Finnish respectively, Germans and Brits are more likely to reach for Scheiße or similar when they’re angry. Insults relating to sex work are common across many cultures, but Poland goes one better by making kurwa (‘whore’) an all-purpose expletive that can serve as everything from exclamation to adjective. Meanwhile, the Dutch take a completely different approach with a whole range of disease-related insults that include kanker (‘cancer sufferer’) as a strong expletive or profane intensifier.
You can’t rely on your knowledge of one language to tell you how strong an insult is in another, either: the c-word may be the ultimate taboo in English, but the French equivalent, con, is no more offensive than ‘idiot’. You wouldn’t say ‘shit’ in front of your grandmother, but if you’re Swedish, skit is apparently fine.
In fact, it seems like there’s only one sure-fire way to offend people all around the world: insult their mothers (or their ancestors to the eighteenth generation, if you’re feeling particularly emphatic).
Parental advisory: explicit linguistics
So what’s going on here? Is there any actual logic to the ways people swear? Yes, actually: researchers can divide swear words into four or five broad categories, with the most common ones being sexual, scatological, religious and familial (‘your mum!’).
Cultures tend to differ in which category of swear words they use the most, often for historical reasons. The power of the Catholic church in Quebec explains the region’s fondness for religious insults, while the names of ‘heathen’ gods were transformed into taboo terms for devils when Finland was Christianised in the 11th century. It’s also been suggested that mother insults carry greater weight in Catholic areas because of the implicit association with the Virgin Mary.
An explosion of expletives isn’t unique to spoken language, either – sign language users can be just as profane. The devil (or the perkele) may be in the details, but at least the urge to yell something obscene when we stub our toe is universal.