Tuesday, January 11, 2011

> Language > Place - for Thursday 20th January 2011

I Swear
by Matt Potter

I heard people, when I was living in Germany, swearing in English, when they would never swear auf Deutsch.
I once heard a woman when I was living in Hamburg in 2008, in her 50’s or perhaps early 60’s, say “Shit!” as she jumped on a train. Then listening to her conversation soon after, it became quite clear the few words in English she knew and used were all swear words.
Often the first words we learn in new languages are swear words. Sometimes this is amusing. Sometimes it’s not.
Swearing and cursing (are they the same?) hold different places in different languages. It is definitely worse to swear in German, or rather, in German culture, than it is in English-language cultures, in general.
Certainly it’s worse to swear in Germany than it is in Australia.
I swear quite a lot, at times, and often don’t even know I’m doing it. I would talk with Australian friends in Germany and we would be having a normal conversation, and German friends would look at us askance. The swearing peppering our conversation was just normal for us. Others thought we were angry. Or uncouth. Or maybe both.
In some languages swearing is always used when angry. In Australia, and perhaps in other English language cultures, this is not always the case. It would not be that unusual for me to say to an Australian friend – in Australia or in Germany – Can you pass me that shit, please? Which actually means, Can you pass me that thing?
Hence the askance looks.
I actually love using swear words in their proper context. Shit when you are talking about defecating; cock when you talk about penises; fuck when you talk about sex. (Half the Americans have stopped reading by now.) In these examples, you are actually using these words correctly.
(I once went on radio – admittedly community radio, a gay and lesbian cultural show – when I worked in the HIV / AIDS sector in Australia, and without even realising it, talked about fucking while on air. I used it to mean penetrative anal sex, which is the term used in the sector, in brochures, in leaflets, in campaign materials, in advertising, in fact, whenever HIV / AIDS prevention is mentioned. The presenter went white and off-air seconds later, told me I had said fucking on-air. My first thought was “And? …” … and then I realised. And then I thought, well, too fucking bad, if you want to get all prissy about it, good luck to you! No one complained about it later. And the world kept turning.)
And bilingual Germans will quickly tell you that yes, it is worse to swear in German than in English. Saying Scheißekopf is worse than saying Shithead. Formal politeness is revered in Germany. This stiffness often gets me down. It means nothing – or little – and seems to be just another shield for Germans to hide behind. It’s not really about how others regard you, but instead about not allowing them to get to know you.
What I would really love to do is to take a poll in Germany. Which is worse: Du bist eine alte Fotze? Or, Sie sind eine alte Fotze?
Du bist is the familiar form of you are.
Sie sind is the polite form of you are.
So, if you were talking to an old woman on the street you did not know, you would normally say, Sie sind.
And just so you know, eine alte Fotze means an old cunt.
So which is worse, saying You are an old cunt using the familiar ‘you’ (du) or saying You are an old cunt using the polite ‘you’ (Sie)? Discuss.
(I think you can argue either way.)
Calling someone an old cunt in Australia is offensive too – actually, you can’t say much worse – BUT the word cunt can be used in an affectionate way. “Ah, she can be a bit of a cunt, but she’s okay.” It’s like saying, “He’s an old bastard, but I love him anyway.”
Of course, the circles in which you can say this – and in which it’s taken the right way – are limited. But it is possible.
I once spent thirty minutes of an English lesson teaching the various meanings of the word ‘fuck’. I was teaching Business English to a small work group in Berlin in 2009 – actually, I loathe teaching Business English, as usually it’s just made up on the spot, and so often taught by others who have absolutely no experience in the world beyond studying and teaching – and the youngest and hippest of the group of six men said, when talking about playing hockey, “That was before I fucked up my knee.”
I said, “You used the word fucked.”
The room went silent as the six men looked at me, wondering where I was going with this.
Fuck is a very versatile word, and we use it all the time in English, so let’s talk about how it’s used,” I said.
There may have been some blanched looks, there may have been some glottal gulps, but we talked about it anyway.
And its uses are varied and deep:
* as a verb, and especially as a phrasal verb – I am fucking, I am being fucked, Fuck me!, I’ve just been fucked, we fucked on the bed, I fucked it up, you fucked it up, I’m being fucked over, he’s fucking me over, I’m fucked off, I am so fucked up, Fuck off!
* as a noun – I need a fuck, that fuck was great, he’s a great fuck, he’s a real fucker!
* as an adjective – I’m a fucking arsehole, you’re a fucking arsehole, hand me that fucking thing, it’s a fucking nightmare, you’re a fucking mess, I don’t need that fucking shit, I’m fucked, that’s fucked, we’re all fucked, it’s just fucked, we’re all going to hell in a fucking handbasket!
‘To fuck’ auf Deutsch is ficken. And German-language online profiles will sometimes have the words Fick mich! (Fuck me!) on them, but interestingly, if the person with the profile speaks and writes English – which many, many do – they will usually use fuck and not ficken. There’s something open and gaping and sexy about the ‘u’ sound in fuck that is absent in ficken. ‘U’ sounds more like an orifice.
So, when I am swearing my head off and not even knowing I am doing so, I feel most at home in Australia. And while it is fun to shock Germans with my swearing proficiency, auf Deutsch und auf Englisch – okay, I rarely say cunt, because (1) it really is offensive and (2) I’ve never actually been there – it is nice to be not so soundly, roundly judged for the disgusting words coming out of your mouth.


  1. I'm doing my best to help my German colleagues understand the subtleties of English (UK) swearing ;) interesting read!

  2. Hey, Matt. :)
    I think it is worse to say "Sie sind eine alte Fotze" since the Germans have begun using the polite form in offensive remarks to indicate distance rather than politeness. "Du bist eine alte Fotze" would indicate familiarity and intimacy with the old cunt.

    I've found the word "bitch" problematic in Germany. Most Germans are under the impression that this word refers to a prostitute. So when I say "Shut up, bitch" to one of them, they think I'm calling them a whore. And the subtle different between "bitch" and "beatch" is nice too. So much work to do.

  3. Thanks for your fun and perceptive response. I lean towards your view on 'du' und 'Sie' auch!

  4. hi matt,

    love your work.

    i hope you will check out my site iliterati.com and consider posting your work there

  5. Sure ... will check it out.

    Danke schön,


  6. As a Scot and also an ex-merchant marine I can totally relate to this.

    I once sailed to Brazil with a crew made up of Bulgarian, Turkish and German sailors. Only the officers spoke enough English to hold a conversation. That being the case I picked up a lot of the other language that was being used around me and by the end of the trip could get by in any of the three - the only one I couldn't curse in was German.

    I remember just before Christmas a Scottish cadet joined the ship, we were sitting at a barbecue in the middle of the atlantic talking away and the Captain and Chief officer pulled us out of our chairs shouting "Calm down!" in a thick Romanian accent.

    This was the conversation:
    Me - "Alright chief, hows tricks back home? Weather still shite?"
    Paul - "Not as shit as you'd think, 20+ at the end of November!"
    Me - "Fuck off!"
    Paul - "Seriously mate, those weather forecasting bastards..."
    Me - "Tell me about it, pricks couldn't organise a piss up in a brewery let alone predict the fucking weather!"

    The captain had listened to the conversation and thought with all the swear words we were using we were getting ready to fight!

    By the sounds of things, Scotland and Australia are similar in that swearing is generally accepted. They are just words. They are meant to be used.

    It always amused me when the sailors would use English profanities, they always seemed to string them together in pairs or triplets. "Fucking Shit!" being the favourite of most. This habit led me to question whether or not they actually knew what the word meant, or whether they said it purely because it was 'a wee swearie'. I never ever did find out :(

    Interesting article and a fun read! You should blog more Matt, would love to hear about your travels!