Who invented swear words?
"Crucifix Sacrament Hallelujah!"
SZ-Magazin: Mr. Aman, what was the nicest abuse you have heard lately?
There is a curse in Yiddish that I like very much: "You should inherit three shiploads of gold, but you shouldn't have enough to pay your medical bills!"
How did it all start, since when have people cursed?
Curses and abuse have been around for as long as there have been people. Of course, we have no written evidence, as the Neanderthals scolded 100,000 years ago. The first swear word I know is "dog" in a poem in the old Indian Rigveda occurs, which was formed around 3000 years ago. Egyptian curses are about as old, for example the threats: "A donkey should screw you!" This abuse is still used today in Arabic-speaking countries. And one could also say: The first and oldest curse is God - in the Bible he curses the serpent and Cain. Anyway, the Bible is full of swear words, from "poisonous snake brood" to "breeding vipers".
Why do people curse at all?
Because he's angry and somehow has to get the anger out. In psychology one speaks of a causal chain made up of three elements: frustration, affect, aggression. In other words: something happens, you get upset, and it has to get out. If there is a guilty party, it is of course directed against him.
How do curses arise? Spontaneous? Or by thinking?
Almost always spontaneously, because they are a lightning-fast reaction. The computer crashes and you automatically scold: "Fucking computer, damn it!" Of course there are also curses and insults that you think up carefully and then send to someone else by letter or electronically. Many writers and artists are known for making their unloved colleagues a mess in writing.
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Which people are most imaginative in cursing?
Of the many races and groups I have studied over the past 45 years, Eastern European Jews are world champions at cursing. For two reasons: First, they were persecuted for millennia and, unlike today's Israelis, had no weapons to defend themselves, so they used words as weapons. Second, Yiddish can draw its verbal ammunition from three language groups: German, the Slavic languages and Hebrew-Aramaic. There is also a lot of intelligence and ingenuity.
An example, please.
Most of the Jewish curses deal with three issues: health, money, and religion. But they are always entertaining: "You should become famous - a disease should be named after you!" Or "May all your believers always have your address!"
Who is still cursing entertainingly?
In Central Africa there is the nice abuse: "Your face is as wrinkled as an elephant's ass!"
Sounds rather funny.
Say that to a woman who is a little older. You will see if she thinks it's funny.
Another example, please.
The Persians say, "I'm farting in your father's beard!" In many cultures your father is held in high regard, and farting in his beard is one of the most honorable things you can do.
"You son of a turtle!"
Reinhold Aman, 75, born in Bavaria, has lived in the USA for 52 years, where he worked as a university lecturer and language teacher. He has been researching swear words since the 1960s and has published a number of books on it, including the »Bavarian-Austrian Schimpfwortbuch«. In addition, for many years he published the series »Maledicta«, which deals exclusively with cursing and ranting.
That sounds rather surreal to us.
Sure, because we don't have a tradition of family abuse. Rather, we try to visualize how this should actually work - with a ladder, for example?
In China there is the abuse "You son of a turtle!" What's so bad about the turtle?
To do this, you have to know about animals. The female turtle copulates with every male. The insult should mean that the mother of the insulted has sex with everyone. Family honor is very important in China.
And where are the curses particularly lame?
In my experience in the languages of the North American Indians and the South Sea cultures.
Some topics always go: malice against the mother, attacks against religion. What else?
There are three groups worldwide: First, the family abuse, especially in Asia and Africa. Second, the blasphemers: Catholics from Bavaria to Brazil. And third, the prudes: especially in the Anglo-Saxon countries. In the case of family abuse, the mother of the opponent is mainly insulted, then his sister, then the father and deceased family members. In German mother-insults are unknown, at most they exist indirectly, "son of a bitch". In contrast, they are commonplace in Russian, Italian and Spanish.
Why do so many curses go towards the abdomen?
Because they violate a taboo. This is why verbal abuse involving the abdomen or excretions is the most common in prudish cultures.
In which countries is swearing completely different from ours?
In some Indian languages it is enough to say the name of a deceased family member to violate the highest taboo of the group. And in the South Seas there is a language in which you can't even say the name of someone else's wife without seriously offending him. But as I said, we understand that these are not particularly strong curses.
Are there insults in other countries that we would not even recognize as such?
Lots! Anyone who calls a Hindi-speaking Indian "sala" - that is, brother-in-law - is saying, "I had sex with your sister," which means she is a slut. Or another example from Jewish humor: In Tel Aviv you say to someone: "Go in on Mazehstrasse and come out on Balfourstrasse!" That means: you should get sick and die! Why? Because there is a hospital on Mazehstrasse - and at the back, exit Balfourstrasse, is the morgue.
How do verbal abuse change over time?
It's a constant change. Animal metaphors such as "monkey", "donkey" and "dog" have existed unchanged for many centuries, while others have disappeared, for example "Kebse", which means concubine, and still others have become at least very rare, such as "becket". Instead, new swear words appear that were previously unknown, such as "warm showerer" or "understanding woman".
"By the 24 eggs of the twelve apostles of Christ!"
Religious curses used to be very effective. You could really annoy people with a good "Go to Hell!" Today most of them shrug their shoulders.
We Germans are orphans in this area anyway! The Italians and Spaniards know wonderfully powerful curses: "By the 24 eggs of the twelve apostles of Christ!" Or: "I give a shit about God, the cross and the carpenter who made it - and the son of a bitch who made the tree has planted! "
Who is this being insulted?
Nobody, they yell when something goes wrong or falls down.
Some swear words simply turn positive over time. "Gay" was once a bad word, today homosexuals call themselves that. Are there any other examples where it went like this?
Yes, the English "dyke" is actually a derogatory word for lesbian - but now motorcycling lesbians proudly call themselves that: "Dykes on Bikes". Or an example from hip-hop: the black rappers confidently call themselves “nigga” - but woe to the white man who calls them that!
When do curses make us laugh?
If they can drop a special height. In this, too, the Jews are masters. Their insults often consist of two parts: First a praise, so you lull the opponent into safety - then the real curse, which hits the unprotected opponent all the harder. For example: "You should inherit a castle with a hundred rooms, and there should be a hundred beds in each room - and cholera should throw you from bed to bed!"
This is reminiscent of Joschka Fischer's failure against Bundestag President Richard Stücklen: "With all due respect, Mr. President, you are an asshole." First politely, then all the more coarse.
Most people use "with all due respect" to tone down the subsequent insult. Of course, Fischer used the phrase ironically.
Who scolds the funniest?
Hungarians are good! There are strong, wordy images, for example: "Oh God, stick your wonderful ass out of the clouds and fuck those assholes!" The Hungarians swear and rant with an unbelievable mixture of blasphemy and obscenity. There are even worse sentences that you can use in SZ magazine but not all of them print.
On the other hand, some words lose their momentum over time. How come
Quite simply: they are used too often. We get used to it. "Asshole" used to be very vulgar, but is now commonplace, it is even used in a friendly and joking way: "Oh, Hans, you asshole, now you've forgotten your keys again."
Can anything still shock us?
Well, if I call you here now "fucked giant bastard" ...
"Oh you Schnarrenberger!"
Uh, so ...
Can you see it. It's not just about how vulgar the abuse is. Older people, especially women, are still shocked when they are pelted with relatively harmless swear words. Disgraceful, racist and sexist abuse are still shocking. And of course, classics can also be expensive, depending on the opponent. Stefan Effenberg had to pay well for the "asshole" he threw at a policeman in the head. And when George W. Bush said to his deputy Dick Cheney that a certain journalist was the New York Times a "major league asshole," a first-class asshole, it was a lot of fun.
Some people are good at spontaneously making up swear words. The legendary SPD politician Herbert Wehner, who called the CDU man Jürgen Wohlrabe "evil crow". How do you come up with good swear words yourself?
You can degrade the name of celebrities to a swear word, say instead of “Oh you shit!” Just say “Oh you Schnarrenberger!”, Both begin with the same sibilant sound, everyone understands the analogy. Or you say "Such a plank!" For a narcissistic loudmouth.
And beyond the celebrities?
Rely on words with hard consonants! You can almost physically vent your anger when you speak it out. In English, for example, very nice: "You cotton-picking chicken-plucker!" You cotton-picking chicken plucker! Say that out loud! Throwing that at someone's head puts you in a really good mood.
How did you get into researching swear words in the first place?
In 1966, in a seminar on dialectology at the University of Texas, I translated a text into my Straubing dialect. Then the sentence came up: "I'm going to hit you around the ears with the wooden spoon, you monkey!" And I thought: Why do you actually call someone a monkey? And which animals are still used as swear words? I then quickly had a collection of 25 animal metaphors. That's where it all started.
Swearword research is still not a fully recognized subject to this day.
I have been attacked many times for working on the subject; it was always considered to be gross. But I've grown a thick skin and unwaveringly examined more than 200 languages and dialects for negatively rated words and expressions. Some just study butterflies - I've always been interested in verbal dung beetles. Today, many others are also doing research in the field of maledictology.
What was the most remarkable thing you found out in all your years of curse word research?
How mean people are all over the world. And how shamelessly they attack and ridicule anyone who deviates from the norm physically, mentally or in some other way.
Your personal favorite curse?
Two classics: "Goddamn fucking shit!" And "Crucifix Sacrament Hallelujah!"
Photos: Getty, private, Photocas: mi.la
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