Swearing: It’s a Cultural Thing

Most languages have a set of words that you really shouldn’t say…unless you intend to cause offence, that is. In English, George Carlin’s famous “Seven Dirty Words” skit comes to mind. When communicating across cultures, you might think that it would be easy enough to keep it clean- just don’t use the equivalents of those “dirty words,” right?

You would be wrong. Different cultures have different values and taboos, and that means they swear differently, too. As an example, take a look at the history of our own language. According to Melissa Mohr, the author of “Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing,” during the Middle Ages those “seven dirty words” that got George Carlin and Lenny Bruce arrested wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow:

“In the Middle Ages, cultural taboos were such that words we consider to be obscene today were perfectly acceptable, if direct. The c-word, for example, was found in medical texts, in literature, in the names of common plants and animals, in the names of streets and even in surnames.”

People lived (and excreted, and copulated) in close quarters in those days, and it’s hard to be shocked by references to activities and body parts that you see up close and personal every single day. On the other hand, religious oaths (by Christ’s blood, ‘Swounds, etc.) were a huge no-no.

Around the 16th century, however, there was a shift toward more personal privacy. People began sleeping and having sex in their own bedrooms instead of putting on a show for the other members of their households. Privies became a lot more private, and one’s bodily functions were no longer acceptable dinner conversation. By the Victorian Era, euphemisms were required even for seemingly innocent words like -gasp!- “trousers.”

What does this have to do with translation? It’s one more reason to use a professional translator, someone familiar with the cultural nuances in your target market. Sometimes, a word can be perfectly innocent in one country and obscene in another, even though both places speak the same language. As an example of what could go wrong, take a look at this story: A French author wrote a children’s book to be released in Quebec, and included an unintended obscenity that made the otherwise wholesome story read more like an episode of South Park in its intended market. The error wasn’t caught until after the book was published.  Translation is a tricky business!

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