To Curse or Not to Curse?

One of the first things many language learners enjoy discovering when learning a language is all the bad words.  While this can undoubtedly be entertaining, knowing bad words in a language can also be useful.  Knowing when someone is cursing at you is important if you want to avoid confrontational or even dangerous situations.  Knowing when to use an appropriately strong and effective word can also make a point when necessary.

But just because you know how to curse in a language, does that mean that you should? A recent article states that cleaning up your language can contribute to one’s professional success as well as make the world a better place.

While living in Russia the decision of whether or not to curse was one that I found myself contemplating.  I quickly learned numerous bad words in Russian and how to use them in everyday conversation.  But I also realized that there’s somewhat of a taboo against women using foul language.  Most of the bad words I heard were used by men and when I tried to speak using such words some people admonished me.  While I thought incorporating bad language was a part of learning the language and speaking like a native speaker, apparently some words aren’t acceptable even if other people use them.

Although I can’t say there were any negative repercussions because I used the words sparingly and among friends, I can see the potential for the use of bad words to cause problems.  So, when in doubt, no matter what language you speak, don’t use bad words.  It’s not a bad idea, though, to educate yourself about this aspect of a language so you can understand what others are saying or to know which words to avoid.

What experiences have you had learning bad words in another language?  In your culture is it acceptable for some people to curse and not others?


5 Responses to To Curse or Not to Curse?

  1. Erik Hemming says:

    Good question! What comes to my mind first is when I moved to Turkey – what a riot it was when I said the bad things my colleagues taught me. The emotional charge of bad words said in good humour helped me to build good relationships. But I suppose I was wise enough to show other sides of my personality as well, to avoid to be the clown.

    In general it seems to be with curse words a bit like with the forms of address, that people tend to have strong opinions, but different ones, in a country…

    • JMS says:

      I suppose with anything there should be a balance–like you said, showing other sides of your personality. But I like what you said about the “emotional charge” of bad words. This was something I had to be aware of because when I said bad words in another language, I didn’t feel that charge but others did. Also it depends on the people. With friends, like your experience in Turkey, most people laughed to hear such words coming out of a foreigner’s mouth. But with older or more serious people, they didn’t find it so funny!

  2. Maria says:

    Swearing, like just about everything else, is all about context: who you’re with, where you are, what you’re discussing, what the mood is. From my own experience, I’d say the dangers of swearing are twofold: 1) your words contribute to the impressions others have of you; swearing can come to define you in a way you might not appreciate, and 2) once you get into the swearing habit, it’s bloody hard to stop!

  3. Robert MacDonald says:

    Hi JoAnne,

    My first word in Russia was the word that means a female dog that has had at least one litter. A drunk was mistakenly taking a suitcase full of valuables off the luggage carousel, and my wife’s arguments were not stopping him. I walked over to him, leaned towards him, said the magic Russian word. He stopped.

    That’s a big exception, as I try to consistently use a good vocabulary with no swear words… in respect for other people, and my own self-esteem.

    I followed this rule in business and in social situations for many years in America, and continue so in Russia.

    Rob MacDonald
    American Russia Observations

  4. Dmitry says:

    I also realized that there’s somewhat of a taboo against women using foul language.

    Yes, in particular, in presence of men. Also, men are not supposed to use such words in present of women, though they can afford “inadvertently” to drop one. Actually, these rules are more relax now than it used to be.

    Not that I want to say that people never cursed in the past, but it was not typical for people with higher education to use such language, except perhaps in all men company.

    Nowadays many young people feel more relax about using “taboo” words among themselves, though they conscious that the older generation may be very intolerant to this kind of language.

    In fact the degree to which social norms have changed over last 20 years is really amazing. During my childhood I don’t remember that any girl or woman uttering any expletive, except one case involving a girl from clearly dysfunctional family, but that shocked me back then so much that I still remember it more than 25 later.

    And this is not just my experience, even a more amazing story was told by a friend of mine, whose in his 40s now and has a wife of his age. As you probably know, if you lived in Russia, the common practice of translation Hollywood movies into Russian includes replacing all expletives with some euphemisms, which can sometimes completely distort the original impression. (I remember turning on the Russian TV one day in the middle of the Pulp Fiction movie where two gangsters talked to each other — for a minute or so I was completely convinced that it’s a parody on the original movie, because of such unnatural way those gangsters spoke in the Russian version — avoiding even mildly offending words.) Though, most movies are translated in this way, you can find some movies with an alternative translation that is far more closer to the original at least in terms using of foul language. So, this friend of mine bought such a movie. I do not remember the exact title now, but I saw it before, and it did not have more foul language that you may hear in most Hollywood movies. Nevertheless, his wife complained to him that though she likes the movie, she feels embarrassed to watch this movie with him, because of foul language in this movie.

    Obviously, the young generation is not so uptight about those taboo words, but it is not that all of them welcome this language either, especially when it comes from a foreigner. I mean it takes a lot to understand often subtle social differences that dictates where it is appropriate and where it is not. It is wrong to assume that if a similar curse word can be used in similar situation in your country and in your native language that it will perceive in same way by people from another culture. In some cases, many Russians may feel uncomfortable with some curse word where in the similar circumstances many Americans will hardly notice that a curse word being used. Obviously, the opposite may be true. For instance, I have noticed that the Russians seem to less restrain about using swear words in different web forums. (I don’t like it very much, but here I try to stay above about my personal likes and dislikes and just to report facts as I see them). I guess there are two reasons for that. First of all, the media is perceived as more impersonal (and some degree of anonymity), but more importantly, vast majority of those users are young people.

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