. . . And so is your mom

If you don't have anything nice to say dept.
By CAITLIN E. CURRAN  |  August 8, 2011

090703_monkeybook_main
Va te faire enculer. Sounds lovely, doesn’t it? Actually, I just told you to fuck off. Pardon my French!

Guess I got caught up in the moment, having just finished reading author/linguist Stephen Dodson’s Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit (Penguin), which is out this week in the US (previous editions have been released in other countries).

In Uglier, Dodson and co-author Robert Vanderplank (director of the Oxford University Language Center) have assembled a casual-yet-intellectual encyclopedia of insults from around the world, in a multitude of languages, with phonetics included, so that readers can appreciate the pronunciation of Icelandic insults like “rassgat” (RAHS-gat), meaning asshole — which, according to the book, “can also be used in an affectionate way — a mother might call her child litla rassgati mitt, ‘my little asshole.’ ”

Chronicling the history of the insult, Uglier takes us back to ancient Egypt (“Anyone who does anything bad to my tomb,” reads an inscription on an Egyptian crypt, “then the crocodile, hippopotamus, and lion will eat him”), up through modern playground “snaps,” making multiple stops along the way.

Now in my repertoire are such poisonous barbs as an ancient Greek saying (“You’ll eat a turd before I will”), a needlessly complicated Yiddish hex (“A crazy person should be discharged and you should be entered in the register”), and an over-the-top vitriolic Dutch expression (“Go get cancer behind your heart so the doctor can’t reach it!”).

Dodson, also the creator of the linguistics blog languagehat.com, says insults may be a human necessity. “On some basic level, we need the bad words as a relatively harmless outlet,” he says, on the phone from his home in the Berkshires, invoking the old “sticks and stones” defense. He says there’s proof in the fact that “every language has them.”

Dodson and Vanderplank include insultory gestures within the book, with instructions on how to properly execute them — mooning, for example, in the American English chapter. Dodson, though, says he values the sounds of the words over gestures. “One of the things I love is the physical sound of them,” he says. “I wouldn’t say I have a favorite insult, although I do like the word ‘asshat.’ I don’t know if it’s the vowel sounds or the word ‘hat.’ ”

  Topics: Books , Culture and Lifestyle, Language and Linguistics, french
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