Swearing Like the Germans
It has long been my wife’s dream to live in a village, the only stumbling block to this dream is me. I am, apparently, too much of a “Stadtkind” (City Child) a name that I take some pride in, but which she thinks is a minor insult. Her attempts to convert me to a “Dorfkind” (village Child) have had mixed results; I don’t find infinite wonder on her regular walks through the woods, nor do I enjoy the absolute silence that is the soundtrack to village life. What successes she has achieved has been by appealing to my masculinity, which is why I found myself standing among the fresh fallen snow at 8 in the morning, watching her father chopping up logs with a chainsaw. Sensibly, an executive decision (my wife and mother-in-law) had been made that I would not be allowed to touch the chainsaw, but I would be permitted to heave the logs onto a flatbed trailer and split said logs with a variety of axes and sledgehammers once the logs were offloaded at the house.
I was trusted with this selection of tools only because I had managed to prove myself the year before, spending a gleeful Saturday chopping logs for six hours. I had worked out a careful system for wood chopping success: hit the log in the right place, while screaming obscenities. This mix of physical and emotional trauma eventually saw a large pile of logs become a larger pile of firewood. This time, the logs were much larger and more gnarled, and I concluded early on that I would have to resort to a more aggressive strategy of blunt force trauma and violent abuse. For every swing of the sledgehammer, I would shout at the log, defaming its mother, casting aspersions about its parentage and every so often just calling it a “Fucker”. It was working, sort of, until both my wife and her brother came out to see what all the commotion was. As the sledgehammer flew through the expletive filled air, my brother-in-law interrupted my rhythm with the observation that “Nic, you swear too much” with my wife adding “Yes, he does”.
I ignored the running commentary from my audience, it was not the first time my choice selection of vocabulary had come under scrutiny. I swear, frequently. I like swearing, for the simple reason that it is descriptive and to the point. For example, a negative opinion can be expressed in many ways, “I don’t like it”, “It wasn’t very good” or “It was OK, but it could have been better”. These are fine, but frankly they seem mealy mouthed when compared to “It was fucking shit”. Some people may exclaim “Darn” or “Damn”, but all mistakes should really be expressed with a “Bugger”, a “Bollocks” or when things have gone catastrophically a “Fuuuuuuck me”. It’s cathartic, fun and intentionally offensive, in many ways it is truly British. This is not to say that I spend all my time turning the air blue, I know that sometimes the joy of swearing must be tempered by reality, I’m not a total sociopath.
I understand the criticism that swear words are limited vocabulary, but I frankly find this a defunct argument. This scene from HBO’s The Wire shows the flexibility of just one swearword:
Yet, criticism from my wife and her brother is difficult to understand given their continuous use of the word “Scheiße” (shit). Listening to my German family sitting around the dinner table, the word is used liberally to describe things, to make a point or simply as an exclamation of dissatisfaction. In the larger context of German communication, the word can be heard in all manner of unexpected situations. I have heard it uttered by nurses, doctors, in the bakery, by teachers, by children, standing waiting in a queue and even in church. “Scheiße” is multipurpose, and I have yet to hear anyone complain. Contrast the German reaction to “Scheiße” with the word “Sau” (Pig), however, and you will find a much less accepting reaction. Calling someone a “Sau” will cause everyone within earshot to either clutch their pearls in shock or go out to the local department store, buy some pearls, return to the scene of the “sau” and furiously clutch them to their breast like so many Victorian ladies.
Even more curious is the general enjoyment that English swear words seem to bring to German audiences. The word “Shitstorm” is a favourite, which I have seen printed on the front of newspapers and heard thrown into discussions as a matter of fact. The recent, and justified, furore over Donald Trumps description of African countries as “Shitholes” saw English language news outlets attempting to navigate a sea of uncertainty, conflicted by the desire to directly quote the orange man child without offending their audience. German media had no such qualms, which caused me to almost choke on my cornflakes when the radio quoted Trump verbatim at 7.30 in the morning.
Why the liberal attitude to English swear words? Well, a recent study suggests that it is easier to swear in a non-native language:
“… other languages feel "disembodied," while a native language feels intimate. Topics that would be taboo in the native language don't feel so upsetting in other languages. Cultural and social norms of politeness — which are often rules we learn as children — are followed much more rigorously in the native language”
This might go some way to explaining why this book is happily displayed without any attempts at censorship:
Of course, the study doesn’t explain why my swearing at lumps of wood for hours on end might offend my wife and her brother. Perhaps this has something to do with how well you know a non-native language and culture. My wife at this point is 40% Geordie and is fully aware of the nuances of phrases like “Shitehawk” or “Fucktrumpet”. Her brother may not have a credible percentage of Geordie, but he has swum in the North Sea, so I would at least say he understands the basics of my vocabulary. It would be difficult to take a dip in the briny depths, without grasping the necessity for a phrase like “Fuckin hell, that water’s cold enough to freeze a polar bear’s bollocks off”.