The words that easily cross borders


They are the first words a pupil on exchange will learn: swear words! No matter the language, it will be the first topic of discussion with the following justifications: being cool when back in the playground of the school or to understand when insulted, “just in case”. French and English swear words are all linked, directly or indirectly, to sexuality or scatology. Renewing them is just a matter of threading them like beads, one after the other, as Captain Haddock would. People from Quebec thus seem very exotic with their swear words derived from the Catholic rite.

To this day, I think I have not found more originale of an insult than in the Swahili language. In Swahili, all the words start with a prefix that vary depending of the class of the noun. One of those prefixes identifies living beings with m- (singular) or wa- (plural). The worst insult is to leave the prefix out when talking to someone. The person has been denied her humaness! One could imagine classifying someone as a chair or a knife with the prefix ki- (singular) vi- (plural). Subtle and striking… but so hard to translate!

A question remains: why do we speak in French of gros mots or “big words” ? English is more direct. Kids are not meant to say bad words or dirty words. Are those words to big for kids too little? A question of proportion between words and realities?



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