Cecil’s assertion that “most” foreign languages employ a curse word indentical in meaning to our “f-word” is way off-base. Actually, I’ve found in my linguistic studies that, with the exception of French and the few obscure languages Cecil mentions, that English cursing is unique on this point. German doesn’t commmonly use any such swear word, nor do any of the Scandinavian languages, or Russian. The harshest, and most common curses used in these languages, are the old-fashioned (to english ears,) variations on the devil and hell, e.g., “Faen” (devil) or “Helvete” (hell) in Scandinavia, “Chert” (devil) in Russian. To attempt any variation on “f**k” as a curse in these languages would in most cases sound absurd to native speakers.

I’m curious how you came by this information. During my several months in Germany, I heard the German equivalent of f**k many times and most people did not seem to think it absurd. The most recent German post-doc to come through our lab used that word (in both English and German) more than he used the word “the”.


You have exposed the soft-underbelly of my argument - the German usage. I assume you are referring to the word “ficken”? However, is it not so that this is a morphed form of its english counterpart, borrowed in very recent times (the past few generations) from our language? Many young people in foreign countries find it trendy to ape english (esp. American) slang, with emphasis on the curses. The usage is, in most cases, a very recent linguistic phenomenon, is it not?

The German ficken and the English fuck are both extremely old words (>500 years old). Although one is not directly descendent from the other, they are cognates and therefore probably shared a common ancestor at some point. They both seem to be related to some old words meaning to force. For more info see http://www.urbanlegends.com/language/etymology/fuck/fuck_etymology_of.html . Cecil also wrote and article about the etymology of f**k, but I can’t seem to find it in the archives.


While “ficken” may be a very old word, it was not in common usage AS A CURSE during the years I grew up in Germany, although it may have been used in porn movies, etc.

More typical were “Rutsch mir den Buckel 'runter” (slide down my hump), Scheisse (shit), “Donnerwetter” (thunderweather), “Hund” (dog), “Drecksack” (dirtbag), “Idiot” (idiot), and “Rotzkerl” (snotguy).

I think “ficken” is quite popular in German, and it has certainly been around in my own youth (70s and 80s). An example would be “Fick dich ins Knie” (fuck yourself in the knee [however that may work]) as a way of saying, “Go away, I don’t care for your criticism.” This may be a more recent development, but I’m sure it’s no different in the U.S. and elsewhere. It seems that words that used to be taboo have become less shocking in the past few decades. (Or breaking taboos has become more popular.)

That said, I believe that the German F-word is considered even more vulgar than its English counterpart. Also, there are fewer grammatical constructions in which it can be used; e.g., there is no German equivalent of the participle-turned-adjective in “The f***ing car won’t start.” As a consequence, it’s used less in German.

As an aside, fen used to mean “to hit” in ancient times. I remember we worked on some old piece of literature back in school, which mentioned a father fing his son. Needless to say, we all thought this was f***ing hilarious…


The idea that creative obsenities are not present in English is false. I feel this was inferred in the column. I have heard some very colerful phrases in the Army. The most colorful and creative referred to “Slobbered on My losevic” although the terms circle-jerk, flaming goat-f*ck, and sandpaper Trojan
are also cute. For downright meanness, none beat oozing dick-herpe.

Does anyone else think the shock value of feces has gone down recently? I hardly ever hear sh*t anymore, even when I encounter swearing.
—Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.

Actually, cursing in Russian is almost an art form because of the flexibility of its morphology. Anyone who’s studied Russian knows that you can make up just about any word if you know the right root and then combine it with the right prefixes and suffixes and other assorted pieces like spelling rules and declensions. Accordingly, once you know the root, you can become a swearing machine in just a few minutes.

And Russian does have a root for “fuck” – “yoeb” (pardon the Phoenician alphabet). Typically, this root is used to make all kinds of words, as I learned from my Russian roommate in college, and is most popularly used when referring to the mother of the offending thing or person.

More popular however, from my own personal experience, are curses that refer to body parts and the things they do.

“Chort” (devil) on the other hand, pretty much is going the way of “fuck” in English. Everyone uses it so much now that’s it’s not really all that shocking. Say “yoeb” though, and you’ll still get a reaction.

Yeah, I must confirm that Russian obscenity has the pony English version beat by a mile. It is an artform, admired when used skillfully by men. There are a number of books and dictionaries on the subject, one of which is mostly in English/translit called ‘Dermo.’ The russian author is a little tongue in cheek regarding Russians’ attitudes towards these words however. If you stray outside a certain parameter, or use a word in a way you’re not familiar with, or speak with the wrong tone, you will get your ass kicked.

However, chort, gospodi, bozhe moi, (devil, lord, my god) are extremely common phrases, heard from the mouths of grandmas and young people alike. The standard, superstitious response to a wish of good luck is ‘Go to the Devil!’ So its misleading to define these words as any sort of obscenity whatsoever.

The words that ARE considered obscene and improper in mixed or even remotely civilized company are those such as mentioned above- the Russian word for fuck/ hump and all it’s derivatives, plus a cornucopia of words relating to reproductive anatomy and anatomical processes.

At any rate, it’s anglocentric to think for a minute that we have any sort of precedence when it comes to world obscenity. Russian, for one, has us beat by several versti.

Yes, you’re right. As it’s fun to be creative with slavonic cursing (the “cuss code” as a friend of mine from Moscow once called it…), you’ve got to be careful as to how you use your creation and in whose presence as certain combinations seem to be more obscence, or humorous, than others.

This reminds me of an incident during our freshman year in college - we had an annoying little mouse (maybe more than one) that kept running across the room at night making racket, leaving droppings, and chewing on our carpet. I always called it, in English, that “fucking mouse,” but one day I had the bright idea of translating that into Russian.

My roommate came home and I proudly proceeded to tell him about our “Yoebennaya Miysh na polue” (the fucking mouse on the floor) and he proceeded to fall to the ground laughing. It seems that while I did make an adjective from “Yoeb”, I unwittingly made a participal and literally was complaing about “the mouse which is humping/fucking/having sex on the floor”.

To this day my roommate still addresses letter to me that begin “Dear yoebennaya miysh…”

Yeah, I think what you wanted to say would be something more along the lines of ‘yobushchii mysh.’ Of course, I’m sure that also sounds completely ridiculous. I mean, why are we concerning ourselves with the sexual exploits of small rodents?

I guess that’s maybe the point of the original poster here- there is no other language in which variations of the word ‘fuck’ are used with so little regard to the word’s actual semantic content. When you say, ‘fuck the fucking mouse,’ sure, there’s some disparaging content there, but we don’t really get a graphic picture. Which is to say that ‘fuck’ doesn’t really mean anything anymore.

Pull out the word yebat’ in Russian, though, and you’re certain to be dredging up some pretty graphic and (in the case of the mouse) just plain twisted images.