This was a happy time when doctors prescribed cigarettes for a sore throat and Communism could be measured by the gap between your eyes, so the Thesis seemed to make sense. It also had a zippy name, the sort of thing a maniac from the Rand Corporation might snap at you from behind his cruel glasses.
- Welsh oaths are mild and Medieval. One can hardly imagine a 10-minute scene in The Wire consisting of riffs on "By the bones of St David!" ("Asgwrn Dafydd!);
- Estonians simply pump Russian obscenities through their own tubular tongue; and
- Modern Hebrew, despite having the whole of the Book of Leviticus to play with, enjoys lambasting Arabs in words that they will instantly understand.
The larger the tongue, the fouler the mouth is the basic contention of the No-Good-Boyo Thesis. The Balkans are notable exceptions, of course:
- Hungarian is a blasphemous tongue of garter-snapping depravity;
- Romanian whispers invitations to necro-incest against the beat of leathery wings; and
- The exploding super-nova that once was Serbo-Croat showers such sentiments as "Jebem ti dušu!" on anxious Albanians as it hurtles to the ends of the Yugosphere.
English and Russian are my empurpled imperial proof of the profane. Both languages have catalogued their curses in major lexical references works, Roger's Profanisaurus and Alec Flegon's "Beyond The Russian Dictionary".
England's North Country deserves a special mention for its innovation of swearing within a word. I met a Yorkshireman on my first day at college. "What are you reading?" I asked. "Mechanical Engi-bloody-neering," he replied. Deep Joyce.
I shall illustrate my thesis with seminal fieldwork among the Russians.
"Wanter cuppa, mate?" inquired a jovial chai-wallah in shalwar kameez and fluent Russian halfway down the corridor in Student Hostel No.2 at the Order of Lenin/Banner of Lenin State University of Voronezh, USSR, in September 1985.
"Don't mind if I do, guv'nor!" I replied, and padded along behind the pandit. I'd been in Russia about a fortnight, but my linguistic facility was due entirely to failed but enjoyable attempts to seduce Mrs Martin, the Tartar wife of one of our college lecturers in Swansea - a Mr Martin.
Shahid was a Bangladeshi postgraduate whose enthusiasm for Communism had made him unpopular in his waterlogged homeland. Once I'd got to know him better I asked why he hadn't moved to Communist-run West Bengal in India instead of the grisly Land of the Soviet and its lukewarm, lice-ridden welcome for people of colour.
"Wrong kind of Communists," he said with a wistful hint that for once nutrition and self-respect ought to have trumped sectarianism.
He ushered me into his room, where sat a row of various non-Soviets, each clutching a notepad and exploding ballpoint pen from the Rosa Luxemburg Propelling Pencil and Ink Implement Factory of Ust-Kamenogorsk. A cup of condensed milk and road sweepings dropped into my hand, and Shahid continued.
"So, Abdullah," he addressed an Afghan, "How would you go into a bar and drink a beer on your way home."
"In His Name!" declared the swart Pathan. "I cocked down the road, whore, and twatted into the bitch of a bar. Then I dicked a beer - "
"Let me stop you there, brother," interrupted Shahid. "First, very good deployment of 'whore', most idiomatic. But you don't dick a beer after twatting anything. In a stand-alone sentence you can dick what you like, but remember the Sequence of Swearing - No Dick After a Twat. It's biological. Now please carry on."
Some Swansea Poles had taught me basic Russian swearing, but this was a stumble through Alice's Looking-Glass as imagined by Frank Harris. I appreciated the difference when Shahid asked me to have a go. "Be so good as to ask me for a beer, swearily," he requested.
"Er, gizza beer you bastard?" I hazarded.
He patiently assigned me homework and a mentor in the form of a chap from Rostock called Raik. He was a German with a sense of humour, albeit strictly one-way as I found when I nicknamed him "Das Dritte". He introduced me to Russian Swearing: Intermediate Level.
Chemistry lessons effect a chain reaction on your personality as you trudge through the education system:
- Before 'O' level it is all stinkbombs and dyes, the happy preserve of the short-trousered anarchist.
- By 'A' level you enter the knotty world of balanced equations, which still attracts the occasional blue-stocking.
- At university, however, all normal social activity has ceased and the chemistry lab is the haunt of the chess-player with one pair of underpants and a pocketful of pies.
With Russian swearing you have a reverse reaction. Any flan-faced 12-year-old can call you a knob, but it takes years of sociabilité to apply the appropriate prefix, voice and aspect to a concise verbal phrase (based on the same noun) in order to suggest that you should depart immediately on a vertical exploration of your illegitimate mother's lower intestine while simultaneously continuing to pleasure yourself with the rubbery parts of your father, who has just met you and is seeing your mum for only the second time ever.
Slavonic grammar arms poet and pissant alike with an almost infinate array of affixes and insertions to tease out the tenderest nuance.
On one level polyubit' (полюбить) means to fall completely in love with someone, while vlyublyat'sya (влюбляться) is to fall in love despite some awareness of the footwear-and-hygiene-fixated harridan to whom you are handing over your life. On another, zapit' (запить) is to have a chaser with your basic potation, while upit'sya (упиться) is to knock back a trough of vodka and forget where you live.
A similar approach is taken to cursing. Verbs provide the most exotic bouquets of abuse, but the true connoisseur seeks out the rarer refinements of the noun. Zapit', for example, yields the wonderful zapoi (запой) -a weeklong village drinking bout to mark some good augury like the birth of a one-headed child.
I was relaxing with some friends on the banks of the River Don one day when our Austrian colleague Ursula joined us. She had been barracked on the way through a nearby copse by some village rascals for declining their invitation to join them for redeye, dried fish and molestation.
"Do you know what they called me, Boyo?" she fumed. "They called me a yebanka!"
I grasped my metaphorical Moleskine and made a note of this little gem. It combined the earthy verb yebat' (ебать) with banka (банка), or jar, to produce something like "fuckbucket". Eloquent, and all the more satisying for being most unfair to an attractive, demure and by all accounts trim young lady.
You must master the plug-ins and cables that adapt the odd obscenity into a charabanc of Rabelaisian excess before moving onto Russian Swearing: Advanced Level, and I'm content to say I never even got that far.
The higher reaches of cursing involve what the poet Velimir Khlebnikov called zaum, or trans-sense language, and you'll get nowhere without native speech, extensive reading in the underground works of Pushkin and Lermontov, a pair of piss-stained brown flares and a lifetime of yelling at passers-by from your perch in the gutter by the kvass kiosk.
I did some coursework on subsidiary subjects like Georgian Swearing. This does not mean swearing in the Georgian language, a tongue so fierce that a grocery list sounds like an illustrated account of the Swansea Ospreys' visit to a Beirut bath house, but rather the way Georgians swear in Russian.
Georgians, like many nations, often invite antagonists to couple with their own mothers, or accuse them of already having done so. The Russian phrase "Yob tvoyu mat'!" ("Ёб твою мать!"), however, is a statement that someone else (male) has availed himself of your mother's favours, and is used as an exclamation of annoyance or surprise along the lines of "bloody hell" rather than an insult directed at the listener.
A Georgian market trader in Moscow will sometimes seek to offend a customer by yelling "yob tvoyu mat'!" at him, which has something of the effect of snarling "drat, and double-drat!" with an accusatory finger-jab. It also explains much about the failings of the Georgian market economy. Russians call this misuse of register "Georgian swearing", and consider it a sign of moral degeneracy on a par with the Baltic States.
Other languages that lug pre-modern grammatical baggage around with them are also blessed with the Slav's facility for offence.
A former ladyfriend fluent in Levantine Arabic once recalled that Syrian border guards were always delighted to see her French travelling companion, as the young woman's Gallic surname sounded exactly like "I (female) am in the process of being rooted by you (male singular)/other (male singular) while we are speaking" in Damascene dialect. This one-word sonata puts Welsh-speakers' amusement at the surname Cotsen to shame.
Important work is being done on Russian sweariness by, for example, Vadim Mikhailin and Alexei Plutser-Sarno. I can only hope that progressive scholars elsewhere will follow them in wresting frame semantics from the pallid paws of the academy. Not only because it is amusing to call someone an "Armenian plugnut", but because it can aid international understanding.
I recommend watching this clip, in which a young Russian has translated the popular Soviet children's puppet show Krokodil Gena into Swearish:
You may not understand the words, but I am sure that you will know exactly what he is saying. Language planners like that weed Zamenhof and his flaccid Esperanto missed the point. We need less reason in discourse analysis, not more.
I believe that if United Nations debates and all diplomacy were conducted at the level of the primary-school playground we would be well on the way to universal peace and fuckyourmotherhood. Пиздец!