‘When angry, count to ten”, American humorist Mark Twain had once remarked. “When very angry, swear”. He then added, more tellingly, evincing an astute sense of the role that cussing plays in the human psyche, “There ought to be a room in every house to swear in, because it’s dangerous to have to repress an emotion like that”.
Not only has swearing existed since the earliest humans began to communicate but, psycho-linguists tell us, it has been shown to lower anxiety, help the helpless to threaten aggression and, paradoxically, even promote cooperation. In her recently released book, Swearing Is Good for You, Emma Byrne, a science contributor to the BBC, writes: “Research shows that swearing can help build teams in the workplace, from factory floor to operating room, and [equally shows] that teams who share a vulgar lexicon tend to work more effectively together, feel closer, and be more productive than those who don’t”.
All well and good. The problem is in the translation of profanities from one language into another. Translating, say, a standard English text into a standard Arabic text can by itself be daunting, though in the hands of a competent translator, who can fuse semantic text with cultural context, it can be made to seem easy. Translating jokes — and jokes are no laughing matter, as Sigmund Freud showed in his iconic 1910 work, Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious — can be well nigh impossible, since jokes are not only anchored in the peculiarities of the culture that composed them, but are often narrated in slang, a linguistic repertoire that loses its emotional heft when translated into another language.
Now, when it comes to translating cuss words, again say, from English into Arabic or visa versa, well, forget about it. You will have an easier job chasing after the final decimal point in Pi.
Consider this. When Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, in a speech last March, swore at America’s ambassador to Israel, David Freidman, calling him “son of a dog”, the incident prompted a swift rebuke from officials at the White House, who called it “highly inappropriate” and “hateful rhetoric”. But that was because these officials translated the swear words literally, as “son of a b****”, which of course crosses a diplomatic line. But in Arabic, the phrase is a mild — though not, of course an entirely benign — expression of exasperation at someone you have to pick a bone with, that should have been rendered into English as something approximating “that damn fool”.
Still, the cross-cultural irony thickens. In 2003, in the lead-up to the Second Gulf War, Izzat Ebrahim Al Douri, a senior aide to Saddam Hussain, created headlines in the western media when he angrily yelled at his Kuwaiti counterpart, at an emergency summit of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, “A curse be upon your moustache!” At this, commentators in the Euro-American press were more amused, perhaps puzzled, than shocked. That is because they were not aware that moustaches in the Middle East — luxuriously thick and handsomely trimmed — are prized by men as symbols of a macho posture, manliness, virility, wisdom, respect. It is common for a man, for example, to point at his moustache and offer it as collateral, say, for a loan. Men walking the streets without bushy whiskers do not walk with the swagger of a ‘zaim’, or a toughie, a respected figure who “belongs”, who is “connected”. ( Again during the Second Gulf War, a PR smart-aleck in the American military instructed members of a unit of American marines based in Iraq’s Sunni stronghold of Fallujah to grow moustaches to help them win local sympathies. We all know of how little help that was.)
In recent years, several linguists — or more accurately, psycho-linguists — have tried to fathom what actually constitutes swearing, among them Magnus Lijung, a respected academic and expert on the subject, whose book, Swearing: A Cross-Cultural Linguistic Study, found that among the thousands of languages and dialects in the world, there’s wide variation in the use of expletives, but some cultures swear more than others. And no one is more foul-mouthed, it appears, than Americans — including American government officials.
Consider, in this context, the Watergate scandal. In April 1974, the then United States president Richard Nixon was compelled by subpoena to provide a written transcript of the White House tapes to the House Judiciary Committee, whose members were shocked to discover — or perhaps affected shock at discovering — that discussions in the Oval Office between the president of the US and his inner circle of aides were laced with profanities — profanities that the chief executive insisted be replaced in the script by the term “expletive deleted”.
After the notorious script was published in the New York Times, Americans were scandalised, given Nixon’s staid public image. The term “expletive deleted” then went on to insinuate itself into the imagination of ordinary folks and gain such playful notoriety in public discourse that protesters held up picket signs outside the White House saying, “Impeach the expletive deleted”.
Back to Friedman, the American ambassador to Israel, who is more a cheerleader for Israel’s Likud loonies and colonist zealots than he is America’s chief diplomat in Israel, looking out for America’s national interests in the region. I for one will not call for a curse upon his moustache — a fate I would not wish upon my worst enemy, even one who may be the offspring of a canine — but as a diaspora Palestinian whose family was expelled from home and homeland and was made to endure unspeakable suffering as stateless refugees, I will dismiss the man as an ignorant piece of expletive deleted who hasn’t read half a dozen decent books in his life, and who also happens to be an expletive deleted fat slob.
See, the experts were right, swearing a blue streak is good for you.
Fawaz Turki is a journalist, lecturer and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.