Sunday, February 7, 2010

when swear words hit at different registers

here is an article published in the NYT back in November, but Ricardo just brought it to my attention and it's relevant to the last post. what do you do with words that have an equivalent but carry much more charge in the target language?

Where the Swearing Is All About the Context

MEXICO CITY — Two teenage girls slurped iced coffee drinks at a sidewalk cafe the other afternoon and chatted away about boys, clothes, their weekend plans, whatever seemed to pop into their heads. They were clearly friends, but repeatedly referred to each other with a Spanish word meaning “ox” or “steer” or “stupid.”

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Claudia Daut/Reuters

Workers fired by President Felipe Calderón protested last month. One sign said Mr. Calderón would sell his mother if he could.

The word — güey, also spelled buey — makes most lists of Mexican profanities, but it has been co-opted by the cool, young set as a term of endearment. One hears it constantly, as often as “dude” comes up in an English conversation.

Like many Mexicans, though, the teenage girls also dipped into a well-stocked arsenal of more potent curse words, most of which referred in one way or another to sex. Even those were uttered so casually, however, that they did not seem to carry much sting.

Mexicans, despite their reputation in Latin America for ultrapoliteness and formality, curse like sailors, a recent survey found. They use profanity when speaking with their friends, with their co-workers, with their spouses and even with their bosses and parents. On Independence Day, the thing to shout above all else is “Viva Mexico, Cabrones!” a patriotic exhortation directed at either bastards or buddies, depending on the tone employed.

Consulta Mitofsky, a Mexican polling firm, asked 1,000 Mexicans 18 and older about their use of “groserías,” as curse words are known in Spanish, and found that respondents estimated they used an average of 20 bad words a day. Those swearing the most, not surprisingly, were young people. “The generation younger than 30 sees the use of bad words as more natural and they use them not only in front of friends but, many of them say, in front of their parents or bosses,” the survey found.

... Exactly what is considered a bad word in Mexico can require some interpretation. There are various types of insults, some comparing people to animals, others referring to the diminished mental capacity of the recipient. Others refer to sex, naturally, using that most Mexican of words, “chingar,” which the Royal Spanish Academy of Language says is a derivative of the word “to fight” but that in Mexico can be very offensive or very innocuous or virtually anything in between.

“It is definitely personal,” the survey said of Mexicans’ propensity for cursing. “The same word applied in different contexts and in two different moments is seen in very different manners.”

It is almost always obvious, of course, when a curse is meant as a curse.

A woman walking by a group of construction workers the other day left no doubt as to her message when the men whistled at her and she shouted out a response. The electrical workers who were recently fired by President Felipe Calderón also clearly wanted the worst impression possible to be read into the protest signs they lofted. One banner, a tame one, referred to Mr. Calderón as a “pinche ladrón,” which can be translated as a “damn crook.” Pinche, though, can also be a word with no negative connotation at all, meaning a cook’s assistant. ....

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