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Uglier Than a Monkey's Armpit

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Wednesday, Oct 7, 2009
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Uglier Than a Monkey's Armpit: Untranslatable Insults, Put-Downs, and Curses from Around the World

Stephen Dodson & Robert Vanderplank

(Perigee)

It has been an irrepressible activity since the dawn of man: to heap insults on enemies, rivals, neighbors, and even friends.


Despite the ubiquitousness of expressions of disgust and frustration, just because one may be well versed in Anglo-Saxon cursing doesn’t mean you’ll be ready to call out a Russian or an Italian while traveling through this increasingly multicultural world. Not only do authors Dodson and Vanderplank want to give you the tools you’ll need to understand that Swede when he invokes the devil, but also the understanding of where many colloquial put-downs come from.


Dodson, creator of the LanguageHat.com blog, and Vanderplank have gathered an admirable representation of the wide variety of Untranslatable Insults, Put-Downs, and Curses from Around the World. In his introduction, Vanderplank notes that:


For me, insults and curses are the “dark” side of manners and customs and all the more interesting for that, as they may inform us about what lies beneath the social codes, what verbal games men and women play with each other.


The quest to bring obscure insults to English-readers starts in the ancient world, where many Roman insults have to do with sex, and Greek ones with drunkenness. Some of the insults culled from modern vocabularies may be quite familiar; for example readers in the US may have heard someone on the playground tell someone else they’ve been ‘beaten with the ugly stick.’ The Brits have many ways to refer to someone as an idiot, too many to list in this collection, but a favorite Britist insult of mine is ‘mutton dressed as lamb’ to describe a woman who uses clothes and makeup to try to hide her age.


In my experience, calling someone a mama’s boy is usually an insult meaning that he has been coddled and isn’t able to take care of himself. In Italy, sons are traditionally quite close to their mothers and this insult bears no weight—so instead they have figlio di papá, meaning daddy’s boy, implying that the person has left his father behind as he moves up in the world. ‘Scum of soya paste’ wouldn’t have meant much when thrown around at my elementary school, but in Japan misokakku is a popular children’s curse to describe someone annoying.


Translating the ‘Untranslatable’ presents a challenge even for Vanderplank, the Directory of the Oxford University Language Center, so the contextual notes are key to making this guide worth flipping through. Whether you’re looking for an unusual way to taunt your older siblings, or you’re something of an armchair linguist, you’ll find something unique and possibly useful within the pages of Uglier.


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