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The risk of cursing in a foreign tongue
by Herbert L. Kahn

Herbert L. KahnAt present, the art and issue of cussing are neither an art nor an issue. Cussing is pretty much limited to some four-letter words dealing with digestion and procreation, and the words are spread liberally through many movies, and are increasingly found in TV.

During my adolescence, however, which occurred shortly after the invention of the electric light, it was considered uncivilized to say "damn" in the presence of a lady, except in reference to a water barrier. Because the need for such expressions was then as great (well, nearly as great) as it is now, various stratagems were employed.

In W.C. Fields movies, the comedian was often tempted to evoke perdition by the Deity. At such times, he growled: "Godfrey Daniels!" Try it. Even today, it's very satisfying. There was also a widespread theory that other races and nationalities could cuss much more imaginatively than could American WASPS. That led to adaptation of such curses into the U. S. milieu, such as:

"All your teeth should fall out except one, and in that one you should have a toothache," or:

"You should fall off the top of the Empire State Building, and get hit on the head by a baseball bat as you pass every floor."

In my teens, I read and remembered various foreign curses. Even though I did not know what they meant, I would rap them out boldly and with satisfaction, confident that nobody around me understood them either. One such was "Babbanas nes-tshaim!" an expression which I believed was in the Turkish language. Another was a Chinese phrase: "Maga-hie ding ding!" which I was told had a sexual connotation. Finally, in a story by Somerset Maugham, an angry Dutchman lapsed from English to cry out: "Smerige flikkers! Verlockte ploerten!"

About 25 years later, my wife Sally and I were in the Dutch city of Delft, having lunch in a large, crowded restaurant with three professors of the local university. Somehow the conversation turned to the question as to whether I knew any Dutch words.

"Indeed," I said proudly. "I know some Dutch curse words, but I don't know what they mean. Maybe you could tell me."

"Surely," one of our hosts replied. "What are they?"

"Smerige flikkers! Velockte ploerten!" I whispered, but evidently my pronunciation was poor. They discussed among themselves what this could be. Suddenly one of them broke into a grin.

"I have it," the professor said loudly. "What Herb meant to say was: "Smerige flikkers! Verlockte ploerten!"

Evidently these words, when properly pronounced, are fairly significant even by today's standards. The restaurant fell completely silent. Waiters stopped in their tracks, and 200 pairs of eyes stared at the speaker. Needless to say, the professor turned scarlet. Even worse, none of them would give me an English translation.

A few years before, I had had the opportunity to use the Turkish words. At the end of a meal in a Turkish restaurant in New York, I had some sort of disagreement with our waiter, perhaps because he regarded my tip as too small. Anyway, he made some long, loud, and presumably insulting remarks in his native tongue. When it was my turn, I stared him in the eye, and said: "Babbanas nes-tshaim!"

This time, I evidently pronounced it right, because the waiter reached across the table and grabbed me by the throat. If the manager and other waiters had not interfered, those might have been the last words that I ever said. I was told later that "Babbanas nes-tshaim!" is the equivalent to "Your father's life, I place the products of my digestion on it."

Because of these experiences, I have resisted any temptation to use an evening in a Chinese restaurant to discover the meaning, if any, of "Maga-hie ding ding!"

Herbert L. Kahn was a high-tech marketing consultant in Weston, Massachusetts

Originally published March 10, 1993, in The Middlesex News,
now The MetroWest Daily News (reproduced with permission).

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This page was posted March 4, 2010