Sunday, 1 August 2010

Greatest Hits - Track 7

Whilst I am away on holidays I will be posting (or re-posting, as some people might prefer to call it) articles that first saw the light many moons ago. In blog years, that makes this column ancient since it first came out in December 2007. Part of my 'Living in a Bilingual World' series.

To swear or not to swear? Esa es la pregunta (That's the question)

And what a question! Especially for someone like me brought up in a family where cursing was frowned upon and my limited childhood vocabulary included the two notions 'palabras feas' (ugly words) and 'malas palabras' (swear words). At age five or six I experienced my late Nana's wrath when I dared say the word 'jodi'ó' as in 'la bicicleta se jodi'ó' (the bike broke down). I cannot remember whether it was a clip round the ear or a 'tapaboca' (a slap in my mouth) but I got smacked pretty hard.

So, with these thoughts in my mind I ventured into unknown waters recently when I explained to Son the meaning behind a particular track he'd been humming to lately. It was 'Ciudad de Pobres Corazones' by the Rosarino musician Fito Páez. Son was already familiar with the Argentinian's music as I play his hits regularly at home, but this particular track has an intoxicating melody and beat that make it stand out from the rest of the songs that appear in the album.

- Do you know what he says in the song? I asked him whilst I was driving.
- No, what is it?
- I think he's talking about Buenos Aires, and the times when the military was in power. He's feeling despondent and angry.
- Uhhh...
- And he's using a word that is actually a four-letter word in that context.
- What do you mean?
- Well, the word 'puta' is used to convey the level of disatisfaction he feels towards the incumbent government.
- What's the equivalent in English?
- The f-word.
- (Gasps).

Did I do right or wrong? My intention was not to become 'Papi Cool', but merely illustrate to him how some of the songs in Spanish he listens to contain 'bad words' (a caveat, though, the Latin pop, rock and salsa I play at home is heavily sanitised). However, Wife and I have yet to have that important 'talk' about the use of certain words, especially as Son is fast moving forward to adolescence. He was nonchalant about the whole 'p' word but I was left restless. Have I opened a can of worms? Have I brought upon myself Claudius curse 'When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions' by opening this Pandora's box? As a Cuban I admit that swearing still stuns me, especially when it is done gratuitously. Some Spanish-speaking cultures are more expletives-prone, not least, the Spanish culture. Many years ago, Juan Echanove, a popular Spanish actor, went on the now defunct live television show 'Contacto' with the then presenter Hilda Rabilero. This was a programme which thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of people tuned into at 6pm every Saturday evening. Imagine people's reaction when Echanove innocently uttered the 'c' word (that's 'cojones' by the way and I apologise profusely to anyone who feels offended by the epithet, just writing it makes me squirm) and Hilda went silent. Ten seconds elapsed. And then Juan, realising his error, asked the now famous question: 'Oh, is it because I said 'c...'? Cue embarrassment, shame and Hilda's nervous smile. Other cultures in Latin America are more cautious about their cursing. In Cuba, words even like 'carajo' are scorned and the person uttering them admonished.

Yet, there is another side of me that would like to see Son, and Daughter, too, use these words constructively. I guess it is to do with pride and amor propio. Or just with the desire to see them using words that, although high in the cringe factor, are part of their own linguistic DNA.

And I hope they learn when, where and with whom to use them, too.

© 2007

Next Post: 'Greatest Hits - Track 8', to be published on Sunday 8th August at 10am (GMT)


  1. ha! very interesting post. i'm intrigued these days by those who don't swear, and like you, i'm pretty particular about it. not saying i don't from time to time. but it'll never be in front of elders, out loud for others to here in public, or even in my blog posts.

    (well, i'll slide in 1 or 2 here or there on my myspace blog, but it's usually "lighter" swear words, lol!)

    something to have to do with my upbringing as well. my grandmother would not even tolerate me and my cousins saying words like "dang", "shoot" (as an expression), "butt", "lie" let alone the f word and s word.

    she's transitioned, but i still won't use these words around elders, my mom, aunts, uncles.

    i think your last point is an imporatant one.

  2. This was most interesting! I had no idea (and why would I?) that Cuban culture frowns upon the use of gros mots nor that their use is much more prevalent in other Spanish-speaking cultures. Although, now that I think of it, the Irish tend to use the F-word extrenely freely.

    When my youngest was about 10, we spent some time with a (very nice) Irish family, whose kids used 'feck' a lot. Son was quite upset by that and felt it was abusive and violent, even. to them, it was just another word, with no particular power to offend.

    Better to explain to your kids, I think. They'll open Pandora's box eventually anyway, and this way they'll already have your perspective on what's in there. It's your only hope for positive influence!

    Quite enjoy your varied topics, Cuban.

  3. Swearing is all about the where, when and with whom.
    My family seemed to speak two languages - "up the yard" and "in the house". To the best of my recollection, one never made it into the other's territory, though no one ever worried about my hearing both - from earliest childhood.

    Rude words fascinating my two youngest at the moment. But not the really rude ones.

  4. Your post brings back a memory of camping at a church camp beside a minister. Our daughter, 4 years old then was trying to dig in the hard dirt and having difficulty and was saying: 'Jeez'. I was in the trailer watching as the minister came over and said: 'You know dear that when you say: 'Jeez' that is short for 'Jesus' and that is making fun of Jesus. Our daughter sits there silently in thought then comes out with: 'That must mean that when I say 'worm' that I'm making fun of 'worms'. The minister had no idea what to do with that.

  5. I have to admit that there are times when I do swear. Sometimes there's nothing that can relieve my frustration in quite the way spitting out a swear word does. Swear words can also bring great comic relief to a situation. Have you ever seen the film Tremors. Kevin Bacon cracks me up the way he swears at the most tense moments in that film.

    However, I try to only swear around my friends. I don't swear around kids or my elders because it's just not appropriate. Nor do I bring swear words into any argument or debate because that's not appropriate or respecful either.


  6. Many thanks for your wonderful comments. Now that my mum is here (visiting us from Cuba) I watch my language much more. But I do sometimes wish my kids let out a foul word in Spanish every now and then. :-) Ahhh, the eternal dilemma of living in a bilingual world! :-D

    Greetings from London.

  7. My Boy told me the other day: 'For Christ's sake, you are driving me NUTS'. Part of me was astonished and guilty (he's four and a half) and the other half was pleased he was able to curse in a proper sentence and context :)



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