Sunday 29 August 2010

Greatest Hits - Track 11

Another column from my 'Living in a Bilingual World' series. Still on holidays and soaking up what is left of our brilliant summer.

- Papi, what's this word?

Son’s voice snapped me out of my reverie. His index finger was pointing at a word in italics bang in the middle of a long sentence. All the other words were in English, but this one in particular stood out amongst the others. The reason? It was in Spanish.

The dreaded 'c' word had arrived in Son’s world.

Living in a Bilingual World has very limited patience for pretentious newspapers columnists with lofty linguistic ambitions, but my eye has been caught recently by certain articles I have read both in print and on the internet where the ‘c’ word has been included gratuitously.

Of course, there is a chance you are already familiar with the ‘c’ word. If you speak Spanish, that is. And if you hail from Latin America as I do, you will find it as offensive as I do. I can’t even bring myself to write it so I will have to do the same they do sometimes in written publications; to place asterisks strategically; do not fret, though, you will recognise it immediately.

C stands for c******. Got it? Seven letters. Seven gratuitously offensive letters (Spaniards do not count as I know that they love cursing left, right and centre).

So, why? Why has it become a habit to band this four-letter word about (admittedly, it is actually seven letters, but let’s not get too picky about it, shall we?) as if it was Angelina Jolie’s latest adopted Third World orphan?

I think the reason stems from the desire to sound cool in another language. Given the shortcomings in the learning and teaching of foreign languages in the UK and to which I have referred before here in this space, there’s a zeal to prove that at least when it comes to swear words, British journalists are up to scratch. Timothy Garton Ash, one of my favourite columnists in The Guardian, has used it (sin asteriscos, mind). Catherine Bennett, from The Observer and another features writer I worship, can’t let go of it (or them, and no, no pun intended). Over at the holier-than-thou Daily Telegraph, Andrew Grimson reminds readers that even Liberal Democratic leaders must remember where they have theirs. In case they lose them, maybe. Even The Times is at it with them. And it is not only the Brits; their German counterparts are guilty of the same crime, too.

It is a sad situation when you have to explain to a ten-year-old (Son), that no, this is not a nice word, that a man’s private parts are usually asterisked in the British media (except in The Guardian and The Observer where they delight in using all kinds of expletives without covering them up) and that some words sound very strong to certain cultures.

And what about Son? Well, what about Son?

- How do you pronounce this word, then, papi?

- Well, as you know, the ‘j’ sounds like the English ‘h’. But I bet they don’t know that.

N.B.: For non-Spanish speakers, just in case it has not been obvious to you, either by the tone of the column or by the photo included in it, the 'c' word I alluded to in the above post is a swear word for 'testicles' in Spanish.

© 2008

Next Post: 'Greatest Hits - Track 12', to be published on Sunday 5th September at 10am (GMT)


  1. Well, I got a good laugh from this one as I went down my repertoire of Spanish curse words that started with c. For the longest time, I couldn't come up with one with seven letters. The closest I came was the one with six that also includes a j so I was truly perplexed until I got to your definition. Aha! And maybe what had happened was that the word you refer to has become so commonplace in English usage that it "stopped" being an obvious curse word to me. Sad but true.

  2. I'm lost but I'm still laughing.

  3. It is a surprisingly common word in English text... considering that it's Spanish. And that - you're right - no-one knows how to pronounce it! I wonder how many times we have to borrow a word before we accept that we've stolen it, and stop italicising...

  4. Mira que tienes "c" por poner esa pobre ardillita o ardillito en pantalla. Y por favor no hables de los huerfanos asi para hacer un ejemplo, yo se que tu sabes mejor que eso amigo. ;)

  5. Many thanks for your kind comments. I should be back to normal next week. In the meantime, we'll have Bob (as in Bob Dylan) on Sunday on the blog. See you then.

    Greetings from London.

  6. It’s immature, isn’t it? I’m always more impressed with cool ideas than with swearing. I guess the foreign swear dodges the censors. Nothing like those teachable moments.

  7. What a pain: those language high-jackers. Yet I remain faithful to the First Amendment.

    You handled it just right with your son--civilized.

    Warmest regards--it's 95 f--from Boston.

  8. Oh, yes. The C word is very popular in the States, at least in this part of the States that I live in. I hear it used quite a bit, even by people who don't speak Spanish, and they seem perfectly nonchalant about it.

    One observation from another person who is a non-native speaker of English (Me): I have noticed that it is much more difficult for one to swear in one's native tongue than it is to swear in English. Swearing in English seems quite all right, while swearing in Arabic, say, is a no no! I think the opposite might be true for native speakers of English. It's perfectly okay to say the C word, though I've noticed that it's quite all right for them to also swear in English. Baffling, how language works!

    Thanks for a fun post, as always, Cuban!


  9. You are lucky that your boy still asks you for definitions. After a certain age, children exchange these words with each other and leave parents in the dark. And like Judith, I had to scramble around looking for the "right" word you alluded to. You must not have cable t.v. in England. Here, anything goes on cable. We gain vulgaries on a daily basis just by watching cable channels. South Park, is a prime example.

  10. I was clueless with what the c word was. But then again in Mexico we don't use that word so makes sense.

    I remember my days in high school and college,when my classmates learned that I spoke Spanish they immediately asked me to teach them the 'curse' words. I simply said no, but I can teach spanish if you are really interested.



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