English examples are from books The Southern Vampire Msyteries, Confessions of a Shopaholic, and Harry Potter. For Japanese, examples are from Naruto (anime), and the Spanish example is from Volver (movie). Enjoy!
All languages have curse words, which people all around the world use quite often. Wikipedia says: “Analyses of recorded conversations reveal that roughly 80–90 spoken words each day – 0.5% to 0.7% of all words – are swear words”. Whether we mean it seriously or as a joke, they're part of our daily life, our routine. Also, when learning a new language, we’re always interested in the curse words too, right? In some cases, they might even be among the first words learned, as they might be heard more often.
Taking into account all the different languages and cultures, there are probably plenty of curse words and phrases in the world. If we think about it, we can probably come up with a few curse words belonging to languages different from our mother tongue. For non-English speakers, it shouldn’t be difficult to come up with something, thanks to the amount of English we hear on television.
But how much does cursing differ from one language and/or culture to another? Let’s check it!
American versus British English
When we think of American curse words, there’s comedian George Carlin who, in 1972, recited a monologue called "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television". Those seven words are the following: shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, and tits. However, thanks to the worldwide popularity of Hollywood movies, we have to admit that we know what most, if not all, words mean. “Cocksucker” and “motherfucker” are even purely American inventions.
There’s also the word “bitch”, along with the phrase “son of a bitch”. “Bitch” refers to a female dog, though it also works as an insult addressed to women who are evil, despicable. However, in the phrase “son of a bitch”, “bitch” is used with a slightly different meaning: a woman who sleeps around, a whore.
"He's been thinking them," I said helplessly, "to get a rise out of me. He knows."
"Son of a bitch," Sam said, which almost shocked me back to normal. Sam didn't curse.
Some of the Amerian curse words might be used in the UK, as well, but probably not as much. This doesn’t mean that the British don’t swear. They have their own vocabulary of curse words.
One example is “bollocks”. It is a chiefly British word, meaning “testicles”. It can be used either as a noun (a more vulgar way of saying “nonsense”) or as an interjection expressing anger or frustration. In Ireland, it is also used when talking about an idiot, an ignorant or disagreeable person.
Next, there’s “wanker”. As a vulgar word only, it means “someone who masturbates”. As a curse word, it means “jerk”. Some other British words that are synonyms with this one are “tosspot”, “tosser”, “bawbag”, “knobber”, and “knobhead”.
“Bugger” might be a bit familiar to some non-English speakers. First of all, as a noun it has a non-vulgar meaning: a sodomite, a person who commits buggery. Another meaning, this time derogatory, is “a foolish or worthless person or thing; a despicable person”. As a slang word, it can refer to “a situation that causes dismay”. You can also address someone with “bugger” and mean it in an affectionate, yet teasing way, as if you’re calling him “chap”.
As a verb, in slang language, it can mean “to break/ruin something” or “to feel contempt for a person, to be frustrated with something”. You can say “bugger this”, which is quite similar in meaning to the American “fuck this”. The same goes with “bugger” as an interjection, having a similar meaning to “fuck” or “damn” as interjections.
“I knew you were shallow and spoiled, Becky. I didn’t realize you were a two-faced bitch as well.”
She turns and strides out, closing the door behind her with a bang.
Kelly is bright red; Jim’s looking anywhere but me. The whole atmosphere is prickling with awkwardness.
Then the woman in the green head scarf folds her arms.
“Well,” she says. “You buggered that one up, didn’t you, love?”
“You bought Michael’s leaving present from Millets, didn’t you?”
I feel my smile disappear. Oh, bugger. Of course. The blue anorak for Michael. The blue soddinganorak from Millets.
Let’s not forget about “bloody hell”, the phrase that is often used by Ron Weasley from Harry Potter. This phrase is used to show various emotions, from disgust and anger to surprise. It’s quite similar in meaning to “blimey”.
“What’s that?” said one of the twins suddenly, pointing at Harry’s lightning scar.
“Blimey,” said the other twin. “Are you —?”
“He is,” said the first twin. “Aren’t you?” he added to Harry.
“What?” said Harry.
“ Harry Potter.” chorused the twins.
Let’s start with Chinese – more specifically, Mandarin Chinese. It’s a very colourful language when it comes to curse words and phrases. They are related to sex, mother, stupidity, uselessness, excrements, animals. There are quite a few racist ones too.
One example is “èrbī (二屄)”, which literally means “double vagina” but is used as an insult, meaning “fucking idiot”. “Bō (波)” means “wave, breakers”, but it is also used to refer to boobs. Because of this, the word “bōbà" (波霸) is used to refer to a woman with very large breasts.
There are quite a few examples related to one’s mother. The general one is “tā māde” (他妈的) which literally translates as “his mother’s”, but as an insult, it has the same meaning as “Shit!”. There’s also “tā māde niǎo (他妈的鸟) which, literally translated as “his mother’s dick”, actually means something like “goddamn it”. There is a clear, insulting meaning in the following two phrases: “cào nǐ mā” (肏你妈) or “cào nǐ niáng” (肏你娘); they both mean “fuck your mother”.
“Húli jīng” (狐狸精) means “fox spirit”, but as an insult, it has the same meaning as “bitch”. Other words and phrases related to cheap women are “gōng gòng qì chē” (公共汽车); “biǎozi” (婊子) and “jiàn nǚ rén” (贱女人). For men, there is “huā huā gōngzi” (花花公子); its literal translation is “flower-flower prince”, although as an insult, it means a playboy, notorious cheater.
The Japanese language looks less colourful when it comes to curse words. Compared to other languages, they also seem milder, though they still count as insults. For “idiot” there are two terms: “aho” (あほ) and “baka” (馬鹿 / ばか). “Busu” (ぶす) is used to call a woman ugly, while “hentai” (へんたい) means pervert (“hentai” also refers to sexually explicit or pornographic comics and animations, especially Japanese ones). For “damn” or “shit”, in order of intensity, the Japanese use “kuso” (くそ), “shimatta” (しまった) or “Chikusho!” (畜生! / ちくしょう!).
Naruto: "Dame da... Kuso, kuso..." (I can't do it... Damn it, damn it...)
Jiraya: "Aho darou..." (You sure are stupid...)
Lastly, there’s Korean. An often used one is “shibbal” (씨발) which is used to mean “shit” as an interjection. It comes from the verb “ssip-hada” (씹하다) which means “to fuck”, although “shibbal” isn’t as strong as “fuck”. “There’s also “gaeseki” (개새끼), which literally means “son of a dog”, but is used mostly as “son of a bitch”. Between friends, it can be teasing, though otherwise, it counts as a pretty strong insult. Other similar insults are “byungshina” (병신아), which means something like “you stupid ass!”, and “shibalnoma” (씨발놈아), similar to the English “you motherfucker”.
“Jenjang” (젠장) can be used to express “goddamn it” or “damn it”, while “jiral” (지랄) means “bullshit”. There’s also the pair “mee-cheen-nom” (미친놈) and “mee-cheen-nyum” (미친년) which mean “crazy bastard”, respectively “crazy bitch”. And if you want to call someone “dumbass” in Korean, you can use “byungshin” (병신).
Let’s have a look at a few examples from Romance languages, as well. The ones I’ll use will be French, Spanish and Romanian.
French has “merde”, used as the English “shit”. It is quite often used, just like its English equivalent. Also, if you call a woman “pute”, you’re saying that she’s a bitch. Just like in English, you can say “fils de pute”, which means “son of a bitch”. A synonym for "pute" is "salope", though it is also a bit milder.
“Je m’en fous” literally means “I don’t give a fuck”. The phrase includes the verb “foutre”, which means “to fuck”. However, if you want to tell someone “fuck off” in French, use “casses toi”. There's also another version of this phrase, made famous (or more infamous) by Sarkozy: "casses toi pauv' con", which means "fuck off you poor bugger". And last, a very rude and vulgar phrase is “nique ta mere”, which means “fuck your mother”. It is really offensive and used mostly in extreme situations. Also, the masculine form of this phrase is "nique ton père", although it is rarely used.
In the case of Spanish, “joder” can be translated as the interjection “fuck”. However, if you want to tell someone something similar to “fuck it/you”, you can use “me cago en la puta” (lit. “I shit on the whore”) or “me cago en tus muertos” (lit. “I shit on your dead ones”). “Puta” can be used to call someone a whore, a bitch, while “hijo de puta” means “son of a bitch” in English; the masculine form is “puto”.
“Gilipollas” is used to call someone a jerk or an asshole, but it also implies that the person is stupid. “¡Maldita sea!” is quite a common insult, although it isn’t too offensive; we often hear it in Spanish soap operas, and it means something like “may he/she/it be cursed [by God]”. “¡Qué demonios!” can be translated as “what the hell”.
"Cojones" is also used as a swear word. The singular form is "cojón:", which is a slang term for "testicle". In Spanish, it is as a suffix, complement or termination to a word or name in order to confer it a derisive quality, in an expressin like "X de los cojones" (damn X, fucking X).
Rainmunda: "Viento de los cojones!" (Fucking wind!)
Romanian is quite colourful when it comes to curse words and phrases – even quite original, I could say. For starters, there are some which follow the typical pattern of curse words. “Du-te dracului” and “du-te naibii” are used quite often, meaning “go to hell”. However, when something specific annoys you at someone, you say “fi-ţi-ar X”, where X is the thing that annoys you; it can be translated as "damn your X”.
The word “pulă” means “cock”, and can be used in phrases like “ce pula mea”, meaning something similar to “what the fuck”. It’s interesting that it is also used by females, not only by males. A milder – and funnier – way of saying that phrase is “ce pana mea”, where “pană” means “feather”. There’s also a more vulgar word for the female genitalia as well: “pizdă” (“pussy” in English). You can say "du-te-n pizda mă-tii", or use a shorter version, "pizda mă-tii"; a literal translation would mean "go into your mother's cunt", though it is used more as “go to hell” or “fuck off”.
More interesting ones are “mi-am băgat picioarele” / “băga-mi-aş picioarele” and "morții mă-tii" / "paștele mă-tii". The first pair can be translated as “I put my feet in it”; it implies the fact that you give up on something or you mess it up. Meanwhile, the second pair can be translated as “your mother’s dead people” or “your mother’s Easter”. “Paștele”, meaning “Easter”, is used here because of its phonetic similarity to “pizdă”. They are used when you are annoyed with someone and you want to show it; it can even count as a warning, something like “fuck, you got me angry now, you’re in trouble”.
Bonus! Finnish and Dutch curse words!
To further compare curse words, I’ll give a few examples of curse words from Finnish and Dutch.
For Finnish, first there’s “vittu”; it is a word for the woman’s genitalia, although it’s barely used in this context anymore. Instead, as a curse word, it’s used as the interjection “fuck”. Also, “vitun X” (added before a noun) can be translated as “fucking X” (something annoying). “Perkele” can be translated as “the devil”, though as a curse word, it works the same way as “vittu”; in English though, it is closer to the meaning of “damn”.
“Paska” means “shit”, and is placed before something unpleasant (before a noun, to say that something was shitty). There’s also the phrase “paska homma” which means “that sucks”. And “Jumalauta” consists of two words: “jumala” means God and “auta” means something like a plead for help. Rather than meaning something like “God help me”, it works more as “holy shit”.
In Dutch, one first example is the word “shit”. Surprisingly, in English, it doesn’t quite translate as “shit”, but rather as “damn” or crap”; it is used solely as an exclamation, with a milder meaning. For the English “shit”, Dutch has “klote” (lit. “balls”). When used as an adjective or prefix, its meaning is therefore more: "piece of shit -", "damn - ", "stupid - ". And the worse of them is “kut” (lit. “cunt”), which works as the English “fuck”.
However, probably the worst curse phrase is disease-related. "Krijg de tering!" has the meaning of “get tuberculosis”. Tuberculosis isn’t that bad of a disease anymore, but it still carries the meaning of a horrible disease (like telling someone to get AIDS). Related to this, there’s "teringlijer", which translates as “tuberculosis-sufferer”.
One particular type of curse words that is strictly related to each country’s culture is represented by the racist terms. They vary from one language to another, judging by how much another country is looked at with disapproval.
The Chinese, for example, have racist terms for Western people, as well as for Japanese and Korean ones. Some terms that apply to Western people are: yáng guǐzi (洋鬼子) which means “foreign devil”; hóng máo guǐzi (红毛鬼子), a rude term for Caucasians, meaning “red fur devil”; mán zi (蛮子), which means “foreign barbarians”. For Japanese people, there are: xiǎo rìběn (小日本), meaning “Japs” or “little Japanese”; “rìběn guǐzi (日本鬼子) which means “Japanese devils”; or “rìběn gǒu” (日本狗), meaning “Japanese dogs”. Lastly, Koreans are called “gāolì bàng zǐ” (高丽棒子), which refers to how Koreans would fit into trousers of the Ancient Koryo design, or “èr guǐ zǐ” (二鬼子) was used during World War II to refer to Koreans part of the Imperial Japanese Army, making them “second devils”.
The Americans have plenty of racist terms for black people: “ape”, “gator bait”, “jigaboo”, “kaffir”, "shitskin" or the famous “nigger”. For Jewish people, they use “abbie”, “heeb” or “hebe” or “ikey”, while for Asians, “Asian nigger” (for Filipinos), “buddhahead”, “ching chong” (mostly for Chinese), “dink” (for Vietnamese), “nip” (for Japanese), “slant-eye” or “yellow”. Also, Central American people are called “beaners” and "wetback", “dune coon” or “haji” / “hajji” is used for Arabs, “frog” for the French, “limey” for the British, and “pollack” for a person of Polish origin.
In the UK, “chink” is used for Asian people. “Dago” refers to people from Italy, Spain and Portugal, and its origin probably comes from the Spanish name “Diego”. The Germans are called “fritz”, while “frog” is used by the British too, referring to the French. A Scottish person is called “jock”, “jocky or “jockie”, an Irish person, “paddy”, “Mack”, “Mick”, “Mickey”, or “Mickey Finn”, and as for the Welsh, they are called “taffy” or taf”. Also, South Asian people are called “paki” or “poppadom”.
The Japanese don’t really have racist terms. There is one, of general use, and that is “gaijin”. It is a shorter form of the word “gaikokujin”, which means “foreigner”. When used, it implies that the speaker is being rude when talking about a foreign person.
These are enough examples for us to conclude that the cultural difference when it comes to curse words is mostly related to racist terms.
Now that we’ve seen all these examples in so many languages, we can conclude a few things. Despite the big differences between the various languages, the pattern when it comes to curse words is quite similar. Many languages have curse words that are related to excrements, male or female genitalia, the devil or hell, diseases, or sexual intercourse.
The cultural factor leads to original curse words or phrases. In my opinion, British English ones stands out, especially since it has different terms than the ones I’m accustomed to hearing (the ones in American English). Also, another example is the Dutch "krijg de tering!" (“get tuberculosis”), where tuberculosis is referred to as a more serious disease than it really is.
Plus, the racial terms are strictly related to the culture of one country. While some might be common among English-speaking countries, this is not the case in the rest of the countries. Each language is different, as well as its culture and the countries they like and dislike. This makes each and every language original.
Sources include Wikipedia, Wiktionary, Merriam-Webster, the Longman Dictionary, as well as other random sites for Korean, French, and Japanese. Also, thanks to the people who helped me with lots of examples, including whymzycal (and her friend) with Dutch examples!