Verflucht und zugenäht - The art of swearing in German
Trigger warning: Bad words and naughty language ahead. Admittedly the author enjoys swearing quite a lot (probably even more since moving to England 10 years ago), so there is literally no holding back. That, however, is healthy. Science has proven the cathartic power of using profanities, which reduces stress levels and helps to re-balance your own mood. It might, however, not do the same for other people around you, many of whom could well take offence.
For this reason, the use of bad language should be carefully considered, something I sometimes seem incapable of. Same goes, according to studies in customer service centres, for Russians and Romanians, closely followed by Australians and New Zealanders. I am quite surprised the Brits didn’t make it in the top five of that list. It’s possible that Mancunian habits don’t apply for the rest of the country.
Interestingly, all four nations on the top of the list prefer their swearing based on sexually charged expletives, as do the English and, a class of their own, the Italians. Germans, interestingly, tend to use scatological terms more often than sexual ones. Suggestions that this could point towards Germans being more anal (which is often used as a synonym for OCD-like behaviour) would sit well with general stereotypes of tidiness, punctuality and an obsession with order. I was unable to find any scientific proof of this.
What I did find, however, is ample hints that swearing might be connected with the IQ-level of a person. Not only does more swearing suggest higher intelligence, swearing also gets more colourful and creative in better educated people. Psychologist Dr Richard Stephens dedicated a whole book to the issue. His team also tested the influence of swearing on willpower and stamina by putting test personnel in stressful situations and measuring how much better they could stand their plight when yelling out swear words. The result? A massive surge in power for those allowed to use strong language, compare to those who had to maintain proper behaviour.
Maybe that is the secret of Boris Johnson (a person I usually never mention without adding a whole bunch of strong swearwords, no matter what language I use), who is brilliant in insulting other people. He surely shows endurance as well as good education. I remember his funniest moment back in 2013 when he called members of the London Assembly “supine protoplasmic invertebrate jellies”.
So what about swearing in German now? My apologies for going on this lengthy rant while readers were hoping for juicy details. As mentioned beforehand, Germans prefer faecal matter over sexual connotations, so you’d be safe to replace the English “FUCK!” with the German “SCHEISSE” (shit, crap) as a first step. Don’t make the mistake that Robbie Williams made on the biggest German evening TV show “Wetten Dass” when he renamed the football club “Schalke 04” to “Scheiße 04” – it did not go down well. Germans in general and Schalke supporters in particular didn’t like their team being insulted by an Inselaffe. What that means? “Island Ape” is a derogatory term for British people, and from where I am standing it’s an amazing answer to the whole “Kraut” thing.
Where to learn the best German swear words? Driving. Get in the car with a German, hit the Autobahn or – even better! – inner city traffic and listen. Road rage is the very peak of German culture, where driving meets self-righteousness and the will to lecture other people about the proper way of doing something. It is hilarious when German parents teach their kids not to us foul language, if right afterwards they are allowed to ride in a car with dad driving (not that moms are necessarily better).
The whole arsenal of scatological terms can be observed here: Arschloch (asshole, not unfamiliar to Brits); Scheißer (a person defecating); Pissnelke (well, that’s an odd one – a pissing clove? What’s up with that?); Pisser (well… a pisser. You know that word.); Drecksau (dirty pig); Drecksack (dirty bag, although the word “Sack” might also refer to the scrotum.).
“Penner” and “Trottel” are weaker variations that no self-respecting road rager would ever use. You might find them venturing into sexualized territory, though. “Wichser” is a wanker, for example, and the reason why the website service “Wix.com” isn’t quite that popular in German speaking countries.
You can indeed be very rude without references to excrements. Fotze, Schlampe, Hure, Hurensohn are considered extremely over the top, though. Here is the meaning in flawless Queen’s English: Cunt, slut, whore, son of a whore. You can top up most of these terms with fitting adjectives. Popular with German rap “musicians”: The arschgefickter Hurensohn (ass-fucked son of a whore). Yes, that’s homophobic, so let’s quickly add something sexist: Dorfmatratze (the mattress of the village) is a very judgmental way to suggest a lady might have a taste for promiscuous behaviour. What you would call a bitch in English, is a “Zicke” (a she-goat) in German, or a “Gans” (a goat).
Which brings us to the very common abuse of animal names: Esel. Gans. Sumpfhuhn. Sau. Blöde Kuh. Schweinehund. In English: Donkey, goose, crake, sow, stupid cow, pigdog (whatever weird hybrid that might be).
Let me point out that this article does not attempt to be comprehensive at all. Like any other language, German is colourful and full of great ideas when it comes to being inappropriate. What, for example, would the term “Fick dich ins Knie” (attempt intercourse with your own knee) even mean? It defies logic and imagination. Similarly confusing the term I used for the headline of this article. “Verflucht und zugenäht” translates to “damned and stitched up”. On research, it turns out that the latter is based on an Austrian obscene student song from the 19th century, in which the girlfriend of a male student turns out to pregnant, which makes the poor fellow “curse his groin and stitch up his pants”. Bizarre? For sure!
“Fick dich ins Knie” is quite a bit less exciting. A “Kniefix” is the old German word for a curtsy. Now that’s not rude at all and thus very disappointing, so let’s forget about it. Back to faeces instead!
“Leck mich am Arsch” (lick my ass) is high culture. The quote goes back to the famous Götz von Berlichingen, a legendary medieval knight and main character in the classic play of the same name by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. “Er kann mich im Arsche lecken!” is what Götz yells towards an emissary from the emperor. Nowadays Germans still refer to “a Götz quote” if they don’t want to speak the actual words out loud.
Which is, indeed, very common. Unlike in North West England, where it is common to add “fucking” to nearly every sentence, even in the workplace, this is not what you would do in Germany. Foul language is still frowned upon, to a degree even among teens.
This is how minimised forms like “Verflixt” instead of “Verdammt” come into play. “Scheiße” turns into “Mist” (a much weaker form of the same word and the reason why the after shave “Irish Mist” is called “Irish Moss” in Germany). An alternative is “Kacke”, which is even more cutesy and can be used as “Kinderkacke” (children’s poop) to describe things that are exaggerated or silly. “Bockmist” (Goat’s dung) is a more friendly way to describe “Scheißdreck” (dirty shit). If you want to be even friendlier, you say “Quatsch”, which translates to “Nonsense” and is – funny enough – an artificial word created by the German Disney translators to be used in Duckburg by Donald and his family.
We cannot forget the religious twist! “Fahr zur Hölle” (go to hell) and “soll dich der Teufel holen“ (devil should get you) are still more common then “fick dich” (fuck you), and a more harmless way of expressing the same sentiment is “Rutsch mir den Buckel runter” (slide down my back).
You should be worried if you are being called an “Arschkriecher” (a suck-up) or an “Arschgesicht” (ass face), but if someone calls you a “Backpfeifengesicht”, you should act immediately. It translates to a “face that calls for a slap”. “Hackfresse”, on the other hand, means your face looks like minced meat. A matter of taste, presumably, but definitely an insult.
Being called disabled (behindert) or a victim (Opfer) is mean and cynical, as is the “Missgeburt” (a failed birth). Sadly, this kind of insult is becoming more and more usual among young people – which brings us to another part of foul language that we cannot explore here and now anymore.
Slang and youth language are, just like in English, an own topic, and they are full of insults and swear words. Yet this is a topic for another article. In the context of this text, we have to say “scheißdrauf” (crap on it) and thank you for your patience.