Why those blue words roll so smoothly off the tongue


Why those blue words roll so smoothly off the tongue

Obscene and blasphemous, or a great way to express yourself? ELSABÉ BRITS examines the origin of words such as ‘maaifoedie', ‘moer', ‘neuk', ‘fok' and ‘blerrie' and explains how the brain reacts to taboo language.


WORDS are not just a reference. They have a connotation and an emotional colouring separate from their literal meaning.

The difference is evident in how we experience taboo words and their synonyms, such as “faeces" and “kak", explains Steven Pinker, a renowned cognitive psychologist and linguist at Harvard University, in his book The Stuff of Thought.

Our experience with curse words is deeply rooted in our brain. Pinker explains that two systems are involved: the limbic system, an ancient network that controls emotion and motivation; and the neocortex, the convoluted surface that has developed so much during evolution. Perception, planning, knowledge and reasoning lie there.

It appears that the meaning (denotation) of a word is concentrated in the neocortex, especially in the left hemisphere; while the connotation is spread between the neocortex and the limbic system, particularly the right hemisphere. The right hemisphere is particularly involved in negative emotion.

The amygdala (one on each side of the brain) involuntarily responds to a curse word — you understand it automatically. During brain scans, it has been observed that this part of the brain is very active when you hear or say a curse word. Another structure is the basal ganglia, which packages information into understandable pieces but also inhibits behaviour.

It is here, deep in your brain, where you react to curse words or curse.

Kak’s endless possibilities

Words become taboo because we internalise them during our childhood and transmit our perceptions of them to each other through culture and social norms.

Studies have shown that people react much more strongly to curse words in their mother tongue than in a second language. Are “kak" and “drol" the same as “shit" and “turd" to you, or not?

There is a lot you can do with “kak": “kaksleg" (poor quality), “bekak" (covered in faeces), “uitkak" (defecate), “kakspul" (piece of shit), “kakpraat" (nonsense), “afkak" (fall apart), “vol kak" (full of shit), “kakstraat" (rundown street), “kak en betaal" (mess up and pay for it), “kak aanjaag" (cause trouble), and “hy kak agter sy hakskene" (he's scared shitless). There is even a farm in the Northern Cape named “Kakhoog" (Shit High).

We inherited the word from Dutch, and the oldest recording of it is in Middle Dutch (around 1440) in the compound word “cachuys" (“kakhuis", meaning “outhouse").

‘Stoeipoes’ is a beauty

As early as the 18th century, people in South Africa used the word “moer" (from “baarmoeder", meaning uterus); it is even recorded in a legal document. Today, many people would say “de moer in" (extremely angry), but this construction is not Dutch, according to Professor Gerhard van Huyssteen from the Centre for Text Technology at North-West University. It must have originated here.

As early as 1599, the word “poes" in Dutch meant vulva. This meaning of the word occurred especially in the Saxon regions of the Netherlands and the adjacent Low German areas.

‘The excessive use of swear words makes us poorer, because it is also the domain of sharp and creative thinkers, artists and writers.’

It appears that its prevalence in Afrikaans can be attributed to the number of colonists from those regions who came here in the second half of the 18th century. The meaning was retained here.

Van Huyssteen says that in modern Dutch, the word has many meanings, including “cat", but it can also be “an attractive, sensual (young) woman, although I actually only know the compound ‘stoeipoes' (a sexually attractive and flirtatious woman)".

We know very little about old Afrikaans curse words, and their history is fertile ground waiting to be explored. It is also uncertain where many words obtained their taboo meaning in Afrikaans, but many are not Dutch, such as “voël" (bird), “draadtrek" (wire-pulling), “velleklap" (skin slap), “kieriekap" (clubbing), “koek(ie)" (cookie), “parra" (gossip), and many others, Van Huyssteen explains.

“Piel" is also not common Dutch, but the word “piemel" (1867) is, and it also means “penis". It belongs to the group of words that did not undergo diphthongisation, such as “miet" (effeminate man), “olienhout" (wooden oil lamp), “stiebeuel" (lizard) and “tier" (male cat). The diphthongised Dutch form “pijl" (arrow) regionally also has the meaning of “penis".

However, in 1880, Arnoldus Pannevis recorded the word “piel" in Afrikaans, and further investigation is needed to determine if it is much older in the language.


Many words also lose their original value, or people may have forgotten what they once meant. Pinker refers to this as the euphemism treadmill.

Since 1737, the word “maaifoedie" or “maaifoerie" (also “mayfoedé") has been recorded in the Cape as a curse word. It comes from Malay-Portuguese and consists of “mai"/“may" (“mother") and “foedee", which is a distortion of “fodér" (from French “foutre") meaning “to have intercourse".

It had the same taboo value as “motherfucker" today in English, or the Dutch “moerneuker".

Today, that meaning has been lost as the word has climbed the euphemism treadmill. Now it means “rogue" or “scoundrel".

It's like “foeter", which now means to hit someone or to be annoying. That word is derived from the Dutch “foeteren", which is derived from French (“foutre") which, in turn, comes from Latin and also refers to having sex. Similarly, the Dutch word “neuken" is definitely still a curse word there but “neuk" is no longer rude in Afrikaans.


In 1939, the character Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) shocked people, not because of the stiff etiquette in Gone with the Wind but because he told Scarlett O'Hara (Vivien Leigh), “Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn." The producers had to pay a $5,000 fine for that now legendary line.

The connection of “blerrie" or “bleddie" (“bloody") with religion and the claim that its origin is blasphemous has been debunked by modern linguists and historians. It does not refer to “By our Lady". but it has been understood that way.

It could possibly be related to the “bloods" (the habits of the nobility, “bloody rowdies"), or possibly to menstruation or blood itself, but the word's taboo history remains an enigma.

However, for some reason it has been a massive taboo word since 1750, especially in Britain. It was one of the most dreaded words you could utter, and even the British police did not write out the word but simply noted “b----y".

Faint from shock

In 1914, during the first performance of Pygmalion in London, Eliza Doolittle said, “Walk? Not bloody likely. I'm going in a taxi." The audience almost fainted from shock.

On the other hand, many people went to the theatre just to hear the word. That's why it was such a terrible insult when Lord Kitchener described Emily Hobhouse as “that bloody woman" in 1902.

‘The process of distorting words to weaken them is also interesting, but in some cases, it's done to make them even stronger.

Van Huyssteen says semantic bleaching can occur due to various factors, including excessive use, but people also become desensitised to the powerful value of certain words.

“The process of distorting words to weaken them is also interesting, but in some cases, it's done to make them even stronger," he says. Thus, Jesus becomes “jissis", “jissie" and “jislaaik". “God" becomes “gots", “gotta", “gonna" and “goeiste". For “waaragtig" (truly), we have variations such as “wragtig", “wragtie(s)", “wraggies", “wrintig", “wrintie", “wrintlik", “allematjie", “allemattag", “allemattie" and “allemittie".

Pinker believes many societies are no longer shocked by blasphemous words. The survival of these words will also depend on time and place. “My God!" is no longer seen as a curse word in many communities. Also, no one would curse Odin today or feel offended if it happened.

The most enduring taboos, even if people no longer believe in them, involve “swearing on something" or cursing someone. For example, saying, “I swear on the life of my child", even if you're not superstitious, would be unacceptable; the emotional psychology behind it still affects us. And we no longer curse using diseases, which was once popular: people would wish smallpox or the plague on others.

Five ways to curse

According to Pinker, people curse in five ways: descriptively (let's fuck around); idiomatically (you've fucked it up now); abusively (fuck you, you stupid fucker); emphatically (oh, fuck, that's so cute); and cathartically (fuck, seriously?).

How we use the words and what they are associated with give them different values and meanings. Many people will sit in their cars and curse delightfully but won't do so in front of their in-laws. Or they may curse quietly under their breath but not aloud.

Pinker suggests  we have something like a fault-related negative feeling, the “oh shit" moment when something goes wrong. If you intentionally or accidentally hurt an animal, it will turn around and try to bite you and make a sound. A part of its brain gets activated — and we still have that part of the brain too.

Sudden pain, frustration or emotion will trigger a response in your limbic system associated with negative emotion, especially in the right brain. The words you say or think, even if they are euphemisms or distortions of curse words, are remnants of that animal-like reaction translated into words.

What you will say is specific to the occasion and the language. In front of people, you might temper it and shout “Curses!" but when you're alone in the garden, you'll say “shit". Or maybe not. Some people curse because it gives expression to their emotions.

Cursing helps with pain

An academic study observed that cursing helps people better manage pain. And even helps them ride a bicycle better too.

People were asked to write down neutral words and curse words. They were asked to put their hands in a bowl of ice water and either read the curse words or the neutral words. Those who cursed were able to keep their hands in the water 50% longer and complained less about the pain afterwards.

The same was true when people had to pedal an exercise bike — they pedalled further. This research, published in the journal Neuroreport, confirms that cursing activates the very primitive part of the brain that allows you to react quickly, increases your heart rate and pumps adrenaline.

People who swear are associated with less individual-level lying and deceptive behaviour and more social integrity.

When people swear, they express how they truly feel.

An international team of experts found in a study published in the journal Social, Psychological and Personality Science that people who use swear words are less likely to lie.

Are your feelings and thoughts unfiltered when you swear? Just as people do not filter their language to be more pleasant, they also do not filter their opinions. You hear the truth.

People were asked to write down their most common and favourite swear words and provide reasons. They then participated in tests to see if they were telling the truth and if their answers were adjusted to be socially acceptable. The people who used and wrote down more swear words lied less.

The finding was that people who swear are associated with less individual-level lying and deceptive behaviour and more social integrity.

Of course, there is a difference between using swear words and insulting people. Pinker also makes this important distinction. It's one thing to say it's damn cold today, another to personally slander someone.

New research

Van Huyssteen and other researchers are embarking on a large-scale research project on swearing in South Africa. The research will  be multidisciplinary, to learn as much as possible about swearing.

He explains that swearing also indicates power dynamics. “On one hand, racist and other discriminatory slurs are fascinating, especially the power that a spoken word holds over people; and on the other hand, they act as markers of social cohesion and/or power. For example, what is society's difference in views regarding men and women who swear? And how do men and women swear differently?"

Swear words are a microcosm in which almost all aspects of language can be studied — from phonology (think of the difference between “fok", “FOK" and “fooooooook") to morphology (for example, swear word inflection, as in “fan-fokken-tastic" but not “fantas-fokken-tic"), to language changes such as how we arrived at “fokken", “fokkit" and “fokkol".

Domain of creative thinkers

According to Pinker, the overuse of swear words will impoverish us, as they are also the domain of sharp and creative thinkers, artists and writers — people who employ them only in the right places.

Censorship and extreme prudishness make artists and historians liars and undermine the responsibility of adults to learn how life is lived in worlds far from their own, he says.

With swearing, you can protest, laugh, cry, get angry, be creative, express disgust, express fear, emphasise, express surprise, express anger, and even show empathy. There's nothing like a zinger at the right time. It's bloody enjoyable.

  • To read about Prof Gerhard van Huyssteen's swearing research project, register at www.vloek.co.za.

    Sources: The Linguistic Behaviour of Swear Words in Afrikaans (Anna Elizabeth Feinauer); Etymological Dictionary of Afrikaans; The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature (Steven Pinker); Pharosaanlyn; Neuroreport 20(12):1056-60,  September 2009; Frankly, We Do Give a Damn: The Relationship Between Profanity and Honesty; https://www.etymonline.com; and World Wide Words.

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