Wednesday Word: Small Pox!

I swear…

Actually I promise that I won’t swear. Not in this blog. But our Wednesday Word today is about swearing.

How do cultures differ in their “bad” language? What does someone say when they’re furious, or when they smash their thumb with a hammer? Not surprisingly, this area of language has about as much variety around the world as any other.

A Lost Opportunity

In  high school, I had a friend who was an Ecuadorian exchange student. Since I was in my 4th year of Spanish,  I made sure to take advantage of what this relationship might offer: I had him teach me all the bad words in Spanish.  To tell the truth, I never really used those words (who would I swear at bilingually, and why?) I could have learned so much more, so I lost out. But the tutoring did enable me to understand what someone was saying about a female friend one day, so I was able to stop a potentially dangerous confrontation on the streets of Tijuana.

Since then, we’ve had friends and coworkers from a number of countries and have learned that often, “my nice word is your nasty one.” Many words cause no surprise at all. There are certain themes, shall we say, that seem to be universally obscene or offensive. But there are many profanities that leave us scratching our heads, wondering, “What’s wrong with that?”

Now, having learned Palawano, I have an even wider perspective. Again, we didn’t set out to learn the spicy language in order to use it, so much as to know which words to avoid. Without asking native speakers, we could have easily embarrassed ourselves and others.

First of all, there are many words in English for which we have countless euphemisms; nice ways to say what our bodies do in certain rooms of the house. In Palawano, there’s just one word for each. It sounds so blunt and crude to us, but it’s really not. Well, there is one euphemism: they make a verb out of the word forest to delicately refer to needing to step off the trail, where there are no restrooms.

Body parts… pretty much just one word each in Palawano. Unlike English where we have everything from the medical terms, to cutesy baby talk to XXX-rated, highly-offensive gutter language. But over here, none of the body parts or bodily functions are used as swear words.


So what does a Palawano say if he smashes his thumb (assuming, of course, that he owns a hammer in the first place)?

Cover your ears, if you have a delicate nature:

“Small Pox!” Yep, that’s a pretty R-rated (at least) cuss word.

“Swelling!” is another one. That’s same word you would use to describe a boil or a swollen sprained ankle.


I’m trembling just to type these words, knowing they’ll be read by my genteel readers.


About Bill Davis

Writer, speaker and translation and language learning consultant. I write technical articles, poetry and humor, and I am working on my first novel which is set on the island of Palawan in the Philippines.
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