Cuss Words for the Classy

Darn! Shoot! Dagnabbit! English-speaking societies are running out of swear words. This is worrying. Scientists say curse terms are important because they evolved to alleviate physical and emotional pain. But the words lose their power now we live in a world where kindergartners greet each other with: “Good morning, you [bleeping] [bleep].”

The other day I had to quote a bad word in a newspaper so I used the symbols @#$%^&. This is helpful because readers can insert a bad word according to their personal standards. My mild, religious family members read them as “bothersome” and clapped their hands over their shocked mouths. My work friends are at the other extreme – I had one editor who clearly dropped out of the womb with a bump and a scream of vile utterance.

But you know what? Some people should NEVER use bad words because it just sounds wrong. Take weather forecasters for example. “A [bleep]-load of rain fell this morning, and the humidity level will rise to a [bleep] of a lot by noon.” Just doesn’t work.

Of course, there are ways for Western societies to refresh their supply. For some reason known only to the Universe, the names of birds make satisfying curses: Lazy Cisticola, Tufted Titmouse, Brown Trembler, Paltry Tyrannulet, Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker, Rough-Faced Shag, Blue-Footed Booby, Spangled Drongo… you get the picture.

Another suggestion is to move beyond English. In the US TV show Firefly, actors used real swear words, but only in Mandarin and Cantonese. In Hindi, people insult each other by saying: “You are the hair growing on my flank area.” In Mandarin Chinese, people say, “You son of a rabbit.” (Sometimes you hear parents curse lazy children with this phrase without realising the irony.)

You can use European tongues for this purpose too. I had an Italian friend who used to say “Maladicta” when I trod on his toes. It sounded very “sweary” but just meant “bad word”.

Some years ago, I had to train a foul-mouthed newspaper reporter for a job on live radio. We wrote a list of words that sounded like curse words but were safe for broadcasting use and taped them to her microphone. The top three most satisfying ones were Pool, Cow and Follicle. The next time something bad happens, try shouting, “POOL” at the top of your lungs. It works just as well as a naughty word.

If you want to be really classy, I recommending making all dramatic announcements in Latin. Here are some useful phrases to get you started. At the bar: “Di! Ecce hora! Uxor mea me necabit!” (“Dear God, look at the time! My wife will kill me!”) On the street: “Recedite, plebes! Gero rem imperialem!” (“Stand aside plebians! I am on imperial business.”)

But if you really want to insult, skip the expletives. The most horrible curse in Latin is probably this one: “Utinam logica falsa tuam philosophiam totam suffodiant.” (“May faulty logic undermine your entire philosophy.”)

Ooh, now that’s nasty.

Nury Vittachi is a Hong Kong-based author. Read his blog at

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