Why Taboo Words Are Important in the Field
But there are many ways of speaking Spanish--any language, really--and among these, is the stylish use of slang, and colorful incorporation of taboo terms like swear words, profanity, and dirty words. Believe it or not, words such as these pop up in interview situations, and other contexts of field observation and participation. Sometimes it becomes my task to swear right along with my participants, or at least empathize with their animated excitement or frustration.
Speech communities are constantly innovating new turns of phrase, and American English is no exception. Can you imagine if you didn't know the loaded meanings of the now ubiquitous "balls" or "surfboard"? (Haha, you'll have to go urban dictionary for more information, I'm afraid that would be too much of a digression to explain here.)
In this blog post, I describe a recent episode in which I appropriately used some dirty slang here in Mexico, and how this led to a unique opportunity for intercultural learning. I also share a new list of dirty words I learned just last week in Oaxaca City, with a discussion of why I think these colorful words should be more purposefully included on your own list of survival vocabulary.
Spanish Idioms as Cultural Knowledge
Originally, my Spanish came from my formal schooling in Southern California, where we had a Castilian textbook and learned vosotros, even though we were most likely to speak Spanish with our neighbors of Guatemalan and Mexican descent. My first year of high school Spanish was the most meaningful--our teacher, Mrs. Casserly, was regarded as tough but fair, and she insisted that every week we memorize a new adage to add to our repertoire. I didn't know it at the time, but she was actively building our communicative competence.
¡La comida está para chuparse los dedos! The food is finger-licking good!
Needless to say, the champurrado turned out terribly, but the sayings I learned in her class continue to serve me well. I never learned any swear words from Mrs. Casserly, but her greatest service was to make her students aware of the cultural importance and utility of Spanish idioms. These have become stock phrases I can use to express precise meaning, and now I count vulgarities and other turns of phrase among this important category of colloquialisms.
Let's Curse in Spanish: "To the Balls!"
"I was drunk" - Nimepigwa na nyuki (Swahili) - Lit. "I was stung by bees"
"I was drunk" - Estuve bien peda (Spanish) - Lit. "I was so winded"
Today, my dirty cheat sheet is a mixture of words written in different handwriting into the pages of my small, black field notebook, and a Notes file on my iPhone co-opted from another themed list of to-dos. To be fair, I had learned to say a huevo from the downtown group of speakers I used to regularly hang with at a local dive bar during my earlier Mexico City fieldwork. Our group was propped up by a loose clique of friendly guys, and between them, they had plenty of macho things to say as we drank through a case of Indio beers. So it's interesting to consider that maybe I learned from them, in part, to talk like a guy. (Don't worry, there's more about me and this group of dedicated bar-goers in my forthcoming book, if you're interested! *grin*)
Anyhow, folks sitting around the table this summer were surprised by my sudden turn of phrase--so surprised, in fact, that their jaws were agape. The next things to immediately come out of their mouths in Spanish were a mixture of "where did you learn that," "who taught you that," and "look at her go!" Meanwhile, the Americans at the table traded puzzled looks. They would soon catch up. On my side, I was thrilled both to learn that the phrase still carried motility, but also that its use signaled that I could hold my own.
In an important way, using this culturally appropriate and daring phrase was helping to prop up my identity as a Spanish-speaker. Now our Oaxacan friends were offering to teach me a few more unsolicited, dirty phrases. I copiously added these to my cheat sheet during their impromptu lesson (an observation that really had these speakers cracking up with laughter). They egged me on, and eventually I told one of my informal instructors to fuck off: "Vete a la chingada," I said, practicing the phrase, but also using it as a playful dig. We had a good laugh with that one!
A Brief List of Dirty Words, or A Guide to Cursing in Spanish
- Hijo de tu pinche madre = son of a bitch
- Parió tú = No manches (You've got to be kidding)
- Vergita = "little dick" (term of endearment between women)
- Me lo voy a fajar = I'm going to fondle it
- ¿Te calló veinte? = You get it?
- Metetelo por el culo = Go shove it up your ass
- Que pedo = que pasó (What's up?)
- Es su pedo = es su problema (It's your problem)
- Pajaritos = bolas (balls, testicles)
- Palomitas = opposite of pajarito
- ¡Hasta la madre! = ¡Hasta acá! (I've had it up to here!)
- Ponte trucha, Ponte pilas = Ponte atención (Liven up! Pay attention!)
- Cachondo = sexy, fetching
So, next time, consider that when a learner asks how to say "F*ck Off" in the target language, they're probably not asking so they can later insult you, but more likely it's because they want join in on the fun! Expletives, idioms, and taboo insults are just as much a part of survival vocabulary as anything else.