It is a sign of mastery of a foreign language when you learn to swear and curse confidently, correctly and convincingly. My own mastery of German is near-native, and I spent almost half my life in Bavaria, but I never quite mastered the truly magnificent stream of vitriol that is Bavarian swearing. Although I speak German with a mild Bavarian accent and very occasionally throw in a few dialect terms and turns of phrase, I largely speak standard German, and when I swear and curse, it is invariably much the same as what you may hear elsewhere in Germany.
But the Bavarians have their own unique way of expressing frustration and insulting people. It can be quite devastating in skilled hands!
WARNING! If you are offended by swearing or blasphemy, stop reading now! This post is not for you.
It is always interesting to see how people swear in other cultures. Swearing is frequently, if not always related to breaking cultural taboos, and so the swearwords you encounter in a language will generally reflect some of the strongest taboos within that culture.
English swearing draws on a very wide range of taboos, but primarily (from mildest to strongest) religious, scatalogical and sexual taboos. It seems that we English speakers have a lot that we get hung up about. Nowadays, oaths, curses and emphatic swearing with a religious derivation are regarded by most people as being pretty mild, although they clearly upset some folks with strong religious sentiments. So words like “damn/damned/damn it/goddam” are usually pretty harmless. Also, even phrases which religious folk find extremely offensive, such as “for God’s sake / for Christ’s sake”, “God!”, “Jesus Christ!” and so on are generally regarded as mild by most people.
On a side note, there is a mistaken belief that the term “bloody”, which is extremely widespread in the UK and Australia, has religious origins. Oxford dictionaries has this to say:
The use of bloody to add emphasis to an expression is of uncertain origin, but is thought to have a connection with the ‘bloods’ (aristocratic rowdies) of the late 17th and early 18th centuries; hence the phrase bloody drunk (= as drunk as a blood) meant ‘very drunk indeed’. After the mid 18th century until quite recently bloody used as a swear word was regarded as unprintable, probably from the mistaken belief that it implied a blasphemous reference to the blood of Christ, or that the word was an alteration of ‘by Our Lady’; hence a widespread caution in using the term even in phrases, such as bloody battle, merely referring to bloodshed.
When I was a kid, “bloody” was still regarded as quite strong, and it was among the strongest words a child would hear. The word is interesting in that it remains a reasonably strong swearword, but does not appear to break any current taboos.
As we move up the scale of potential offence, we meet the scatalogical swearwords, primarily “shit” and “piss”. These are certainly not for polite company, but few people would take real offence at them. We may hear the old trope that swearing of any kind is a sign of a poor education and a limited vocabulary. But real offence? Hardly.
At the top of the scale in English, we have a veritable cornucopia of swearwords relating to genitalia, and sexual acts. First and foremost is the nowadays ubiquitous “fuck/fucking”, which is used in a bewildering range of contexts. But we also have “bollocks/balls”, “tits”, “prick”, “wanker”, “bugger/buggery”, “sod”, “cock” and quite probably hundreds more. Most of these are able to cause offence to at least some people, but in a league of its own stands the word “cunt”, which is pretty well guaranteed to cause offence among many different groups of people.
English speakers are well aware of the weight of all these terms and use them with more or less due care.
But German in general and Bavarian in particular are very different.
In German, you will hear the ubiquitous “Scheisse” (shit) as an exclamation of annoyance. You will also hear it prepended to virtually any noun as an expression of disapproval: “Scheissauto” (“shit car” = “bloody car” or “crappy car”). You will also hear “Kacke” (which also means “shit” in phrases like “das ist doch Kacke” (“that’s shit”, but rather more in the sense of “that’s a fuckup”). “Mist” (meaning”dung” is often used as an exclamation on its own and is milder than “Scheisse”. Prepended to certain words, it can be pretty insulting “Er ist ein Mistkerl” (“he is a dung-fellow” = “he’s a shit”). And then there is “verpiss’ Dich” for “piss off”. Furthermore, there are the terms “Arsch” and “Arschloch” (“arse” and “arsehole”), which carry much the same weight and meaning as the English equivalents, but are also used in a number of set expressions (“am Arsch der Welt” – “the arse of the world” = “the pits”). One such set expression is “Du kannst mich am Arsch lecken” (“you can lick my arse”), which is taken from the tale of Götz von Berlichingen and popularized by Goethe. In its full form it is still offensive, carrying about the same weight as “you can fuck right off”, but you will often hear the abbreviated form “Du kannst mich” or “er kann mich”, and these have a weight closer to something like “you can go whistle”. (It is now more or less accepted that “kiss my arse” in its current meaning in English also goes back to the tale of Götz von Berlichingen through translations of Goethe’s play of the same name. Goethe can be fun, you know…)
Sexual swearwords are really rather rare in German. Of course, there are slang words for genitalia and for sexual acts, but they mostly remain literal and do not really take on the figurative uses of swearing. Thus, “ficken” (“fuck”) means to have sexual intercourse. “Muschi” (“pussy”) is the female genitals. And so on. One rare example of a sexual swearword is “Fotze” (“cunt”) which is occasionally used as a direct insult at someone and which carries much the same level of offence as its English equivalent.
There are a few animal references that also relate quite closely to their English equivalents, foremost of which are “Schwein” (Bavarian “Sau”), which carries a somewhat higher level of vitriol than the English “pig”.
But the thing that really marks German out against English is the weight associated with swearwords derived from religious sources. “Verdammt” (“damned”), is a relatively strong expletive, particularly when combined with other swearwords. Thus, “verdammte Scheisse” carries about the same weight as “fuck it” or “fucking hell”. “Herrgott nochmal” (“God almighty again”) expresses an extreme level of frustration and is not for use in the office unless you really want to wake up your co-workers. (I shall come back to the “nochmal” intensifier.) “Um Himmels Willen” (for heaven’s sake”) is common and mild. “Jesus Maria!” is a common expression of surprise or frustration in Catholic regions of Germany in particular.
Which brings us to Bavaria. Bavaria is a region of Germany that is staunchly Catholic and extremely conservative. Bavarians are generally highly proud of their heritage and often retain strong accents and much of their dialect even when they climb the social and professional ladders. And they have turned swearing into an art form. And the vast bulk of it is derived from religion.
I shall never forget when I was rock climbing with a Bavarian friend many years ago. He took a tumble from about ten or twelve meters and his partner was not belaying him tightly. He made ground contact and broke his hand. “Herrgott nochmal!” he bellowed in broad Bavarian. I have the video to prove it! It is not that he would have been averse to a good, old-fashioned “fuck it!” or “buggeration” had he been a Brit, but the strongest language he had available was the religion-derived swearword. He recovered well and became a skilled eye-surgeon to whom I owe a debt of infinite gratitude that I did not lose my eyesight many years earlier than I did. We can laugh about the tumble now.
But you can always tell an angry Bavarian from an angry German. If you hear the words “‘zefix” (=”Kruzefix” = “crucifix”) or “Saggrament” (= “Sakrament” = “sacrament”), they are Bavarian. Both these terms are used with considerable vehemence to express extreme frustration. They are further intensified by the addition of “nomoi” = “nochmal” = “again”). This is simply an intensifier and does not mean that you have already used the preceding word before. Thus “Hargodnomoi” = “Hergott nochmal” would have something like the weight of “God all-fucking-mighty”. “Zefix” and “Saggrament” simply cannot be rendered in English with religious swearwords, and the addition of “nomoi” put them well up into the realms of “fucking hell”.
“Alleluja” is a little milder, but does not often come on its own. Most often it is heard within a huge string of expletives.
“Hejsakra” (= “Höllensakrament” = “hell’s sacrament”) is an extra layer of vitriol over the more normal “Saggrament”.
And of course, there is the “Jesus Maria!”, which tends to be used when frustration and despair are conjoined, such as when dealing with a “Korinthenkacker” (currant-shitter = nitpicker) in some local government department.
Although I have pretty well exhausted the stock of common Bavarian religious swearwords above, the lusciousness of Bavarian swearing is not in the number of different words used, but in the almost infinite variety with which they are joined into sometimes massive chains of vitriol. Just a few examples:
- Hargodsaggramentnomoi! (Herrgott Sakrament nochmal)
- Saggramentzefix! (Sakrament Kruzifix)
- Zefixmilextamarsch! (Kruzifix leck’ mich am Arsch)
A good few years back, there were mugs and bumper stickers with the magnificent
which, although an amusing spoof, is by no means far-fetched: “God almighty in heaven crucifix sacrament hallelujah kiss my arse shitty pile of junk may it rot miserably!” This might be suitable if your car fails to start on a cold winter’s morning.
In this wee post, I have just scratched at the surface of Bavarian swearing and cursing and compared it a little with English swearing and cursing. Bavarian insults are a whole different kettle of unpleasantries. Bavarian insults are truly magnificent in their inventiveness. In contrast to curses and oaths, they do not make use of religious vocabulary, rather, they draw deep from the murky pools of bodily functions, animal comparisons and innumerable dialect words for “stupid”. And all joined into sparkling portmanteaus of pure abuse.
But that is stuff for a post for those with an insatiable interest in exuberant unwholesomeness and an advanced knowledge of German!