David Sedaris, on Cussing in Other Languages

[Please note: as you may have guessed, this post contains extreme profanity. If that’s something that bothers you, it’s probably best to skip this post.]

Look, I’m not one of those people who is so cynical and coarse as to only be able to appreciate “adult” comedy, as opposed to the kind of comedy that children – or say, the Pope – can appreciate. I love my Pixar movies and Jim Gaffigan specials just as much as the next guy. Perhaps even more. Truly.

But there’s also a part of me, like that transgressive 15-year-old version of myself I shudder to recall, that still loves some seriously vulgar comedy.

Way back in April, 2018 – back when, you know, we could still go outside and attend public events without fear of Covid-19 – I had the good fortune of being able to go see David Sedaris speak at The Kentucky Center. He mostly just read passages from his books and soon-to-be-published writings for an hour and a half, and yet, as far as I could see, Whitney Hall – the 2000+-seat hall where the event took place – was packed, which still seems remarkable to me given that it was essentially just an unusually charming book reading.

The event was hilarious and insightful from start to finish, and yet the one portion of the reading that probably garnered the most uproarious laughter was also the most juvenile – his reading on cussing in other languages. It’s something we’ve probably all taken a little delight in at some point in our lives, that is, learning cusswords and generally humorous expressions and colloquialisms from other languages. But it’s something that fits in particularly well with my own life experiences, having spent most of my childhood living as an expat in non-English-speaking countries, namely Cyprus, Denmark, Germany, and Saudi Arabia.

I eventually tracked down the chapter in question – “And While You’re Up There, Check On My Prostate” in Sedaris’ 2018 book Calypso – and although I still haven’t read the rest of the book, I thought I’d go ahead and share this short excerpt. I figure we call could use a little juvenile transgressive humor right about now. Anything to get out minds off current events.

[Note: due to weird formatting limitations on WordPress, there is no way to italicize in quoted text so I’ve simply capitalized those italicized words.]

So without further ado, here’s Sedaris’s short chapter analyzing the profanest of cultural quirks in its entirety:

The summer after I turned sixteen, I took driver’s ed from a coach at my high school and quickly realized that this was not for me. Turning invoked a great deal of anxiety, as did staying in my lane, and parking—oh, parking—that was the worst. I suppose I could have tried harder to overcome my fear and discomfort, but I didn’t, and as a result I have never gotten a ticket, made a car payment, or called anyone a fucking piece of shit asshole through an open or closed driver’s-side window. It’s not that I never get angry, just that I never get angry the way people behind a wheel do. My fury isn’t poetry, just greeting-card prose: “Go to hell, you.”

“What do you say when someone cuts you off in traffic?” I asked a woman in Copenhagen whose book I was signing.

“We’re not big on cursing,” she told me, “so the worst we’re likely to come out with—and it’s pretty common—is ‘Why don’t you run around in my ass?’”

There are asses in America where that might not be much of a threat. This is to say that, though it would be dark in there, and it probably wouldn’t smell so great, at least you’d have some room to spread out. It would be more like a prison cell than, say, a coffin.

I’d asked the same question a few years earlier in Amsterdam and learned that in the Netherlands you’re more apt to bring a disease into it. “Like if someone drives in a crazy way, it’s normal to call them a cholera sufferer,” a Dutch woman told me. “Either that or a cancer whore.”

I’d never thought of stitching those two particular words together. “A CANCER WHORE?” I asked.

She nodded. “I’m pretty sure it comes from The Hague.”

The following day I checked out her story with a woman named Els, who said, “Oh, sure. Cancer whore. I hear it all the time. You can also say ‘cancer slut.’” She added that the words are pretty much the same in Dutch as they are in English. “We say ‘SLET,’” she said. “KANKER SLET.”

“Would you ever call someone a…I don’t know…a DIABETES SLET?” I asked.

She looked at me as if I were missing out on something so fundamental, it was a wonder I could dress myself in the morning. “Of course not,” she said. “The disease has to be terminal.”

“So, like, AIDS whore?”

Again she seemed exasperated. “AIDS? Never. Those poor people—that’s not funny! If you want to be creative you say something like ‘dirty typhus Mongoloid,’ which you hear a lot lately.” She paused. “Is that the right word, ‘Mongoloid’?”

“We would say, ‘person with Down syndrome,’” I told her. “But I guess that when joined with the words ‘dirty’ and ‘typhus,’ it would be too long. Especially when you’re passing someone on the highway.”

They’re strange, the Dutch. After talking to Els, I met a man who frequently calls his eighteen-month-old daughter a “little ball sack.” “Because, I mean, it’s what you do,” he explained.

“What do you mean ‘it’s what you do’?” I said. “It’s not what I do or anyone in my family does. I don’t even call my ball sack a ball sack.”

He shrugged, Dutchily.

In Vienna, I returned to my original question: “What do Austrians yell out their car windows when they get angry?”

“Well,” a young woman told me, “sometimes we will say, ‘Why don’t you find a spot on my ass that you would like to lick and lick it?’”

I’m guessing this is quicker to say and less awkward-sounding in German. Even so, it lacks a certain something. “You give them a choice of where to lick your ass?” I asked. “That doesn’t sound like much of a threat, given that they could pick a spot on the side or up top, where it’s basically just your lower back.”

She agreed. “And sometimes if the bad driver is a female, we will call her a blood sausage.”

“Is that because a woman has a period?” I asked.

“Maybe.”

Later that night I met a Bulgarian. “In my country, you say to someone you hate, ‘May you build a house from your kidney stones.’”

WELL, FINALLY, I thought. This is essentially wishing someone an eternity of gut-wrenching pain, all for taking the parking space you wanted or not turning his blinker on. I’ve had three kidney stones in my life, each the size of a small piece of gravel you might find at the bottom of an aquarium, and each excruciating. The thought of passing enough of them to build an entire house—even if it was just big enough for a termite to live in—is unfathomable. Those Bulgarians don’t fool around, though no one can come close to the Romanians.

At a book signing in Boston, I met a woman from Bucharest. “My publicist is Romanian,” I told her. “Not full-blooded like you, but still she can speak a little. Her favorite saying, taught to her by her grandmother, is ‘I shit in…’ God, what is that?…‘I shit in…’ ”

“‘I shit in your mother’s mouth’?” she asked. “That’s probably what it was. It’s a very popular curse.”

The woman walked away, and I thought, WELL, I CAN SEE WHY. “I shit in your mother’s mouth.” Does it get any nastier than that?

I discovered a year later on my first trip to Bucharest that, actually, yes, it does. “What’s the absolute worst thing you’ve ever heard?” I asked from the stage at the end of my reading. People lined up with answers, and I learned that, as in all Catholic and Eastern Orthodox countries, the most popular target when on the attack is the other person’s mother. Thus: “I fuck your mother’s dead, I fuck your mother’s Christ, I fuck your mother’s icon, I fuck your mother’s Easter, I fuck your mother’s onion, I will make skis out of your mother’s cross,” and “I fuck your mother’s memorial cake.” This is something you bake when a loved one dies, and there’s a lot of cursing centered around it, the absolute worst being “I dragged my balls across your mother’s memorial cake, from cherry to cherry, and to each of the candles.”

A young woman told me this, and when I repeated it to the fellow who drove me to the airport the following morning and who had previously been chatty, he fell silent.

“That is total devastation,” he eventually said. “I mean, wow. What kind of a person told you this? Was it a girl? Was she pretty?”

The Romanians really do lead the world when it comes to cursing. “What have you got for me?” I asked a woman from Transylvania who was now living in Vienna.

“Shove your hand up my ass and jerk off my shit,” she offered.

I was stunned. “Anyone else would say, ‘Shove your hand up my ass,’ and then run out of imagination,” I told her. “You people, though, you just keep going. And that’s what makes you the champions you are.”

MAYBE IT’S NOT TOO LATE TO LEARN HOW TO DRIVE, I thought, watching as she walked out the door and onto the unsuspecting streets of Vienna, this poet, this queen, this glittering jewel in a city of flint.

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