Swear it

I like swear words and insults. While there are similarities in different languages – like the prevalence of insults referring to sex & body parts – there are enough differences to gain some insight into that culture’s values. European languages have many religious blasphemies and more disparagements towards women (particularly mothers & prostitutes) than elsewhere. There’s a lot of vegetable and dog-based insults in French and disease references in Dutch. In Cantonese you insult someone by wishing that their whole family drops dead, and in Mandarin you can call someone a bad egg, a frequenter of prostitutes, and insult their ancestors for good measure.

I haven’t found any insults in Māori that refer to whores, prostitutes or mothers, and although genital references do exist, they’re kind of funny (it’s the translations that sound pretty harsh).

Tō tero! Tō raho! Tō tara/teke!
Arsehole! Dickhead! Cunt!

Although it’s still not nice, it’s somehow not as offensive as the English equivalents – often it’s just amusing banter. From a Māori point of view bodies and sex have never been dirty unmentionable things. Genitals are alternately funny, normal (everyone’s got one!) and sacred; they’re symbols of reproductive power, whakapapa and therefore mana. And you can get some hilarious comebacks to those above.

Hei mitimiti māu!
For you to lick!

Hei pōtae mō tō ihu!
As a hat for your nose!

Swearing moves with the times. A look through the old Williams dictionary shows some now quaint translations for Māori insults. As an example, in the TV show Deadwood they wanted to show how outlaw the town was for the times; instead of using historically acurate phrases from the 1800s like god damn, they used modern terms to convey the offensiveness  – I think they used cocksucker over 40 times in 40 minutes.

Slave. Scoundrel.

E mero!

Whiti te rā!
Wretch. (lit. the sun shines)

See? The older translations now seem pretty mild. Let’s update them with modern obscenities.

Taurekareka! E mero! Whiti te rā!
Scum of the earth, piece of crap, cocksucker!

Lying and excrement are universally bad. Eat shit is equally offensive in English and in Māori, although in Māori it’s more about the lack of tapu such a person would have.

Tō hamuti! Tō roke hoki! Tou parahua!
Bullshit! You’re full of crap!

Kai hamuti! Kai kurakura!
Eat shit! Shit eater!

Tō meho! Tō teka!
Fucking liar! Bullshit!

Māori cursing has a lot more to do with dogs and eating than in English, some of which sounds quaint in translation.

Kai a te kurī!
Dog’s food!

Kai a te ahi!
Food for the fire!

E pero! Peropero!

Kurī kai tāwhao
Dog eating scraps!
(stickybeak who fossicks about in other’s quarrels)

The worst thing you can do so someone is to take away their tapu; turning them into food is the most extreme way of doing it. Any references to someone being a dog, your dinner or your dog’s dinner are as bad as mother-fucker, or son-of-a-bitch in English. This is why the worst of the worst swear words are all about cooking your head – the most sacred part of the body.

Pokokōhua! Pōkōtiwha! Tō upoko! Upoko nui! Upoko taona!
Kai angaanga! Kai upoko!

Arsehole! Bastard! Son-of-a-bitch! Mother-fucker!

Swear words aren’t mere insults, they’re a reflection of the values of a culture. Māori culture didn’t revile women or sex and it valued tapu over all else – which is why it’s so sad that I’ve heard people use pokokōhua, the greatest possible insult, more often than the amusing tō raho. I know that there’s a lot of work to be do in all areas of te reo revitalisation, but if we can’t even get over our colonised prudishness enough to call someone a dick, we’re cooked.


4 thoughts on “Swear it

  1. Pingback: Heads up | upokopakaru

  2. Kua roa nei au e tohe ana me tā Alan Duff i tohe ai he pērā te Māori i tāna i whakaahua ai ki ana pukapuka. Ko tā Robyn Kahukiwa i whakaahua hāngai mai ai ki tana pukapuka ‘Wāhine Toa’, me kore ake tērā pukapuka e kite ake te pono o ngā uara o te ao Māori.

    Ko tāu nei e whakararangatira ana i te titiro i tā te Māori – tapatapahi ana! Te hia kore whakamā o ngā Māori tē taea te wetekina ngā whanonga o iwi kē atu!

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