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  • Betrifft

    Taboo word in US

    This was triggered by the mention of Miststück / Mistkerl in another thread and is purely a matter of curiosity (i.e. I don't have to translate it).

    In The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling), the word cunt occurs about half a dozen times and this seems to have been retained in the American version of the book. In each case the word is spoken by a man and refers to a man (in one case the hero referring to himself: "You fat cunt, ... you knackered old dinosaur").

    This is typical British English, where the word practically always refers to a man and is used like bastard as a general term of (not necessarily serious) abuse or meaning an unpleasant or stupid person.
    Though vulgar, and usually taboo, it might be used among males without abusive intent (as in something like "you lucky cunt").

    I understand that in America the word
    (a) is much more taboo
    (b) is used almost exclusively of women
    (c) expresses disapproval of a person's sexuality (like "whore" or "slut").
    Can someone from that side of the Pond confirm this and say what they make of its use by Rowling. Does it seem out of place, or would an educated American be aware of the different British usage (as they might understand "wanker").
    Or are there differences in meaning or usage in different parts of America?

    Does anyone know how it is translated in the German version of the book?
    VerfasserMikeE (236602) 22 Jul. 15, 09:08
    I understand that in America the word
    (a) is much more taboo
    - yes
     (b) is used almost exclusively of women- most definitely
     (c) expresses disapproval of a person's sexuality - yes, in the sense that it is a very derogatory term for a woman who is reduced to her vagina in one single, ugly sweep. It's considered much cruder than "pussy," e.g.

    I have no idea how it was translated into German in that book, though.
    #1Verfasser dude (253248) 22 Jul. 15, 14:49
    Agree completely with #1.

    In addition,
    Does it seem out of place, or would an educated American be aware of the different British usage (as they might understand "wanker").
    YES and almost surely not. (And don't overestimate the number who understand "wanker".)
    #2Verfasser Jurist (US) (804041) 22 Jul. 15, 17:14
    This was triggered by the mention of Miststück / Mistkerl in another thread ... - Das war wohl der hier : Siehe auch: she'll slap you as soon as look at you - sie ...
    #3Verfasser no me bré (700807) 22 Jul. 15, 17:23
    Thanks for the replies so far.

    #1 OK. I wasn't very sure about (c). So it is just an extremely derogatory, dehumanizing term for a woman, rather than implying any sort of moral condemnation (like "slut" or "skank" - another new one for me that I came across).

    #2 I was surprised that (as far as I can see online, anyway) there was no attempt to change the American edition, so I thought perhaps I had overestimated the difference in usage, especially since I hadn't heard any great outcry. Perhaps her books under the name Robert Galbraith are just not that well-known in the US.
    #4VerfasserMikeE (236602) 22 Jul. 15, 19:24
    My guess is that since the stories all seem to take place in London, the BE was left mostly intact. However, I haven't read the novels myself, so I can't really judge. I remember reading a while ago about Rowling's outings as Galbraith in the LA Times, but from what I've seen, her/his books don't seem to get rave reviews here.
    #5Verfasser dude (253248) 22 Jul. 15, 19:36
    Maybe she herself read some of the complaints from the US about dumbing down the BE version of HP for AE kids. I would guess she can pretty much tell her editors what she wants to do at this point, or at least has more latitude than many authors.

    I haven't seen much about the book here either, after the first week or so when it came out.
    #6Verfasser hm -- us (236141) 23 Jul. 15, 04:13
    How common is it that books from the UK are revised for the US market? I understand that this might happen with books for a specific audience, e.g. YA, but I'd find it odd (the German word "befremdlich" would be quite a good fit here) if novels aimed at a general, adult audience were 'translated' for the US audience, since dialect, slang and local colour are all part of what makes a novel.
    #7Verfasser Thirith (1037221) 23 Jul. 15, 08:57
    Sie tun das immer. Größere Verlagshäuser unterhalten sogar eigenes Personal dafür.
    Faszinierend finde ich zum Beispiel diese Liste der Abweichungen von BE zu AE beim "Great Gatsby": https://www15.uta.fi/FAST/US1/LP/np-great.html

    Oder Agatha Christie. Die berühmte Mrs. McGillicuddy fährt normalerweise "4:50 from Paddington". Außer in den USA, dort fährt sie "4:54 for Brackhampton" ...
    #8Verfasser Cuauhtlehuanitzin (1009442) 23 Jul. 15, 09:05
    Even if other things are not changed, this struck me as an oversight, since at least some Americans' reaction to this particular word seems almost visceral. I was not sure, though, whether this gut reaction is practically universal (with the presumed exception of linguists) or is less pronounced in, say, New York.

    A while ago I did see a Brit using this word to describe an American man.
    The American was, needless to say, not very happy about it, but I am still wondering exactly how he interpreted it. To an English person, it would be a stronger version of "bastard", but I don't think there would be any sexual connotations, and people would not normally be conscious of the anatomical derivation. In the (mainly American) sense of a derogatory term specifically for a woman, my slang dictionary seems to suggest that it might imply effeminacy or homosexuality when used of a man, so I wondered if an American man would normally understand the insult in that way.
    #9VerfasserMikeE (236602) 23 Jul. 15, 14:13
    Well, you might be right. As past discussions in the forum have confirmed, it's a very vulgar word. I'm not actually sure that American linguists would find it much less offputting that many British men use it so lightly and appear to be unaware of its vulgarity, which seems a little like Southerners claiming to be unaware that the Confederate flag is a racist symbol.

    But still, given that that's the case, it could seem bowdlerized to have them saying something much milder in an AE edition. 'What a fat fellow you are!' 'That lucky chap!' Fetch me my slippers, Jeeves ...

    The F-word is also quite vulgar, but American novelists have been using it with abandon for decades. I've just been reading a novel in Spanish where men call other men 'puta' and 'concha de su madre' and whatnot all over the place. Not to mention the Mexican soccer fans on every goal kick: Eeeh puta! I suppose I should find that really offensive too, but it's actually kind of funny.

    Maybe it's partly just the thing about a vulgar word in a foreign language never coming across as quite as shocking to non-native speakers. In fact, maybe British vulgarity could even have that effect for some American readers -- it could just seem odd, like observing other inexplicable things foreign people do. More offputting if you stop to think about it, but you might well not.
    #10Verfasser hm -- us (236141) 23 Jul. 15, 16:24
    zum Beispiel diese Liste der Abweichungen von BE zu AE beim "Great Gatsby"

    OT: A question about the German here. As I read the phrase above, I thought it suggested that the BE came first, and that the AE then "deviated" or "diverged" from the BE original. That is of course false, as the AE came first.

    Or is my interpretation of the German wrong?
    #11Verfasser ion1122 (443218) 23 Jul. 15, 17:00
    I had the same thought, ion1122. We might be misinterpreting the German, though.
    #12Verfasser wupper (354075) 23 Jul. 15, 17:24
    That was my thought as well, but I found the linked article a bit disorienting in that regard as well. While the content indicated the proper direction, the tables were set up showing BE first and then AE and then, for example, say things like "Elimination of "u" when discussing the difference between "savors" and "savours", which to me gives the indication that BE came first. (In fact, based on both the "BE zu AE beim" post (which I agree I may be misreading -- it would be nice if an NGS would clarify if we are misreading that) and the linked article, I questioned whether Fitzgerald were an American or a Brit, but remembered that we read the book during the American Literature segment in HS English.
    #13Verfasser hbberlin (420040) 23 Jul. 15, 17:33
    The Great Gatsby was originally published in 1925 - 90 years ago. I don't know how old the BE version in that link is, but it's safe to say that publishing has undergone some changes since 1925. I would assume that includes at least some "translation" policies.
    #14Verfasser dude (253248) 23 Jul. 15, 17:43
    I referred to linguists, BTW, because I would expect them to be aware of cultural differences and not be shocked by words - any more than a pathologist would be shocked by a dead body.

    But this is getting close to what I mean.
    It is not just a matter of vulgarity, which - at least in England - would also be a class issue, but Americans (possibly even linguists), who have no problem with words like "dick" (which is not that common in BE), or even "prick", impute what I could perhaps call identity-based antipathy to someone who uses the c-word. In other words the c-word is to misogyny what the n-word is to racism, and this element is almost completely lacking in British usage, just as calling someone a "prick" would have no overtones of misandry.

    Conversely, I would not expect a Brit (even a squaddy) to come out with some of the insults or expletives based on perceived sexual deviance that seem fairly common in non-polite AE. I am thinking of typical American insults like "motherf*cker"* or "cocks*cker". Many Brits are probably uncomfortable even mentioning words like this.
    #15VerfasserMikeE (236602) 23 Jul. 15, 18:33
    Aren't BE speakers uncomfortable with the word "fanny," for instance? In AE it's a perfectly harmless word denoting a woman's derriere and part of innocnent words like "fannypack," e.g.
    #16Verfasser dude (253248) 23 Jul. 15, 18:38
    In the UK, "cunt" is definitely stronger than "fanny". I'm not even sure that "fanny" is a taboo word in the UK - at least not these days.
    #17VerfasserKinkyAfro (587241) 23 Jul. 15, 18:41
    #14: Ich fürchte nein. Irgendwo in den Q&A-Seiten des Chicago Manuals of Style habe ich eine erst zwei oder drei Jahre alte Terminologieanfrage von jemandem gesehen, der sich als hauptberuflicher BE-nach-AE-Konvertierer eines amerikanischen Verlagshauses vorstellte.
    #18Verfasser Cuauhtlehuanitzin (1009442) 23 Jul. 15, 18:42
    I would say "fanny" is a fairly mild word and is hardly offensive at all, though it does refer to the same body part as the c-word. You probably wouldn't use it to children.
    So Brits are probably mildly amused when Americans use the word with a different meaning.

    I suspect that BE speakers are generally more comfortable with potentially taboo words.

    "Spazz" is perhaps a word with about the same meaning that is regarded as much more offensive in Britain.
    #19VerfasserMikeE (236602) 23 Jul. 15, 18:45
    @Kinky: I didn't mean to compare one with the other; I was simply saying that "fanny" has a different and, afaik, more "vulgar" meaning inBE than it does in AE.
    #20Verfasser dude (253248) 23 Jul. 15, 18:46
    Nachtrag zu #18:
    Diese Betrachtungen eines britischen Autors, der für einen US-Verlag arbeitet, sind aufschlussreich: http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/nyrblog/2012/dec...

    #21Verfasser Cuauhtlehuanitzin (1009442) 23 Jul. 15, 18:51
    Re: "In other words the c-word is to misogyny what the n-word is to racism".

    I would say that is a pretty accurate characterization as far as AE is concerned.

    That the offensiveness of a word has cultural connotations and may therefore be perceived differently in different parts of the English-speaking world seems to be quite natural. As an AE speaker, I find the use of the adjective "bloody" quaint, but from what I understand it is about as offensive to a BE speaker as the adjective "f*cking" is to an AE speaker?
    #22Verfasser Norbert Juffa (236158) 23 Jul. 15, 18:55
    It occurs to me that "spazz" may be more comparable with the c-word (only the other way round in AE and BE).

    In both countries, I presume, it would be regarded as most inappropriate to use the word "spazz" of someone with cerebral palsy and extremely vulgar to use the c-word for the vagina.

    OTOH use of the c-word to mean a contemptible or stupid person is less taboo in England and virtually unknown in America.
    Similarly "spazz" in the sense of an unathletic, awkward, or stupid person seems to be regarded as less offensive in America. This sense is known in England but I think it is generally regarded as extremely inappropriate. "Retard" is probably another word that is regarded as much more offensive in Britain.
    #23VerfasserMikeE (236602) 23 Jul. 15, 19:01
    >>insults or expletives based on perceived sexual deviance that seem fairly common in non-polite AE ... like "motherf*cker"* or "cocks*cker". Many Brits are probably uncomfortable even mentioning words like this.

    Of course, so are many Americans, though undoubtedly more women than men, and more educated/cultured men than whatever we have that's the closest to a squaddy. (What is a squaddy -- a soldier? So for us it would be a GI, maybe. Not that that all military men use bad language, but many of the younger, lower ranks.)

    'Spaz' seems pretty mild to me, perhaps because it was never used much here in AE that I recall, or only among kids who played more sports. Kids did call kids they thought were stupid 'retard,' but parents and teachers now probably try to prevent that earlier in the age of political correctness. I wouldn't expect many AE adults to want to use either one, but thanks for the heads-up that BE speakers might find it more offensive if they did.

    Nor does AE have anything I can think of that really corresponds to 'wanker.' Well, I take that back, etymologically I suppose it would be 'jerk,' but I don't think anyone thinks about the etymology on that one; it's a perfectly acceptable word in polite company, just not a very nice thing to say. I assume 'wanker' is a little stronger?

    BE speakers will have to say, but I believe both 'fanny' and 'bloody' may have lost some of the shock value they had in past centuries, even though they're still somewhat more offensive in BE than they look in AE, where they're mainly just unfamiliar. Or rather, 'fanny' may even only be known now in BE in the milder (AE?) sense (meaning seat/bottom), not the older sense that dude was referring to in #20.

    There are past discussions on similar topics in the archive, I know we all know.
    #24Verfasser hm -- us (236141) 23 Jul. 15, 19:37
    "Bloody" is interesting. It may be generational, so I would be interested to hear what others think.
    I would say it is definitely a serious intensifying expletive, but it has achieved a certain respectability without really losing its force. Perhaps that is because people who swear every second word prefer "fucking", so "bloody" has retained a certain necessary rareness.

    I am sure Prince Philip, who is known for his own particular brand of diplomacy, has used it frequently.
    Unlike "fucking" you might use it in front of (but not to) your mother.
    I would tend to think of it as a word that even normally polite parents can use in front of their older children.
    They might even - very occasionally - direct it at their older children when they are really, really annoyed:
    "Don't be so bloody stupid!" [Exit left. Door slams.]
    #25VerfasserMikeE (236602) 23 Jul. 15, 20:00
    Thought I should share this, since I thought it was such a good put down, and it might be useful to someone here.

    Apparently, When someone on Twitter used the word to J.K. Rowling in what I would also see as an egregiously offensive, crude, and possibly misogynistic way, she replied

    "The Internet doesn’t just offer opportunities for misogynistic abuse, you know. Penis enlargers can also be bought discreetly."

    Strictly speaking, I suppose, that is deliberately insulting (and possibly misandric) but it left me with a warm glow. All those years of learning to write well were not wasted. (:-)
    #26VerfasserMikeE (236602) 24 Jul. 15, 18:29
    I'm calling this dormant discussion back to life to pass on an interesting set of maps I just saw, showing the geographic distribution of the frequency of usage of various curse words (including the one of the original posting) though the 48 contiguous states of the US.

    I found them rather interesting and sometimes a bit surprising.
    #27Verfasser Martin--cal (272273) 27 Jul. 15, 15:03
    Bisschen spät, aber mein Senf dazu...:

    Liste der Abweichungen von BE zu AE beim "Great Gatsby"

    suggeriert meiner Ansicht nach, dass das BE nicht das Original ist. Ohne, dass ich genau sagen könnte, warum ich das denke...
    Ich denke,ich würde "von" hier als "des" lesen: "die Abweichungen des BE". Und die finden sich "im Vergleich zu AE". Das BE weicht ab, und das AE ist der Referenzpunkt.

    Dass diese Unterschiede in den Versionen von Great Gatsby als Beispiel auf die Frage kam "How common is it that books from the UK are revised for the US market?" (#7) suggeriert zwar das Gegenteil; von daher liegt es vielleicht nahe, diesen Satz anders zu interpretieren. Aber an dem "von" und dem "zu" an sich liegt es mMn nicht.

    Vielleicht finden sich ja noch bessere fundierte Einschätzungen ;-)

    Edit: hmmm...Wenn ich länger drüber nachdenke, scheint mir die Interpretation "man geht von BE zu AE und dabei entstehen Abweichungen" ebenso einleuchtend. Hm. Insgesamt wohl eine unglückliche Formulierung - und in beiden Fällen kein 100% logischer Satz, wenn man es genau nimmt.
    #28Verfasser pelican island (339101) 28 Jul. 15, 15:44
    I had assumed that the c-word being more "popular" in Britain (8th most frequent "profanity" in a study of facebook posts) and Australia (5th most frequent) had a lot to do with it practically never being used there (by men) to refer to women.

    But now I am now wondering whether New Englanders use the word in the English/Australian sense (fool, bastard/bloke) or in the "American" sense. I understand that in Tweets from Maine it is the second most frequent "profanity" (after "asshole"). Is it perhaps used to mean a "female asshole"?
    Anybody here from Maine?

    Is it a Yankee thing? Is there a meaningful correlation with prevailing racial attitudes or demographics, present or past?

    #24 @hm
    Sorry, I just noticed, I forgot to answer your question about the meaning of "squaddy" (probably more often spelled "squaddie").
    Yes, strictly speaking a private (NATO classification OR-1) I believe. I think the word is mainly used to stress that you are talking about an ordinary, low-ranking soldier (but without being particularly pejorative). I'm not sure if GI has that connotation in AE, or if perhaps "grunt" has similar connotations.
    To me it sounds like an authentic word that military families would use (though I am no expert). It's not a word I would use very often, but I probably thought of it because of the book I mentioned, The Cuckoo's Calling, where the word is used a couple of times.The main character in the book used to be a sergeant in the detective branch of the Military Police.
    Siehe auch: he had been a monkey, and then a suit, ...
    #29VerfasserMikeE (236602) 30 Jul. 15, 13:11
    Thanks, Mike.

    I don't know of anyone here from Maine. IIRC Rex lived there for several years, but it's also been several years since he was very active in the forum.

    The only thing that might make it linguistically different from the rest of the US is its being half-surrounded by Canada -- Quebec, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia. The survey probably isn't all that scientific; I don't actually picture a huge amount of tweeting going on in largely rural Maine in the first place. But if it points to anything, it might just be that CanE has more in common with BE than AE does.

    Another piece of research might be the historical axis. If the word's use as an insult has been around so long that it traveled to the colonies, that might actually fit both the gender angle and the military angle. Perhaps it dates to the Victorian era, when repression ruled in polite society but pornography and prostitution flourished underground, and when Britain was sending its army and navy around the world to maintain its empire. The Victorians weren't tweeting, and their language in print was much more self-censored, but maybe there are some sources.
    #30Verfasser hm -- us (236141) 30 Jul. 15, 16:36
    AE here.. Really fascinating thread, everyone. I think profanity and swear words, how they're used and how their use changes over time and regionally is really intriguing.

    Just wanted to second a couple things as an American. Yes, the use of the C word addressing a man is quite rare here unless it is intentionally meant as a sexual identity attack in the worst sense, so a reaction to it by the recipient would be very intense, whether physically acted upon or merely internalized. We do occasionally see/hear it here on British broadcasts and in British films now, and gradually more and more.. yet it's still very jarring to me to hear it spoken man-to-man even though I've been around the block and am fairly well-traveled. Here, calling a man the C word really turns heads around and cuts deep into the recipient's male sexual identity just as intensely as it pegs him as ruthlessly conniving and devious due to being utterly devoid of ethical standards or "scruples" as regards the holiest of holy, namely an unswerving dedication to sportsmanlike "fair play", I'd say.
    In fact, I'd venture to say that this last part is actually the real barb of the C word in A.E. regardless of whom it is aimed at, but I think the idea of "fair play" is particularly part and parcel to the male sense of ego, and goes right to his testicles, so to speak, at least in some traditional "All-American" cultural sense of something that perhaps was (or perhaps even still is?) more expected of men than of women.

    In fact, if you analyze various "dirty, rotten" insults you can throw a person, what character traits of the recipient are they actually meant to denigrate? Quite a few refer to a person's laziness, sloppiness about duty, poor work ethic, idleness with time, sexual preferences, degree of sexual faithfulness, degree of cleanliness, wealth, IQ, physical adeptness, physical appearance, level of consideration for others' feelings and needs. But really only few, and this one in particular, seem to challenge a person's very capability to comprehend what it means to interact with others on an "even playing field", i.e without resorting to cheating, trickery or, in other words, ethical rule-breaking and on the deepest level, interpersonal agreement-breaking, which somehow touches on something very primitive: breach of loyalty, fealty, faithfulness. Once again, this, as the term is seen from an American point of view.
    Boy, I guess that could open up a can of real nasty worms or else some great discourse..

    Incidentally, based on the same kind of analysis, I just wonder what German speakers feel is the absolute worst insult "Taboo word" one can apply to a person in German? Anyone dare to venture?
    #31VerfassermikeS (366927) 01 Aug. 15, 00:19
    Schwer zu sagen, da die Fantasie der Wenigsten über ihren eigenen Podex und dessen Inhalte hinausreicht. ;-)
    Dabei hat es Zeiten gegeben, in denen schon der heute so harmlose "Schelm" eine Duellforderung nach sich zog.
    #32Verfasser Cuauhtlehuanitzin (1009442) 01 Aug. 15, 08:26
    @pelikan: Vielen, vielen (verspäteten) Dank für Deine Ausführungen in #28. Sonst wäre die Frage ohne Antwort geblieben.
    #33Verfasser wupper (354075) 01 Aug. 15, 11:54
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