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South Africans moer Australians when it comes to swearing

South Africans are so much better than Australians when it comes to swearing. Possibly not quantity — Australians are said to be unusually prolix when it comes to coarse language — but when it comes to quality, I believe that we klap them stukkend.

I was prompted to reflect on the critically important issue that is swearing by a meeting at my client. I was interviewing a customer service team about ways in which they would like to see marketing changed or improved, and one of them suddenly blurted out: “It’s a shithouse.”

“Shithouse” is an essentially Australian swear word, one of the few that can be distinguished from their original English versions, and is the word I’ve encountered most often here. Those who know tell me it’s almost friendly, one of the bog-standard expressions of annoyance and/or irritation here.

Swearing really is a subject worthy of serious consideration. The British sports journalist Simon Barnes sees in Australia’s predilection for swearing an expression of its essentially egalitarian culture:

Australian speech is lively, demotic, unstuffy: the talk of men with calloused hands and a serious problem with authority. The basic structure of discourse implies a vital truth: if you think you’re better than me, you can f*** off.

The Australian fondness for swearing was encapsulated in a campaign line for Australian tourism, “So where the bloody hell are you?”, which upset the English. Somehow, swearing is allowed in their movies (remember the opening scene of Four Weddings and a Funeral?) but not their advertising.

The bullock drivers of the past were known for immense creativity when it came to coming up with invective to urge on their straining beasts, but nowadays, fewer — and more globally prevalent — taboo words are more commonly used. Take the C-word. Australians do seem fond — fonder than we are, at any rate — of this still most taboo of English four-letter epithets. In fact, down under, the C-word really doesn’t seem to be all that bad, not judging by the songs of comedian Kevin Bloody Wilson, a sort of ocker equivalent of Barry Hilton, only cruder. His greatest song is this extremely rude one about Santa Claus.

(Which makes it faintly ironic that the Catholic Church in Australia is protesting against the broadcast of Gordon Ramsay’s show Kitchen Nightmares and Hell’s Kitchen at times when children might be watching.)

In South Africa, swearing is probably less an expression of an essentially egalitarian spirit and more a substitution for physical aggression. The most high-profile of Mzansi swearers is probably Irvin Khoza, responsible for the use of the F-word in 2006 (the immortal phrase “Stop f***ing around” got on to the front page of the Sunday Sun) and the K-word this year.

Which is faintly disappointing, given the wide vocabulary from which the Bucs boss could have selected, for South Africans have so many swear words from which to choose. This is, of course, a reflection of the country’s linguistic diversity. Zulu and Afrikaans are the best languages to use for insulting, says Fred Khumalo:

“Only in Zulu (and possibly in Afrikaans) can you swear in a manner that drives the fear of God into your adversary’s heart.”

Mosibudi Mangena, now the Minister of Science and Technology, once described a swearing duel between Kamteni, a political prisoner on Robben Island, and one of the Afrikaans prison warders. Kamteni “did not start too badly, but as his dirty-word ammunition quickly ran out, his opponent was gathering momentum, spewing one sordid salvo of insults after another”.

His position was further undermined by the fact that he was fighting through the medium of English while his opponent employed a language in which obscenities could sound a lot more devastating — the guttural Afrikaans. When his swearing vocabulary was completely depleted and he could only respond by producing clicking sounds with his tongue, the gaoler laughed triumphantly and said: “Laat ons maar los, jy kan nie vloek nie. [Let’s leave it. You can’t swear.]”

Can words such as “shithouse” and “bloody” stand up against all of our gems? Haai! Suka wena.


  • Sarah Britten

    During the day Sarah Britten is a communication strategist; by night she writes books and blog entries. And sometimes paints. With lipstick. It helps to have insomnia.