Taboo subjects are often quirky in the extreme. Albanians, for example, never use the word for wolf, for fear that one might turn up. Instead, they say "mbyllizogojen", a contraction of a sentence meaning "may God close his mouth". Another Albanian taboo-contraction is the word used for fairy, "shtojzovalle", which means "may God increase their round-dances". Similarly, in Russian, a bear is called a medved or "honey-eater", and the Sami people of the Arctic also replace the original name with a pseudonym.
Some cultures go even further. In Maasai the name of a dead person is not spoken again and, if the name is also a word used every day, then it is no longer used by the bereaved family. The Sakalavas of Madagascar do not tell their own name or that of their village to strangers to prevent any mischievous use. The Todas of southern India also dislike uttering their own name and, if asked, will get someone else to tell it.
The act of cursing or swearing is practised worldwide, generally using words relating to religion, family, or vulgarisms (sex and the more unpleasant bodily functions). Occasionally, apparently inoffensive words acquire a darker overtone, such as the Chinese "wang bah dan", literally meaning "turtle egg", but used as an insult for Chinese politicians.
The English language is full of relics of our former, more religious days. The expression "bloody" is a truncation of the oath "by our Lady", and "crikey" is a euphemism for "Christ". Socrates swore "ni ton kuna" (by the dog), and Pythagoras is said to have sworn "ma tin tetrakton", by the number four. It was customary for Roman men, when swearing the truth, to grasp their testicles with their right hand; the Latin word "testis" means both "witness" and "testicle".
Less a matter of swearing and insults, but still perplexing in a global context, are the names one can find in an atlas index. Egg (Austria, Zürich, Switzerland); Hell (Norway); No Guts Captain (Pitcairn Island); Saddam Hussein (Sri Lanka); Silly (Belgium); Starbuck Island (Polynesia); Wedding (Germany) and Where Reynolds Cut The Firewood (Pitcairn Island).
What a fine array of products the world has in its shop window, with Atum Bom (Portuguese tinned tuna); Bimbo (Mexican baked goods); Kevin (French aftershave); Polio (Czech detergent); and Prison (Ugandan body spray).
Adam Jacot de Boinod is the author of The Meaning of Tingo and Other Extraordinary Words from Around the World, published by Penguin Books, and creator of the iPhone App Tingo, a quiz about unusual words.Reuse content