For the first time since joining Real Madrid, the newly tattooed David Beckham has finally gone native. Since he got off the plane at Barajas airport, Beckham has gone through all the motions. He's eaten the food and bought the house. He's even done the horizontal salsa with an almost bona fide Spaniard. But not until last week, when the England captain stood squarely on the Spanish turf, looked a referee hard in the eye and spat, with hot-blooded, phlegmy relish, "hijo de puta!", was he truly immersed in la vida española.
The outburst was received with predictable outrage by maiden-auntish commentators in the British red-top press. The Sun feared that this "ultimate insult" ("son of a whore", it kindly translated) could have "awful implications among the yob element who survive attempts to prevent troublemakers travelling". The fear must be that copies of Lorca and Cervantes will be flying off the shelves as English hooligans brush up their Spanish, the better to humiliate their shaven-headed rivals in Portugal's bars next month.
While Beckham must be saluted for encouraging Britain's feckless youth to learn something - anything - in another language, he has also learned that letting fly with juicy, back-of-the-throat foreign curses has implications even beyond the spit that's left dribbling down your chin. "He's obviously picked up a few words of Spanish after all," said John Toshack, the coach of the rival team, Murcia, sounding unexpectedly impressed. "Unfortunately for him, the first words the players have taught him have cost him tonight. I bet he wishes he hadn't learnt them as well as he had done now."
It's always the way with swearing in a foreign language: it seems such a good idea at the time. Those rich plosives and harsh, fricative hisses are so seductive, so temptingly memorable and blunt, that it's easy to picture yourself standing in a sweaty foreign marketplace and cursing like a native while stunned locals hold up their hands and admiringly wave you through. It never, ever works like that.
It's always tempting to swear in French. To our British palate, with its gruff Anglo-Saxonisms and short little huffs, the French espèce de this and faire foutre with that are impossibly glamorous. (But then, speaking as a northerner with maddeningly short vowels, the height of sophistication for me would be to hurl a glass of wine over an unsuspecting Londoner and hiss, "you utter baah-stard!") The trouble is, a French "r" sounds bad enough in an English mouth; with the added distraction of being terribly cross it can bear an embarrassing resemblance to the noise made when being suddenly and copiously sick. Gordon Ramsay can turn intimidation into a fine art when he's hurling "fuck off back to the jungle" at other celebrity chefs, but ask him to roll his "r"s and his invective would sag like a deflating soufflé.
Spanish and Italian oaths are easier for us to master. And therein lies the problem. Yelling "bastardo!" and "cornuto!" and holding up your fingers like a cuckold's horns is so much fun that it's easy to get carried away. Before you know it you've questioned the parentage of the newsagent, the doctor and the local priest and are being run out of town quicker than you can say, "cojones!" It's like taking one lesson in salsa in a room above a pub and unleashing your crazy hip-wiggling on a convention of Spanish nuns. It just shouldn't be done.
Having spent a few months there, I know that Turkish curses are more suited to our British tongues. Like our own, their expletives - sik, bok, pic - are hard and small and easily spat. And they really do, in extremis, say "son of a donkey" - "esol esek". But it's really not advisable to join in. Shouting "siktir git!" at a groper in the Istanbul spice market will elicit the kind of reception that would make you glad to be sent off for an early bath. The one time I tried it (honestly, as a last resort) I had to whip out my penknife (the trusty Swiss insult) and run. In Turkey, as everywhere, a little local knowledge is a dangerous thing.
O mierda, as they'll be saying chez Beckham tonight.
Joan Smith is away
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