Four-letter words

Anyone who simply wants to pass an exam in English has no need whatsoever to know any of the hundreds of really awful things English speakers say to each other when they get a bit too angry. But anyone with any plans to live or work in Britain, the US, Australia, Jamaica, Nigeria or South Africa will appreciate how important it could be to have some familiarity with bad language. Misunderstandings do occur from time to time and then the natives are likely to lose their cool and start shouting. Even the normally polite British may resort to one or two of what they call four-letter words, like f*** or sh**. This is not at all nice, but it is undeniably a part of the English language. Can you claim to "know" English without knowing one or two four-letter words? What follows is a brief introduction to the rich store of linguistic artillery for the pissed-off English speaker.

Most of what we call bad language is language that breaks social taboos. There are three taboos that are particularly important for English bad language:

1. the taboo against being disrespectful to religious figures;
2. the taboo against talking about toilet activities;
3. and the one against talking about sex.

1. Religion. Another word for this is blasphemy. It's not commonly used in expressions of anger. Those who are extremely shocked and surprised, though, often let out a long "Jeeesus Chriiist!". Another expression in this category is "hell" which crops up in a peculiar adjectival phrase, as in, "That girl has a hell of a voice - she could be a star." English speakers very rarely tell each other to go to hell, in contrast to Greek speakers, for instance, many of whom do this on an almost daily basis.

2. Toilets. Toilet references are much more common when people start boiling with anger. The overwhelming majority of these references refer to two substances, one solid and one liquid. There can't be anyone who doesn't know the solid reference. This word can function both as a noun and a verb, although at places like building sites the verb is avoided, as in the following sentence: "Oi! John, hang on a sec. I've gotta go for a sh**"

Less well known to foreigners but equally common in Britain is the synonym for the sh** word: crap. Although it literally has the same meaning it doesn't sound quite so violent, and is often used to express just how rubbish you think something is. If you thought the film was a gross waste of money, you might say to your friend, "John, that film was crap."

The liquid reference may be less well known. The word "piss" is often used on its own as a short and blunt expression of extreme frustration when, for instance, you have been waiting in a queue for two hours, then you finally get to the front only to be told that the office is closing now and you will have to come back the following day. "Piss!" The phrasal verb "piss someone off" is also used when something really gets on that person's nerves. E.g. "It really pisses me off when I try to be polite and hold the door open for people and then they don't even bother to say 'thankyou'." In a passive expression with "get" it means "become drunk", as in: "He drank 10 pints in less than an hour and got totally pissed." Not a nice expression, but it is frequently heard in the vicinity of pubs in working class areas late on a Friday or Saturday evening.

3. Sex. By far the worst expressions have all got to do with sex, but because this is a family page we will avoid dealing with the really disgusting ones. The most common is, of course, the f*** word. In action movies and in real life it is used in a two-word expression that neatly sums up the attitude of the individual who insists on not being accountable to anyone: "Fuck you!" The same people also use the word to warn others not to try to trick them or do anything else that might be to their disadvantage, as in the sentence: "Don't you dare fuck with me, you punk." If you happen to meet one of these guys on your travels, the chances are that they have a knife, so it is probably better to do what they say.

There are a few million people in Britain who seem to be angry almost all the time and have the habit of using the present participle of the f*** word at least twice in every sentence. I remember overhearing the following utterance during a tea-break while working as a porter in a hospital: "I went to see the fuckin manager and he fuckin told me to come back the next fuckin day. The fuckin bastard!" A good concise English dictionary will contain about 100,000 words. It is amazing that some people are able to get by perfectly well with less than 1% of that linguistic abundance.

Adjectives ending in -ing often exist in a pair with their partner ending in -ed. The f*** adjective is no exception. As an example of its partner in use, we have: "I'm fucked if I know what the hell he's on about." In this rather unsophisticated sentence the speaker indicates that he doesn't know what the other person is talking about. With a different meaning the word can be used in this way: "Look, Eddy, if you don't fuckin get it right this time, you're fucked," which let's Eddy know, in no uncertain terms, that if he makes a mess of things again he will be in deep trouble. The use of the f- word in that sentence may seem an admission of a lack of eloquence on the part of the speaker but it does help to make it clear to Eddy that the deep trouble he would be in could easily include some degree of physical violence.

The word is also part of a phrasal verb which is very often used to tell people who irritate you to go away. To get them to leave, all you have to say is, "Fuck off!" Used differently, this phrasal verb can also be synonymous with the one referred to in the liquid toilet section above, although it is much more nasty. E.g. "It really fucks me off that the cops keep stoppin an searchin me jus cos I'm a cool black guy who don't wear no suit." There is a second phrasal verb and this is used in situations where people make a mess of something, as in: "Eddy, you really fucked up on that last bank job. The cops nearly fuckin had us." There is another use of the same phrasal verb meaning something like "mess up a person's psychological balance". As an example we've got the poem by Philip Larkin. Its central idea can be summed up thus: "Phil's parents really fucked him up, and that's why he died a miserable bastard."

There are also lots of words for the parts of people's bodies that are normally concealed beneath their swimming costumes. These really are just too much for a family page so we will only mention one because of the interesting difference between British and American English. The part of the body on which we sit is referred to on the west side of the Atlantic as the "ass". It appears in the expression, "Let's kick ass", which means something like, "Let's get down to business" or "Let's start working". On the eastern shores of the Atlantic the word "ass" refers to a small horse or mule, and metaphorically to a stupid person. To make the anatomical reference in British English we need the word "arse". For linguistic purists this word is much better than its American equivalent because it is so closely related to the ancient Anglo-Saxon word for the same part of the body.

The words and phrases in these three categories certainly can't be said to exhaust the wide range of colourful expressions English speakers use when they get a bit pissed off. There are quite a few others. One which we shouldn't omit because it is so very common is the word "bloody". If you are angry about exams, you might scowl fiercely and spit out the expression "bloody exams!". It is also used as an adverbial expression as in: "I bloody told you the cops were gonna be there waitin for us." Curiously, English speakers are not aware of any reference whatsoever to the contents of their circulatory systems when they use these expressions, so the words here have no use as words which refer to something in the world. Their value on these occasions is entirely expressive.

These are all interesting expressions, but the foreigner must exercise a high degree of caution when using them. They can lead to misunderstandings with very unpleasant consequences, particularly if the other guy is drunk. To be on the safe side it would be best to avoid swearing at anyone unless they start swearing at you first, or unless the other guy is sitting in an office behind bullet-proof glass, like those guys who work in banks and unemployment benefit offices. But even then we would try to dissuade you from taking this course of action. What's happening in the banks and the unemployment offices or whatever may be really pissing you off, but are the little guys on the front line the ones to blame? They're just doing their job - a job they probably don't even want to do. The world is fucked up enough as it is, and we don't help matters by swearing at each other.

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