Language Log

Why dogs and puppies are swear words in India: A short guide to Hindi profanity for the BJP

Most terms of abuse in the subcontinent have to do with notions of honour, specifically sexual dominance over a presumably weaker rival.

A furore has erupted over Union Minister VK Singh’s statement on Thursday absolving the Bharatiya Janata Party government of any blame in the case of two Dalit children being burnt alive in Haryana on Monday. "If someone throws stones at a dog, the government is not responsible," said Singh, displaying a marked insensitivity in his choice of analogy.

This isn’t the first time that a BJP leader has messed up by choosing a canid phrase to describe a tragedy. In 2013, Narendra Modi seemed to compare the Muslims killed in the 2002 Gujarat pogrom to puppies. When asked whether he regretted the 2002 riots he replied, “Any person if we are driving a car, we are a driver, and someone else is driving a car and we’re sitting behind, even then if a puppy [kutte ka bachchaa was the exact term used] comes under the wheel, will it be painful or not?”

Without going into the political merits of either controversy, it is interesting to know that most, if not all, Westerners would be completely befuddled by all of this. While “bitch” is a common swearword in English (which has its origins in comparing a woman to a dog in heat and, thus, once meant “slut”), however, the word “dog” is almost never used as a profanity. And calling someone a puppy means, if anything, something mildly positive in the English language. In Hindi, though, kutte ka bachchaa turns out to be a rather offensive phrase. Kutte ka pilla, a more offensive synonym, could easily lead to fisticuffs.

Anglo-swearing

Given that most people reading this article are probably bilingual in English and an Indian language, it's interesting to see just how different the principles of profanity are in these two linguistic cultures.

English swear words can, by and large, be grouped into three categories: sexual (genitals, the F-word etc.), bodily functions (the most obvious being "shit") and social identity (race, nationality, parentage or even disability – on Indian Twitter, variants of the word “retard” and "moron" are shockingly common).

Not so long ago, there would have been a fourth category: religious. Until fairly recently, a curse like “damn” (wishing damnation upon a person) was quite an escalation when it came to verbal violence. Most famously, the 1939 film Gone with the Wind used the line, "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn" and created quite a controversy. Today, however, these words would act as mere interjections and can be used in most setting without any danger of appearing too rude.

Desi obscenities

Most subcontinental languages such as Hindi-Urdu have a rather different set of principles which drive their profanity. They can broadly be divided into religious, sexual (including incest) and honour.

The first silo, religious swearing in Hindi draws from two main sources: Hinduism and Islam. Ironically for Modi, the fact that kutta is a swearword in Hindi is, in all probability, drawn from the Islamic contempt for the animal. Similarly, pig or suar (much like kutte, also used commonly as a paternal slur, as most famously illustrated by Gabbar Singh in Sholay) is also another swearword that draws upon the intense Islamic dislike for the animal.

The other major source of religious swearing is the caste system. Hindi has a large number of imprecations which are actually references to caste. “Chamaar”, a very common swearword in Delhi, is simply the name of a Dalit caste whose most famous member is Mayawati. Similarly for “kanjar”, a caste which once upon a time practiced hereditary prostitution. The word "kaminaa" comes from a Persian word "kamin" which means “low” (neech) and is equivalent to calling someone “low-caste”. So the next time, you feel all smug about Indians leaving caste behind, just listen around. These everyday obscenities show just how deeply embedded caste is in Indian society.

Obsession with incest

Sexual swearwords are common throughout the world but by far the most macabre and unique part of the Hindi swearing system is its emphasis on incest. Hindi’s most obscene gaali refers to intercourse with one's mother, the number two being, somewhat unimaginatively, intercourse with one’s sister. And, in what is most interesting, the Hindi swearword for the former actually uses the Persian word for mother. Perhaps actually using the common Hindi word "maañ" was just too close to the bone. So the actual profanity is a half-bowdlerised, somewhat more palatable version, which uses the Persian “maadar” instead. It’s almost as if the speaker is saying, “I'm going to abuse the shit out of your venerable maataaji but maybe if I do it in flowery Persian, you won't mind all that much, sir, now will you?”

English has the term “motherfucker” too, but its connection with incest is far weaker. One strong etymology for "motherfucker" traces it as a term developed by enslaved Africans in the United States to refer to White slave owners, since they were frequently  involved in the sexual abuse of female slaves.

Oddly enough, Hindi has no equivalent to English’s most common swearword, “fucker” which, if you come to think of it, isn’t all that odd in the first place. We all are, or at least aspire to be (looking at you, engineers), “fuckers”. It is an odd word to use as a term of ridicule.

Notions of honour

The biggest category of Hindi expletives, though, refers to various notions of honour prevalent throughout the subcontinent. Honour encompasses a very wide field. Most of it though has to do with sexual dominance over a presumably weaker rival. Hence, in Hindi, a boast by a male to penetrate other male is a common gaali.

As this example shows, India, with its casual acceptance of homosexuality (as opposed to the West) is (almost) an equal opportunity offender when it comes to sexual swearwords. That, of course, doesn’t means that we aren’t completely messed up as well. Sex in India is largely treated as a battlefield of honour. And all sexual relationships involve the bartering of honour, wherein one person loses it and the other gains it, no matter how “legitimate” the sexual relationship.

Take the word sala, for example. It's probably Hindi's most popular obscenity and is only mildly offensive. It literally means one's wife's brother. By calling someone a sala you are in short proclaiming that you dominate him because you have had sex with his sister. Similar problematic connotations exists for sasur (father-in-law) whereby you now claim to have now had sex with his daughter.

This might seem odd to most people reading this now, but these swearwords serve to illustrate a deep-seated Indian mindset about the shame embedded in just about any sexual relationship. Recall any Indian wedding and the impossible cockiness displayed by the groom’s family members. It flows from the same mindset as "sala". The marriage is a sexual exchange where the men are supposedly superior to the women.

Tehmina Durrani’s novel Blasphemy talks about a Sindhi custom which takes this mindset to its (logical?) extreme. A certain community in Sindh actually goes so far as to mourn the marriage of a daughter. "Why?" asks a character in the novel. "Because it means allowing a man to have intercourse with her," is the answer. Subcontinental societies take an extreme, almost Dworkinian view, of all sex as a form of domination. And this view is so widespread that a swearword like sala is considered mild.

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