Recently, I’ve been reminded that sometimes colorful phrases aren’t so pretty.
A couple of weeks ago, I heard an ad for an NPR segment about the use of racist slang in Japan. Specifically mentioned was a slang term for disposable camera, bakachon camera, meaning “stupid Korean” camera – a camera so easy a ‘stupid Korean’ can use it. Further research tells me that bakachon is a compound word created from baka, meaning stupid, and chon, a very offensive word for a Korean. It’s used as an adjective in other circumstances, too, when someone wants to say something is so incredibly easy that anyone can do it. Ouch.
I have been trying for days to locate this piece on NPR (so if anyone happens to find it, let me know!), but I’m coming up empty. I really want to listen to it because it brought to mind the idea that we can tell a lot about a culture from the words they consider insulting. I remember thinking about this a couple of years ago, when a Hungarian language partner taught me a phrase that’s used in the same way many American English speakers use, “It went down the wrong pipe,” meaning something we swallowed didn’t go the way it was supposed to and is now causing a coughing fit. The phrase he used was, “cigányútra ment”: literally, “It went along the Gypsy road.” I did some quick research, and it seems to be a pretty commonly understood phrase.
I thought about this phrase for days, and still think about it sometimes (generally while coughing). This NPR piece made me think of it again. The fact that a phrase like this becomes commonly used really says something about how the culture feels about the Roma. And it isn’t a good statement.
While trying to research this subject this week, I stumbled on the blog of one of the authors of a book called Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit –itself a horrible phrase, depending on its origin. (One or both of the authors spoke on NPR in 2007, but I found this through some other searching.) The book looks at insults in many languages and cultures to see what things each group seems to find the easiest to craft into a hurtful phrase. As one of the authors, Robert Vanderplank, says in the introduction,
“For me, insults and curses are the ‘dark’ side of manners and customs and all the more interesting for that, as they many inform us about what lies beneath the social codes, what verbal games men and women play with each other. Listening out for insults and curses may provide us with as many insights into the local culture as observing local manners and customs.”
How right he is. Skimming though the book, I see mostly examples of references to sex, waste elimination, and animals used as insults, as well as the standard slaps to intelligence and appearance. But what really interests me just now is the application of this idea to cultural denigration. I know that many parts of Europe have a dislike of the Roma, and that’s where the Hungarian phrase came from. Roma are stereotyped by many of the country’s people as proud thieves and scam artists. I’m also aware of, though less familiar with, the animosity between the Japanese and Koreans, so that phrase makes sense culturally, too.
Of course, no place is immune to this. The English language still uses the word gyp to mean cheat, and it’s so endemic that many people don’t even know the source of the word. I know I didn’t, either, until I saw the spelling, probably around middle school. And that’s not even the worst example, by a long shot – many of which we use knowing exactly what we’re saying.
As children we heard the “sticks and stones” rhyme over and over again, but words do hurt. In this case, these words hurt the cultures on both sides. How can the Roma, for example, integrate into a society where they continue to be so unwelcome and disrespected that common phrases perpetuate the idea that they are somehow bad? How can diplomacy work between countries whose populations view each other as unintelligent, dishonest, or unworthy? And, as Vanderplank notes, “How often have we gained a lasting impression of a village, town or country not by acts of kindness or courtesy but by witnessing or being subjected to rudeness and boorish behavior?” Not to mention the constant stoking of hatreds that, as we’ve seen too many times, can lead to violence.
We certainly can learn a lot from a culture by its insults. We should probably also think about what others are learning about us.