The Joy of Swearing in a Non-Native Language

by Corey · 33 comments

By Corey Heller
Photo Credit: Ben and Kaz Askins

Today was not a day that I am proud of.  I yelled at my German husband in front of my multilingual kids.  And, as always, I regretted it later.

My patient husband kept calm – which made me even more annoyed.

Is that a German trait, that staying-calm-in-an-argument trait?  That trait that can drive me up the wall?  My fiery response to it (inherited from my Irish grandparents) was a clear indication that I still haven’t mastered that trait – not yet, at least.

Let’s hope my children inherit my husband’s calm genes.  Please!

The thing that I find fascinating is that when I lose my temper and start to yell it is usually in German, my non-native language.  Rarely do I launch into a host of deeply familiar American exclamations.

Instead, I automatically turn to my limited, yet carefully selected, set of German vocabulary – words that I have chosen over the years due to the way they so comfortably roll off my tongue.

Non-native speaker tip: Don’t use swear words in a heated argument that you (1) haven’t learned well enough to use comfortably and (2) you can’t pronounce correctly.  I can say this from experience.  The impact is less than stellar when a swear word you utter makes your opponent burst out laughing (at you) because he can’t figure out what you just said.  “Did you just say I’m a pair of binoculars?  Bwahhhahhahh!”

Memorable.  But definitely not satisfying.  Not in the least.

I enjoy swearing in German.  It feels sophisticated compared to the English equivalents.  It gives me a certain sense of satisfaction, primarily because the words feel so very empowering and forceful yet not crude and obscene.  Those German words just roll of the tongue with such slithering pleasure:

“Verdammt, noch mal!”  Doesn’t that sound so much more appealing and mature than “damn it all”?  Course, I have to admit that I do enjoy a good “bloody hell” from time to time while watching those fantastic British mysteries on our local PBS TV station!  What sophistication.  Such refinement.

“Scheiße!”  Those two syllables make our English “shit” seem so very vulgar.  The smoothness of the “sch,” the openness of the “eye” and the soft ending of the “eh” is so very soothing to the ear, is it not?

Even “Idiot” in German has a kind of low, casualness with that lovely long-o sound.  Contrast that with its sharp, edgy American-English cousin.  Anything that ends in “ut” like the American pronunciation must be relegated to the compost heap.

Obviously, I didn’t pick up the worst of the worst when it comes to German swear words (thanks to my clean-talking husband and his friends).  My repertoire of German swear words is limited to a few targeted general ones that I most likely learned from German television.

The fact that I lack a personal association with these words makes them feel so much less offensive – almost pleasant in my mind.  In fact, being that I learned them during a very exciting, joyful time in my life (those first euphoric years with my husband-to-be), it is no surprise that they hold with them many pleasant memories (even though some were used in that same joyful context against that same wonderful person – let’s just blame it on that same Irish blood).

Even though I try never to use swear words in front of my bilingual children, there are times when they slip out.  Purely by accident.  I swear!

I have even been known to use an occasional English swearword in front of my children now and then. However, I aim to stick with German exclamations: they are so much easier to get away with when my kids repeat them in front of English-speaking community members.  I can just pretend like my kids said something extremely cute and praiseworthy: “What did he just say?” they ask.   My response: “Oh nothing, really.  Just ‘darn it,’ that’s all.”  (Inward chuckle.)

I have been asked once or twice by my kids to please define a given swear word in English.  As I usually only use German swear words, I always respond with an honestly shocked response: “What!?  Where did you learn that word!?”

To which my children answer matter of factly, “From you Mama.”

“Really?  Are you sure?  From me?”

Scheiße, verdammt noch mal!

On the rare occasions that you lose your temper, which language do you prefer?  Do your children ever use swear words?  If so, do find that swear words in one language have less of an impact than in your other languages?  Are your children allowed to use words in one language but not their translation in the other language(s)?

Corey Heller is the founder of Multilingual Living and the Editor-In-Chief/Publisher of Multilingual Living Magazine. Multilingual Living is the place where she shares her knowledge about raising multilingual and multicultural children. Corey, an American, and her German husband live in Seattle where they raise and homeschool their three children, ages 14, 12 and 10, in German and English.

{ 32 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Q August 31, 2010 at 9:44 am

This is hilarious! I always swear in Spanish (my second language), I just love how the words sound, and I don’t feel as bad saying them as I do in English (my native language). My husband is the exact opposite of me – Spanish being his first language, but always swearing in English. They almost don’t seem like swear words when you say them in another tongue, hehe.

So far, my 19-month-old has only repeated “shit” one time, and he hasn’t said it since. He repeats everything these days! We don’t really have a problem with him knowing and using swear words…but of course, being mindful of the company he’s in. Don’t want him running around the playground swearing at other kids when he gets older! There is a fine line to walk. 😉


2 Corey August 31, 2010 at 10:35 am

So glad you left this comment! It is wonderful to know that others can relate with my post! As you said, they just don’t seem like swear words in another language – they are fun additions to our language repertoire! I love it! But you are so right about our kids hearing us and repeating what we say. I have found myself telling my kids a few times, “You are not supposed to say that word that I just said!” as if it will have any weight. Course, the words they hear from other kids have the most impact on my kids. My middle son called another kid an f-ing a-hole a few months back. I was in shock and asked him (as calmly as I could) where he learned that. He had learned it from another kid 3 years younger! What!? Another reason to stick with German words – at least the kids can say something and most of our local population won’t know! Hah!

Thank you for stopping by and I’m delighted to be connected on Twitter too! So many great places to connect – yippee!


3 oliver August 31, 2010 at 11:35 am

One of the things that I consider interesting is the fact that it’s difficult to translate swear words, because of the differences in connotation in different cultures and languages. It is quite common to hear the word “Scheisse” in German television and does not have the negative associations as the English equivalent sh*t (which would probably have been censored away by the Anglo-American TV stations).

Equally, the German “verdammt”, is often used differently than the English equivalent “damn it”. It can also be used to emphasize or to stress certain issues, and does not have negative associations (eg: “Es ist verdammt kalt.” is more similar to “It’s extremely cold” than to “It’s damn cold.”). One has to be careful when switching languages because sometimes expressions which are not considered swear words in one language, are completely unacceptable when translated.


4 Noemie September 1, 2010 at 3:23 pm

Oliver, that is so true. English is my second language, and my husband (native English speaker) is sometimes shocked at the type of words I use, which I pick up at school (I am a teacher). In my mind, they weren’t that bad, but he’s taught me to be careful. In addition, there is a North/South divide here in the UK, and certain words are acceptable up north where I first lived, but not down south where I am now. I got into real trouble once for using the words “cheeky sod” in a lesson, which would have been fine elsewhere. I get a similar reaction to “crap”.


5 Corey September 1, 2010 at 8:49 pm

Great points Oliver and Noemie! It can be so much fun to use swear words in other languages but dang, we had better watch out when it is appropriate. That is when we realize how bicultural we truly are – LOL!

Thank you for the fabulous comments!!


6 Jefferson February 9, 2011 at 3:56 pm

How bad most of these words are seen obviously depends strongly on the region — they say you use f*ck in NY as a comma. 🙂 Certainly “It’s f*cking cold.” is then not strong at all. On the other hand, “Scheisse” is never used in kids’ German programs, so my guess it’s that it’s actually only very slightly weaker than “sh*t”.


7 Lydia September 6, 2010 at 2:14 am

Hi Corey,
I’m facing the same “staying-calm-in-an-argument trait” with my British husband !!
On the swearing front, I do find swearing in French (my 1st language) much more effective for tension relief. English sounds too musical for me. It seems that I would need to sound VERY angry to convey the same emotional charge as I would with a simple but effective French word (for example “conn**d” vs “bast**d”). Are some languages simply more suited for swearing I wonder?


8 Corey September 8, 2010 at 11:58 pm

So good to know that I’m not alone in being frustrated with the “calm” spouse! LOL!

I do wonder the same about whether some languages are just more suited to swearing – what a great question. I’m sure someone must have done a research paper on this! I did read something from Jean-Marc Dewaele about swearing. Maybe I can get him to share that piece again.

I do have to say that French swearing sounds so very elegant to me. 🙂 French is such a sophisticated language and so carefully tended to (i.e. making sure not to allow in foreign words) that hearing a French swear word makes me feel that it was chosen precisely for that moment… a perfectly constructed sentence which needed that exact swear word. Isn’t that funny! It must be from all of the French films I watch!

This has inspired me to do some digging into swearing in different languages! Thank you so much for your comment!


9 Anna September 6, 2010 at 11:39 am

Hi Corey!
I am a native English-Polish-speaker, living in Sweden.Having basically grown up in Sweden, Ive made a curious observation: Many Swedes, who generally speak quite good English, tend to use the word “fuck” quite effortlessly and often in a non-abusive context. When I have heard this in a Swedish setting, I realise that I have kind of learnt to accept it, its not as rude when I listen with my “Swedish” ears (I speak Swedish fluently). When The F-word is used by Swedes in the presence of my fellow English-speakers I cringe and feel grossly embarrassed and find it utterly rude! I dont use the F-word myself. Never;-)! My husband is German (and annoyingly calm during arguments). I have, like you, thought myself capable of swearing in German – but my Swedish experinence just reminds me to stick to my safe but more eloquent English and work hard on my German vocabulary…..;-)
PS. We have actually made up our own multilingual “scheisse”, I realised this when my 5-year-old daughter recently said “SCHAIT”!:-D


10 Corey September 9, 2010 at 12:06 am

Thank you for this great comment, Anna! We all have such calm husbands, don’t we? I wonder if that is why we found husbands from another culture – who in our culture would put up with us! LOL! Just kidding. 🙂

So, so, so true about the big old “F word”! I can’t even imagine what my gut reaction would be to hearing it spoken in everyday conversation – a total cultural bias on my part. But I can see how that can happen. I had never thought about this until you left this comment but it is so true!

And as you said, a good reminder to watch what we say in a non-native language while in that native country! I can get away with a lot here in the States but as you mention, I am far more cautious when visiting family in Germany. I do use “scheisse” a lot but I think in part because everyone around me is using it.

I remember there was a woman in my German language class in Kiel who was from Hungary. She would always use the word “shit” but pronounce it as “sheeeet” (the long “ee” sound instead of the short “i” sound). It drove me batty! I found myself correcting her which was so crazy!

Thank you for the comment – so great to connect over profanity! 😉


11 maja May 11, 2013 at 4:05 pm

I’m only reading this now, but it does remind me of our arguments. I’m Polish my hubby is irish, not the a calm German at all. Our arguments are heated, and I hate them. I don’t like arguing and especially not in English. I once felt so helpless and lost in words that I started giving out to him in Polish, he speaks none yet. He burst laughing, because he had no clue what I was saiyng. It ended that argument and I found it helpful, I felt better because I said what I wanted and he realised there was no point arguing. I love Anna’s SCHAIT, it’s really funny because Irish people do not say Shit, they say Shait!!!! And they f…. everything and just like the Swedes, they use when excited, happy, ungry … , it suits every context. They also use word when refering to a friend or even a mother, it’s like an endearment.


12 fay January 6, 2011 at 5:59 am

at long last!!!!!!!! an article that exactly describes why it so easy for me to swear in English!!! i have been trying for years to explain to my English hubby (i am Greek) that it feel as you say less offensive to do it in another language than yours it does have the same “weight” expirience with out little man yet on this..but i am so glad i am not alone in this :-)) i actually think that this is the reason why in most countries other than the UK they play the uncut versions of songs with swear words in…it simply doesnt have the same impact!!!!


13 Anke January 6, 2011 at 2:27 pm

Your post made me laugh! When I grew up in Germany my mother taught me to say ‘shit’ instead of ‘Scheisse’ because it was considered non-offensive. As teenagers ‘fuck’ got added to our vocabulary as a swearword (not by my mom I hasten to add!), but without any real concept of what the word meant. It was a swear word, was non-offensive in German and what was the big deal? It was a real eye-opener, first in the US, now in the UK how strongly some people feel about swearwords – including my in-laws…
Fast forward to now. I have a 22 month old who loves diggers (German: ‘Bagger’ pronounced bugger) and Thomas the tank engine, which he prounces ‘bummer’. I’m still at the stage where I think it’s hillarious that he shouts ‘bummer, bummer’ at the top of his voice whenever he sees a train, because after all it’s not offensive to my first language. However, trying to explain to my German parents what bummer means and why it is offensive to some, I just stuck with saying “yes mom, it’s a little bit like ‘fuck’ but you don’t want to know…


14 rea January 7, 2011 at 8:02 am

I live in a part of Spain where people are famous for their “colorful” language. My husband swears in his native Spanish alot without even noticing. He has asked me to correct him so he can change the habit, but because it doesn’t sound offensive to me (a native English speaker) we have trouble catching the words. We have conversations like, “Did you just say “joder” again? I don’t know, did I?” I guess we’ll find out when our little parrot starts saying it.


15 Lori Nolasco May 20, 2011 at 4:30 am

I learned my fair share of Spanish slang and swear words from my Dominican husband. I have been told that I have near-native pronunciation, but such a “charming” hint of an accent that it doesn’t even sound as if I am cursing. My stepson burst out laughing when I said “Esa historia me tiene enco*onada” (This annoys me, but stronger than the actual word for annoyed, “enojado/a”). However, the one time I got angry with my husband because we were lost on the road and I shouted, “Co*o!” which many Dominicans “use as a comma,” he was quite upset.


16 Rowan December 17, 2011 at 5:05 am

I seldom swear in my native English, but it gives me a secret pleasure to swear in other languages; partly because of the way it sounds, and partly because I only do it when I think no-one can understand. As for what language I use at home when I’m annoyed – my wife and I both speak Spanish (her native language) with our toddler, while he picks up plenty of English from other sources. However, if I’m annoyed enough, I’ll switch to English. Of course, I also sometimes use English in pleasant settings (e.g. bedtime stories) – but if I’m telling him off and I start speaking English, he knows I’m pretty mad.


17 HJGiffin February 12, 2012 at 3:32 pm

Forgive me, I know that this post is old and that you might have by now accepted the love of foreign cursing. For me, however, the joy continues to be as fresh as it was some ten years ago when I first started my language learning journey.

For me, the thrill comes from the fact that no one around me can understand and I can be as mad as I (insert curse word of choice here) please. Given that I can now comfortably curse in four languages, I can always find one that no one around me speaks and just let loose. As a teacher, this ability is both delightfully cathartic and overwhelmingly useful.

You have hit the nail on the head here; thank you for your post. Yet another important reason to learn more languages!


18 Carlos March 15, 2012 at 4:59 pm

I’m a native spanish speaker but I’m also fluent in English and French and I have a conversational knowledge of German,

I find so much easier to swear in Spanish, especially when I’m really mad. It’s just that, when I’m absolutely angry and I start throwing out swear words right and left, they flow out so much easily in Spanish than they do in either English or French (I don’t master German well enough to even try to get mad in it).

Sometimes I enjoy getting mad in English because the language is such that you can say so many things that are non-existent or almost impossible to conceive of in Spanish. However, I’m always afraid to get in a serious foul mood in French because, even though I absolutely master the language, I just never seem to be able to put all my swear words together into one coherent sentence without sounding completely retarded.

In sum, I find that swearing in your native language is much more natural and it feels so much better, especially when you just swear because of something and you live in a country where almost nobody understands your language.


19 =) April 20, 2012 at 7:39 pm

I don’t typically comment on blog posts, but I truly enjoyed this one. Spanish is my second language, and while I never swore in English, I hate to admit my “Spanish mouth” was not nearly as clean! The words flowed put so easily… When I was mad, excited, or just talking about going to the store. It took a lot of constant reminders from my friends while in college, but I finally cleaned up my Spanish. =)


20 Kiki April 23, 2012 at 8:29 am

I love swearing in another language – it’s so much more satisfying to my American ears. Also, I have the benefit of choosing from the 3 romance languages I learned during a childhood in Europe and using whichever feels natural in the moment, usually it’s French. Plus I currently live in an Asian country as an English teacher so it’s nice to not be understood by anyone in those moments!


21 Lola October 9, 2012 at 10:33 am

Ok I have to admit that I love swearing. Love it, love it, especially when I am upset of course. English is my second language but I totally love both English and Spanish. At the right moment, either one of the languages can provide this feeling of satisfaction after a good swearing. I hope no one from my job is reading this and if that happens, well, now you know. By the way, when I am really upset, nothing calms me down more than a few “f” words, better yet, effing s#$t, aaahhh. And yeap, my kids swear too. How could I not teach them something that I do? They understand where to use their swearing, though. I am glad to report that they have never (well almost never) disrespected their teachers or other adults. When I said almost never, it’s because one time, one of my kids said effing b&ch about a teacher after she got out of the classroom and while walking on the hallway away from the teacher’s hearing area but another teacher heard and told on my daughter. but I swear 😉 that was the only time. Well thank you for this post and for the opportunity to talk about something I thought was unspeakable (is that a word?). I feel like a heavy burden has been lifted and I can go on swearing withough feeling so guilty. Thank you!


22 Ellie October 11, 2012 at 1:36 pm

I’m not bilingual (although I speak a good amount of German, my second language, having lived in Germany for the last 18 months) and Im only 13. I’m proud that I don’t really swear in English but I found that in German, especially at first, I wouldn’t know whether a word was swearing or simply an exclamation. I got in trouble at school for using “halt die Fresse” (roughly translated as “shut the fk up”), although I had assumed it was simply “shut up”.


23 Margaret Nahmias October 26, 2012 at 6:05 am

I find that that Spanish speaking learner are fond of the work fuck especially as intensive. My Spanish swear vocabulary is limited to joder, hijo de puta, tu puta madre. Pendejo.(although I never would use the first three But you are right about being careful For example Cagar can mean to screw up and cagada the now form it could be intrpreted as it other meaning to shit.,


24 Hanta June 19, 2013 at 6:28 am

This was so funny to read.
My husband and I are from Madagascar living in the US. We don’t have many people from our country here but we do speak to our now 10months old baby in our native langage. My husband and I still swear in our native langage, him more than me. And he uses very heavy meaning and offensive swear words, his excuse being that now that other people around us don’t understand what they mean, it does not have quite the same impact. I am sure our son will pick up some of that if we continue as it is. And I can already picture him saying one (or more) of those in front of his grandparents of other family members in the future. Aha!


25 Gretta July 27, 2013 at 5:34 pm

I loved this post!
English is my first language, followed by Spanish and German.
I don’t tend to swear in just one language, it depends on what I am saying.
For example, I always use Scheiße for the less significant things, then Puta for when things are starting to get really bad, and only in those uncontrollable moments of anger or pain does the big English Fuck come out.

While this seems to be my general rule, it also depends on the language I am speaking/thinking in at the time.


26 Eve August 12, 2013 at 11:31 pm

We spent half a year in France and my boys attended elementary school (equivalent of 3rd and 5th grade). They learned some swear words in French and proudly told me afterward that they knew way more swear words in French than in English (which was true). They still swear in French when they get really made, but it is really shocking because it is not appropriate here (in the US) and even if no one else understands it, we know it is quite offensive and reprimand them. They are doing it less and less since we have returned to the US. They sure swore like a native, but it was not pretty!


27 Stephen Greene August 14, 2013 at 12:18 pm

My story is the opposite of yours. I can’t swear in Portuguese because it doesn’t sound right. I like my swear words to be strong and mean, and in Portuguese they just don’t do the trick.


28 Rachel November 2, 2013 at 3:57 am

This is so funny! And so true!

Well, English is my first language, but to be honest, I never swear in English. My parents have never allowed me to swear (and do so only very rarely themselves), so I always feel embarrassed and offended when I hear English swear words.

That said… I say “scheisse” a lot. And “verdammt”. And “verpiss dich”. And I used to say “dummkopf” so much that my painfully monolingual sister even started saying it. Needless to say, I don’t use it so much anymore, because she’s worked out what it means.

I still laugh when I remember the first time I actually used “scheisse” in front of one of my teachers. Completely by accident, honestly! Us kids use these words all the time, but the teacher’s surprise at us (particularly me, the only non-native speaker in the class) knowing these words was comical. What, did you think that just because we’re in Australia meant we didn’t have access to German media? Or, for that matter, that half the class emigrated long after they were old enough to have picked up these words? (Not to mention my father learnt all of his German whilst working at ski resorts…)

My exclamations are clearly largely German, with the exception of “merde” (to be honest, I use “scheisse” a lot more), but I find it more satisfying to insult people in Spanish. And sometimes French. Oh, and I can’t forget that delightful little Irish “eejit”.

Speaking of Spanish, and translation problems, there was one particularly embarrassing one. You see, I learnt my Spanish in Salamanca, in Spain. A couple of months after getting back to Australia, we had some guests over and I was happily telling them about my day… Including how I caught the bus into the city. The man I was talking to, and Argentinian, gave me this horrified/disturbed look and said after a long moment, “You do realise you just said you fucked the bus, right?”

The one language, other than English, that I have the most trouble swearing (or being rude) in is Gaelic. Which is probably because it doesn’t have very many swear words, as such. I can manage an “a bhidse!” on occasion, but even some words like “cac”, which sound (and translate) really offensive in English, simply aren’t that vulgar. A truly rude way of telling someone to get lost usually involved an honest-to-goodness curse, like, “May the devil pull your backbone out of your mouth and use it as a ladder!” Which is terrifying, admittedly, but an awful mouthful to say. My personal favourite is, “May you be eaten by the itch!”, but I have trouble pronouncing that. (Plus, there’s the slight problem of learning the language from people more than 50 years older than yourself. I can only be over-polite in Gaelic. I went to an Irish group once and got told off for using the polite form of “you” for everyone… I’d just never been in a situation where I was talking to someone my own age and could use the informal before.)


29 Annabelle Vergne December 20, 2013 at 12:25 pm

Interesting… Funny that for me, even though I often swear in English, when I drop something, or get really irritated, it’s either in French or Arabic, my 2 native languages, that I swear first, usually followed by a sequence of English swearing :)


30 TS February 14, 2014 at 12:19 am

I’ve always hated the fact that Americans talk about their ancestry, “ooh my Italian part makes me passionate! My irish part fiery!” It’s almost like everyone is so desperate to be from somewhere (with a suspiciously large number of Americans claiming to hail from Native American origins) and “different.” If you weren’t born there and haven’t lived there, then you’re not really from there.


31 Rowan March 2, 2014 at 1:32 pm

TS, I know what you mean, but I think your criteria are a bit too strict (“If you weren’t born there and haven’t lived there, then you’re not really from there.”)

My wife and I live in my home country (UK), and my children were born here and are being raised here – but Spanish is the main home language for all of us, and they’re very in touch with their Venezuelan family and culture. Whether or not they ever live there, I certainly think that they have a right to call themselves Venezuelan.

I accept that if their children and grandchildren are also born and raised in the UK, and don’t really know much/any Spanish language or Venezuelan culture, then your comments may well apply. However, you seem to be ignoring how immersed many second generation immigrants are in their parents’ original language and culture.


32 Bianca November 25, 2015 at 12:38 am

My first language ist German, but I also swear in French (second language) und Englisch (third language). I think I even swear more in the other languages than in German. Or I mix it up. I guess that must sound rather funny.


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