Book Review: Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit

Stephen Dodson (a.k.a. Languagehat) and Robert Vanderplank have given us Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit: Untranslatable Insults, Put-Downs, and Curses from Around the World. It is a fun excursion into the realm of comparative cursing.

Addressing insults, curses, and put-downs in over forty different languages, Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit gives a good sampling of the varied forms of invective in use around the world. And this is what makes the book so interesting, the differences in what is considered insulting from culture to culture. What is a grave insult in one language, will appear to be comically mild in English, or even just downright nonsensical. Take for instance the Lithuanian threat, nusišypsosi šaltais dantimis, or you will smile with cold teeth. Or the Bashasa Indonesia hidung belang, which is a very insulting term used to describe a womanizer or a man who frequents brothels, but is literally translated as striped nose. Or the Italian figlio di papa, which literally means daddy’s boy, but is the equivalent of the English mama’s boy—it is no shame in Italy to be a mama’s boy, but to owe your success in life to your father’s position is embarrassing.

Of course there are the standard scatological, sexual, and blasphemous insults as well. These themes seem to be pretty universal, although detailed application may vary from language to language.

My lack of expertise on comparative languages means that I cannot judge the quality of the research behind the book myself. But knowing Languagehat from the discussion forum, I take it for granted that the scholarship is impeccable. Similarly, Vanderplank is the director of the Oxford University Language Center, and the book boasts an impressive list of contributors who have helped with individual languages.

The only drawback with the book is that it, by design, only presents a sampling of curses from each language, and like any good sampling, it whets your appetite and leaves you wanting more. It is an appetizer, not a main course, but a very tasty appetizer it is.

Oh, and uglier than a monkey’s armpit? It’s a translation of the Spanish eres más fea que los sobacos de un mono.

Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit: Untranslatable Insults, Put-Downs, and Curses from Around the World; Stephen Dodson and Robert Vanderplank; Perigee Trade; July 2009; paperback; $12.95. (Originally published in the UK in 2007.)

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