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‘Bad words’

First Posted 00:43:00 07/29/2009

When President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo alluded to a critic in last Monday?s State of the Nation Address and exhorted him not to say ?bad words in public,? it drew laughter and applause from the gallery.

This reminded me of Sen. Mar Roxas who shouted the ?P? word during an anti-Charter change rally in Makati a few weeks ago. It also reminded me of many hard-hitting columns by Ramon Tulfo who is polite enough to scramble his bad words into symbols like ?@#$%^&*!!? But sometimes Tulfo pushes the limits by letting us fill in the blanks and mentally say the unmentionable. Tulfo?s younger brother has a radio program where he berates abusive police and public officials on the phone with strong language, but he always stops short of using expletives or ?bad words.?

Although I was born too late to have been under Rolando S. Tinio at the Ateneo de Manila University, I still hear stories about his legendary temper, on and off-stage, when he threw tantrums or objects (like a bakya) at an actor or audience that displeased him. In the classroom, Tinio terrorized students with his genius and sharp tongue. According to Ateneo legend, he was one of the few who got away with using ?bad words? in class.

Early in his teaching career, Danton Remoto tried to copy Tinio?s pedagogical method and was hastily summoned by the uneasy department chairperson who began by saying, ?I heard, Mr. Remoto, that you have been using four-letter words in class.? Danton quickly owned up saying, ?Of course I use four-letter words in class. Which one did you have in mind??love??? That was the end of conversation.

The ?P? word is something we hear every day. My father used to use it like an exclamation mark. As far as I can remember, he never used the word in anger and so it caused no offense. But these days my father has to watch his tongue, fearful that his five-year-old grandson might pick it up and use it in pre-school. The grandson often reminds his grandfather that the ?P? word is a ?bad word.?

When I was in college, I wrote a research paper on curse words that required poring over many dictionaries, including those compiled and published during the Spanish period. This exercise gave me a life-long appreciation for dictionaries, so that now I have two shelves of dictionaries in my study always ready for work or pleasure.

I have learned early on that when buying a dictionary, one of the ways to measure its completeness is to look up the ?bad words.? If no expletives are found or explained away, the dictionary or vocabulary is not worth buying or using.

When I started my research into ?bad words? in Filipino, my first stop was the huge dictionary by Vito C. Santos better known as the ?Vicassan?s Pilipino-English/English-Pilipino Dictionary.? From there I went through, and was disappointed by, the thick volume ?Hispanismos en el Tagalo? (Oficina de educacion Iberoamericana, Madrid, 1972). The dictionary has only one ?bad word? in its 628 pages: ?puta? (prostitute).

What turned out to be more useful were the anatomical terms in ?Vocabulario de la lengua tagala? (Manila, 1869) compiled by the friars Noceda and Sanlucar in the 18th century. For example, the vulgar word for a part of a woman?s anatomy ?puqui? (now spelled with a ?k?) was not translated from the original Tagalog to Spanish unlike the rest of the words in the dictionary. The anatomical terms were rendered into Latin. Thus, ?puqui? was rendered as ?pars vaerenda mullieris, verbum turpissimum.? Noceda and Sanlucar did not want to corrupt laymen and the general public that had access to their dictionary so they left some of the ?bad words? in Latin so that it would sound clinical and scientific, and of course could only be deciphered by someone who knew Latin.

Someone should really compile a dictionary of ?bad words? that will not only give their meanings but also their etymology or the origin and the development of the words. Perhaps the words can also be placed in the context of usage, because how a word is understood over a period of time can change as I have shown in my last column where I explained why ?salvage? in Philippine usage means the opposite of its meaning in English.

To someone doing a dictionary equivalent, nothing should be wrong with the word ?leche? which is ?milk? in Spanish. How did this become a ?bad word?? Well, there is a forgotten original ?mala leche? that implies that one sucked or was raised on rotten or bad milk. Depending on how it is used, ?leche? can simply mean milk or semen.

When two languages use the same word but this word has different meanings they are called ?false friends.? ?Leche? is a good example. A more hilarious example is ?lamierda? which in the Philippines is a colloquial term that means ?going out together? (maglamierda tayo) and whose synonym is ?pasyal? which in turn comes from the Spanish ?pasear,? a verb that means ?take a walk? or ?stroll.? But ?mierda? is the vulgar Spanish word for excrement, so if a Filipino invites someone in Spain to ?lamierda,? he may not realize that he has used ?mierda? (shit) as a verb, and in a completely different way.

Language can indeed be fascinating, but in the case of ?bad words? there is much that cannot be printed in this space. So to repeat President Arroyo?s wise advice, if one aspires to the presidency, ?don?t use bad words in public.?

Comments are welcome at aocampo@ateneo.edu

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