The art of swearing in Icelandic
There are a lot of progress barometers when you are learning a new language, but for me, I’ve always been of the mind that you can’t count yourself as truly fluent in a language until you can effectively swear in it. And I don’t just mean the kind of gentle oath that your grandmother mutters when she stubs her toe. I mean sailor-swears and rage-induced, bar fight insults.
Before you get the wrong idea, let me say I don’t tend to get into a lot of rage-induced bar fights. But nevertheless, it’s in those moments that you, the second-language-seether, are at your most vulnerable. You are thinking and speaking off the cuff and it’s particularly important that you be taken seriously. The last thing you want is to hurl off what you think is a most devastating verbal barb at your target, only to be misunderstood and have to repeat yourself, or worse, to be laughed at.
Alas, vulgarities and profanities are not generally included on most second-language vocab lists. Or at least, that’s what I thought until my Icelandic as a Second Language midterms this semester, when I received a take-home exam entitled “Dónaleg orð og kjarngóð blótsyrði” or “Rude Words And Robust Curses.” How to swear in Icelandic, 101. For this test, I had to watch a TV segment (aired by RÚV, Iceland’s national broadcast service) which was all about profanity and then write down all the obscenities I heard during the show. Later, in class, my teacher (waving a good-humoured apology to my classmate, a priest) asked us to shout out all the curses we’d heard so that she could write them on the board for us. Then one by one, she read each word aloud.
“Fokk. This is a ‘tökuorð,’ (“loan word”) of course. Fokk. Now: repeat.”
A class of twenty-some students dutifully intoned, with slow, two-syllable enunciation: “Fo-kk.”
“Nei, nei. Don’t forget the pre-aspiration before the double ‘kk.’ Like this: Fohh-kk. Repeat.”
While this was certainly one of the most delightful experiences of my academic career, it didn’t entirely solve my problem. I had my basic vocab list, but I wasn’t entirely sure how to put it into practice.
In English, your insults are generally action-based and directed quite specifically at the recipient. Essentially, you tell someone where to go and how to get there. I’m not totally sure how to do that in Icelandic. Moreover, half of these new vocab words sound quite quaint when translated into English, even those that I’ve been told are rather emphatic: ‘Andskotinn’ (“devil”), for instance, or ‘fífl’ (which my dictionary translates as “fool”).
But being the committed student I am, I decided to investigate, or rather, to pose the matter to my colleague, since journalists, and bilingual ones at that, tend to be pretty masterful in the art of imprecation.
So, Gabríel, first question: what is with all of these granny-sounding swear words in Icelandic? I mean, if I call someone a “helvítis hálfviti” (damn halfwit), are they going to cry, or laugh at me?
Looking at it from an English-speaking perspective, Icelandic swear words do—in fact—sound very tame, but I assure you they can deeply offend. “Helvítis hálfviti” is a good place to start, but calling someone a “helvítis aumingi” (“bloody weakling”) in a nation still obsessed with physical strength and manliness may prove to be more effective. And funny you should mention granny-sounding: just the other week at a family dinner the subject of swear words came up and my granny shared some of her own favourites with me, including the much beloved “farðu til helvítis” (“go to hell”). It’s a short and sweet retaliatory curse, and gets straight to the point, even if you aren’t religious.
As far as I can tell, despite having a national church, most Icelanders aren’t terribly religious. And yet there do seem to be a fair amount of insults based in religious imagery. What’s that all about?
One might argue that society has outpaced the language in progressiveness, but you are right, many swear words have religious undertones, including the innocent “ansans ári” (“devil’s demon”), “mannfjandi” (“man-devil”) and “skrattinn” (“Satan”). To be fair, saying “oh my god” is still a commonplace exclamation in English, too.
It’s true. Adding “god” before (or between) most basic insults really adds some oomph in (American) English, because to this day, a good many of us are essentially still Puritans. Which probably explains why sexually derived insults continue to mortally offend us.
We have a fair share of those, including the complicated “brundþró,” which is composed of “brund” (“cum”) and “þró” (“compost”), to literally call someone a “cum receptacle.” We have even more insults referring to genitalia, including the tame “skaufi” (“dick”), the banal “kunta” (“cunt”), and the more inventive “drulludeli” (“shitty penis”) and “drullukunta” (“shitty vagina”), both of which are comparable to “piece of shit.”
But worse, really. Although things seem to get a bit complicated when it comes to body part vocab in Icelandic. Take “rassgat,” (asshole). Not unexpectedly, this word features in some pretty decent curses, such as “farðu í rassgat,” which I take to mean something like “crawl up your own asshole.” But then I was informed that “hvað þú ert mikið rassgat!” (“aren’t you a little asshole!”) is a perfectly acceptable endearment to use when speaking to your cousin’s adorable child, for instance.
I find this confusing. I’m hard pressed to think of a way in which an asshole is something cuddly or cute that you want to associate with a child that you are fond of. And I know for certain that if you tried to call someone’s kid an “asshole” in the States—even saying, “aren’t you a cute little asshole?!”—you would immediately be punched in the face.
If you’re going to take something away from Icelandic, I certainly hope calling kids assholes isn’t one of them. I’m not sure how the tradition began, but calling kids ‘little assholes’ is interchangeable with saying “oh you little monster / beast / rascal.” Perhaps asshole works because everyone has one? I don’t know, that’s probably not it…
But now that I have all these words at my disposal, this brings me back to my original problem. Namely: how to execute an effective aspersion. So, can you teach me how to actually deliver these withering Icelandic insults now?
With pleasure! The insults can all be shouted, but I find they have the greatest impact if you can pull them off slowly, deliberately and with confidence. Most swear words can be made even more potent by prefacing them with “helvítis” (“damned”), “andskotans” or “djöfulsins” (“by the devil”). Please refer to the handy “Pocket Guide to Icelandic Insults” we’ve put together here.
YOUR POCKET GUIDE TO SWEARING IN ICELANDIC
You’ll see that a lot of the words above have a “+” icon. This indicates that you can use any of the following “Oomph Words” to preface them for an extra zing. You can also string along combinations of all three Oomph Words to indicate extreme frustration.
Historically, Icelanders have taken slander very seriously. According to Grágás, a collection of laws that were used in Iceland from 930–1260s, there were three words—all essentially connected to the idea that the person insulted was ‘unmanly’ or homosexual—that were so insulting that a man who said them could be punished with full outlawry. Moreover, per the terms of the law, a man insulted in such a fashion would legally be “entitled to kill on account of these three words.”