Thursday, July 13, 2006

Your Mother Fucks Reindeer

Now I feel like a real blogger from the far left. Obscene and all.

The title is supposed to be a Finnish insult. I got it from this article on sports insults that soccer players can use:

The suggestion that Marco Materazzi might have insulted Zinédine Zidane's mother during the World Cup final seems justification enough for the head-butt that followed. But why is it that the worst insults in the world are always about your mum? Stuart Jeffries reports.


It was seven minutes before half time. Real Madrid were 2-0 down against already relegated opponents in May 2004, when David Beckham tackled Real Murcia's Luis Garcia. The England captain thought the tackle was clean but the linesman flagged for a foul. Leaping to his feet, the Dagenham-born galáctico unleashed a volley of idiomatic Spanish, calling the official a "hijo de puta" (son of a whore). The referee, Turienzo Alvarez, had no hesitation in producing a red card. But was that the right decision? After all, Beckham's Spanish had been so risible in press conferences hitherto that this sure-footed demonstration of his grasp of Hispanic rudery surely should have won him a round of applause.

Beyond questions of Beckham's linguistic (in)competence, though, there were cultural differences at issue. After the match, Beckham (reverting to English) told reporters: "I didn't realise what I had said was that bad. I had heard a few of my team-mates say the same before me." This is a bravura defence: in Britain, to call someone a son of a bitch or to deploy any derogatory barb that focuses on impugning the sexual integrity of the target's mother is hardly the worst thing one can say. If he had abused a fourth official at Goodison Park in an Everton-Man Utd game in the same terms, the linesman would not have got the hump; nor would the referee have seen red quite so readily. In Spain, it is different.

The Sun even drew up a list of mother insults that Beckham could deploy if he sought an early bath on future occasions. They included the rather infantile Tu madre tiene un bigote (Your mother has a moustache) and the frankly laborious Anda la puta que te pari (Go back to the prostitute who gave birth to you), but not the one that would surely have got him lynched in the Bernabeu, namely Me cago en la leche que mamaste (I shit in the milk that you suckled from your mother's breast). The Times concocted a letter of apology that Beckham might send to the linesman: Dear Assistant Referee, (Ayudante Arbitro) I am sorry that I called you a son of a whore. (Lo siento que se llamo hijo de puta .) I am sure that your mother is not a whore at all. (Estoy seguro que su madre no es una puta.) I am sure that your mother is, in fact, a respected figure within her community. (Estoy seguro que su madre es una mujer muy respetable en su comunidad.)" And so on. But neither helped him become as fluent in Spanish as his fellow English team-mate Jonathan Woodgate had become. In September 2005, he got into a rumble in the tunnel with an Espanyol player after calling him a "hijo de puta", which suggests his Spanish had developed as fast as the British press had hoped.

The article argues that mother-insults are more common in the Mediterranean cultural area and that this has to do with the Catholic worship of Virgin Mary:

"There are certainly cultural differences in swearing," says feminist socio-linguist Deborah Cameron, Rupert Murdoch Professor of Language and Communication at Worcester College, Oxford. "In Scandinavia, the taboo words are to do with the devil. Here [Britain] they're fuck or cunt. In Mediterranean cultures it has to do with the classic relationship that exists between a son and his mother. Italians, for example, adore their mothers. One's trespassing on a sacred relationship if one insults a man's mother." (Incidentally, the devil taboo does not mean that mother insults are unknown in Scandinavian countries: in Finland, for example, there is an expression "Äitisi nai poroja!" which means "Your mother copulates with reindeer!" Sweet!)

To put all this into perspective, trash talk is common in sports. The idea is to cause your opponent to lose control, to play worse because of that. Even my dog, Henrietta the Hound, uses trash talk to the other dogs to discombobulate them before dominating them into submission. Or so it seems to me. Though I doubt she calls them sons of bitches.

But why the mother-insults in men's sports? For I'm pretty sure that these are something only men use, both in sports and on the internet. Is it just misogyny that fuels the suggestions that whoever you insult had a shitty mother? Deborah Cameron seems to think that the answer is both in misogyny and in the importance of the mother as defining where we all come from:

Why aren't fathers the butt of insults so much as mothers? Had David Beckham said to the linesman "Tu padre es un gigolo que tiene cópula con una multiplicidad de diversos socios" (Your father is a gigolo who has intercourse with a multitude of different partners), he probably wouldn't have got a red card. Just a baffled look, and applause from those impressed by his command of his second language. "The underlying idea is you're attacking what your rival came out of," says Cameron. "That's why it's mothers rather than fathers who feature in the more potent insult. Everybody comes from their mother".

True. On the other hand, the mother shouldn't be summarized as nothing but the source of some man you want to disrespect. When we do this we are indeed being misogynistic.