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Naughty words

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DEAF SNAKES No ears to hear swear words Photo: Janaki Lenin
DEAF SNAKES No ears to hear swear words Photo: Janaki Lenin

We stumbled along a dark, narrow tunnel dug into a hill. Old pieces of timber held up the passageway, but the walls were crumbling. One of the miners we had met in Puerto Jimenez, Costa Rica, the previous evening had mentioned seeing a tree boa regularly, and there we were, that morning, looking for it. I muttered under my breath: “This is a harebrained idea”.

Suddenly, I heard Rom swear loud and clear. A disturbed tree boa had snapped the air in front of his face. The film crew following close behind had captured the entire action. No swearing is allowed on public television. Even bleeping out the swear word wasn’t done because the audience can lip read. The crew wanted Rom to re-enact the scene. He couldn’t imagine what else to say in a moment like that. On the second try, even as the snake made a half-hearted lunge, Rom exclaimed “Oops”, a mild word that fails to convey the initial shock. That’s what happens when neither the presenter nor the snake are professional actors.

During the course of Rom’s career as a presenter, this was a recurring problem. Many a good shot had to be sacrificed because of his inability to come up with an appropriate expression. Out of earshot of the crew, I suggested, “Swear in Tamil, Hindi or Pashto. The suits in Washington won’t notice.” Rom has a vast vocabulary of expletives in several languages.

But even the resident multi-lingual cuss word expert didn’t know that ‘kumquat’ was an offensive word. On Monday last, the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) issued a list of 1,109 offensive English words to be banned from text messages within seven days. ‘Kumquat’ was one of them. I thought it was simply a fruit tree. Mortified I may have committed a faux pas (‘Threats bear fruit’ Nov 12, 2011), I Googled, checked English and American dictionaries and there was no naughty connotation, period (oops, another bad word).

There were other equally puzzling words on what one Pakistani blogger calls the “official expletive Thesaurus”. The word ‘Budweiser’ is banned but not ‘Carlsberg’, ‘Fosters’, ‘alcohol’, ‘whisky’, or any other kind of booze. The last is taboo if used in conjunction with a body part. One cannot describe Sachin Tendulkar as a ‘master blaster’ any more. Others include ‘dome’, ‘harem’, ‘hostage’, ‘Kmart’, ‘robber’, ‘suicide’, and many more. No doubt, many Pakistanis are flipping through dictionaries to discover what these seemingly innocent words really mean.

Three words are so foul that the Authority cannot bring itself to even mention them. In their stead are empty spaces and the Pakistanis have the unenviable job of figuring out what they may be. Like the blanks in Scrabble®, the authorities could probably fill in anything they like depending on the context.

I suppose you never can tell who might find which words offensive. Some years ago, I got into an argument with our neighbour. He wanted to chop down three old neem trees on our shared fence line. He claimed they cast a shadow on his crops, stunting their growth. That was a lie. He denuded the trees every year for green mulch. They hardly had a crown to cast a shadow. I suspected he wanted to sell them as firewood. I blurted, “Nonsense!” He reacted so vehemently that I bit my tongue. Did I just curse, I wondered uncertainly. He shouted angrily: “You called me ‘nonsense’?” Rom had to placate the man while I retreated hastily to the house. I don’t use the word lightly anymore.

Rom, the cuss word expert, was unimpressed with PTA’s list of 586 banned Urdu phrases. Apparently, the choicest Pashto ones were missing. Maybe that’s in the making, I suggested. As for me, at least here was a list with which to flummox our neighbour.

I realise young children may read this column and learn a few naughty words. That wasn’t my intention, kumquat!

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