A train somewhere between Šid and Belgrade. Six of us travelers are sitting in the cabin. Six strangers. But when a young man who is just finishing police academy finds out that I am from Slovenia, the cabin comes alive. A hapless guardsman, an unemployed hulk of a man, a geography teacher, a retired railroad man and an elderly grandmother all begin asking questions, chatting and enjoying the foreigner's presence.
Since 1990, not a single one of them has gone any further than the first town across the Hungarian border. "What do you think of us? What do you do? How did you end up here?" The grandmother cannot believe her ears when I tell her that I am going to an international conference about Serbian swear words in Novi Sad. "Uuu, tell us why there is such swearing here?" It is true, swear words are special words which we use sometimes as an attacking sword, other times as a shield to defend ourselves from the enemies around us, I say as I try to explain this sociolinguistic phenomenon in popular speech.
In the next car and in the passageway, fans of the soccer team Delija are singing, on their way to a match against Cervena Zvezda (Red Star). "Jebem vam boga! (Fuck your God!) How can you be so uncivilized, sitting on my bag of eggs!" Our railroader finds the courage to venture out among the guys in their red and white scarves to save the cargo he gets twice a month from relatives in Belgrade.
Swear words have not died out, as the Vojvodinian feminist and philiologist Dr Olga Penavin predicted in 1973. She expected that the development of Socialism would lead to a society free of conflict, where there would be no reason for swearing. At the Novi Sad conference, organized in honor of her jubilee, participants brought fresh reports showing quite the opposite.
Arrests, fans and the regime
One such participant, Dragoljub Zlatković, is an agricultural engineer who has cultivated an interesting hobby for 30 years now. When he visits farmers, ploughmen and herdsmen to offer advice on improving and increasing their yields, he secretly jots down their curses and swear words in a small notebook. He brought 500 pages of juicy swear words and obscenities with him, which never left his hands. Literally. He would not allow anyone to photocopy a single page of the sacred text. With his imposing form, he was more like a dinosaur than a hen hiding its priceless eggs with its heavy wings.
Zlatković is one of those creative dreamers who believes that human invention is the greatest treasure under the sun. He has met highlanders in the southern Serbian town of Pirot, near the border with Bulgaria, who never swear at other people. When they swear, it is only at the cattle. The two or three times when they just cannot hold back, they spit out the horrifying word dinda! They may not know what it means, but they are sure it is the nastiest word that can come out of a human mouth.
Another participant, entomologist Dr Biljana Sikmić, is researching gradation units. The same gradations are found in the Slovene and Serbian lexicons of obscenities. She showed that the gradation is the same when the Slovenes say Ni vreden pol kurca! (you ain't worth half a cock) and the Serbs say Ne vrediš ni pola pizde vode (you ain't worth have a cunt of water).
Prisons in Sremski Mitrovici could be mistaken for Communist universities before the Second World War, what with all the imprisoned Partisan intellectuals freely translating Marx and Engels. Some of the spirit has been preserved even today, now that one of the prison officials there is writing his thesis on the typology of cursing among prisoners.
Discourse among sports fans is the favored theme of another participant, linguist Mag Aleksander Mitrović. When Zvezda fans celebrate a victory over the Partizans, they unfurl a long banner that says "Naše sreći nigde kraja, grobari nam ližu jaja!" ("There's no end to our luck, the gravediggers are licking our balls!") Rabble are not the only ones who enjoy Zvezda matches; university professors and politicians are at the stadium all the time. Once, a leader of the Radical Party started a brawl all by himself.
Mitrović maintains that the fans of Cervena Zvezda are not merely a phenomenon of hooliganism. Between 1996 and 2000, they appeared to be a bastion of the opposition, where the masses made fun of Tuđman and their own great leader in equal measure: "Večeras je naše veče, večeras se Tuđman peče, nek se peče i okreće, ko ga jebe, nije imo sreče! Večeras je naše veče, večeras se Sloba peče, nek se peče, nek se dinsta, ko ga jebe, kad je komunista!" ("Tonight's our night, tonight Tuđman burns in hell, let him burn and let him roast, whoever fucks him has no luck! Tonight's our night, tonight Sloba burns in hell, let him smolder, whoever fucks him is a Communist!")
Today's fans in Belgrade conduct dialogue with swear words according to the maxim that stadiums are not churches—the point of going to a game is to insult the rivals. The poetry of swear words is certainly not limited to the native lexicon. When the Italian champions come to play, the Serbs speak with wooden accents but all the same in their rivals' own language: Fumare mio cazzo!
When Tanja Petrović took down notes during speeches at anti-Milošević demonstrations led by Otpor, she found a high degree of sophistication even within the eruption of swearing. The demonstrators cleverly made substitutions in obscenities to reflect Milošević's fascination with Communist China as in: marš v materinu Kinu (march on your mother's Chinese cunt!). At the protest marches, they circulated cheery, nonviolent formulas like idem peške, jebem bez greške! (I'm going on foot, fuck you with no mistake!)
In domestic rock poetry, vulgarity has not gone out of style as part of a rebellious pose but has become the point of many songs. Prof Dr Svenka Savić invited Rambo Amadeus, a Serbian rock singer, to a university class she was teaching, and he sang: "Uči dobro sine, da postaneš intelektualac—ja ću, da me boli kurac za sve, neću oko kurca lanac" ("learn well son, and become an intellectual—I will so that nothing is a pain in my ass, so that I won't have a chain around my cock" ie, I won't be enslaved).
Prof Dr Nedeljko Bogdanović, the doyen of Serbian swear-word studies, explained the difference between curses and swearing: the first merely degrades, while the second is malicious. So someone curses you with a blow to your favorite tree in your garden, throwing out: "May it never grow plums!" while someone swears at you to belittle your greatest pride: "Fuck you AND your plums!"
There is an old political joke: Do you know where the border between Serbia and Montenegro is?—It is where you stop fucking mothers and start fucking fathers!
Even though Yugoslavia was a land often characterized by inter-ethnic tension, swear words were one thing the national groups freely borrowed from one another. Serbs serving with Albanians in the federal army loved to swear at their girlfriends in Albanian. When Vojvodinan Slovaks, Rusyns and Hungarians swear, they only swear in Serbian, saving their own languages for more noble expression.
In southern Serbia, when someone comes out with Majku mu ga! (fuck your mother!) they will say that the ugly words are Bulgarian. When Gypsies swear at God, they are careful not to offend him, so they are sure to use the Serbian Jebem vam boga! with impunity. Meanwhile, on the streets of Belgrade, the Gypsy Džafte kuravte! is often heard, but not one of the kolnač knows what the devil it means.
Prof Bogdanović described the dark side of the work of Vuk Stafanović Karađić, including poems like his The Red Ban. For a long time, teachers protested the publication of these poems, believing that students who read them would no longer see Vuk's work as being part of the Enlightenment, but as part of the cannon of "Fuck poetry." At the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts, people working on a dictionary of the literary language threw all of the notes they had containing swear words into a special box. There was actually a directive which read: "If you come across a swear word, throw it into the yellow box."
Linguists of obscenities of course are on the hunt for this mysterious yellow box.
I have kept a travelogue as a place where I jot down even the most improper swear words. In the same way, Baron Žiga Herberstein described the perverse swearing customary among the Russians in his notes from Moscow in the 16th century. He wrote them down in Latin: "Canis matrem tuam subagiget!"
Dr Dubravka Valić Nedeljković follows the appearance of swear words in the media vigilantly. Lately, Serbia is full of swear words, even in the most unlikely places, such as news agencies. "Jel' to onaj govnarski radio koji sam ja izbrisala iz registra?" ("isn't that the shitty station I erased from the register?"), asked Milena Arežina, judge at a first-level court in Belgrade, when asked to comment on Belgrade's Radio B-92.
Doing business Serbian style
The differences in everyday swearing are shown in this humorous anecdote from the Serbian business dictionary: elsewhere around the world old friends greet each other with "Hi, it's been a long time!" But, the Serbian translation reads "Đe si pizda ti materina?" ("Motherfucker! where've you been?") The question: what is that man's function in the business translates to "Koji je on kurac tamo?" ("Which dick is that one?"). The thought that a project can be accomplished is most properly shown by the expression "Ma to je pičkin dim!" ("that cunt's smokin'!").
The serious problem of translation was presented by Dr Danko Šipka. The wealth of Serbian swear words is a particular problem to English translators, with such variants as Jebem ti majku!, Jebem ti miša! and Jebem ti kuću poganu! (fuck your mother! fuck your rat! fuck your infidel house!)." Because English does not allow more than "fuck you!" or "screw you!," the only meaningful resolution is for Serbian-English dictionaries to contain notes marking gradations of "light," "common," "forceful" and "exceptionally forceful" swear words.
Dr Stana Ristić of the Serbian Academy of Science and Arts sorted swear words into a hierarchy of cults in Balkan culture: fuck your mother, father, sunny dinner (sunčevu večeru), blood... and adds a mechanism of invective belittleing of contemporary values of gods, for example, money in jebem ti pare! (fuck your money!).
When I returned by bus from Novi Sad, a young soldier in the seat ahead of me was wiping off the window with the curtain. The driver, who until then was playing loud folk music, noticed the "Balkan" and demanded to know if he was so primitive at home that he would clean the window with the curtain. The young man quickly blushed and excused himself. The "Central European" would have deemed that now the driver's anger would have been assuaged, but that was not the case. The driver immediately started swearing: "jebo te bog!, zdaj se boš pa še opravičeval!" ("God'll fuck you! Now you'll really be sorry!")
A bible of swear words
The mystery remains: why do Serbs have a whole Bible of swear words, while other cultures use only ten or so basic forms?
Their popular, schoolmaster explanation is that those who cannot have freedom seek an illusion of freedom in swearing. According to the neo-Descartians, "I swear, therefore I am!"
On the train just before Šid, a Serbian refugee from Osijek told me his life's story. "Until March 1995, I lived in a house in Osijek. In the middle of the night, strangers shot at my windows with automatic weapons, and, you know, I fell into this psychosis, every day wondering when they would break in and rape my daughter and abuse my wife. I couldn't take it and so I traded my house and land for a Croat's in Šid.
I moved here with my family and fell into total misery. If only I could have lasted two more months in Osijek until the international forces started protecting the Serbian minority! What a beautiful house I had, a good-paying job, now I have destroyed my whole life. And all because of my own stupidity. Da bi šel v pizdo materno! (If only I could crawl back into my mother's cunt!). Excuse the expression, but there are no other words."
Bernard Nežmah, 27 November 2000
This article was originally published in Mladina.
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