No Dark Magic

books, Sweden, and computers, not necessarily in any order

Svordomsboken: om svärande och svordomar på svenska, engelska och 23 andra språk by Magnus Ljung

Posted at — Feb 26, 2020

For a book with the subject as exciting as swearwords, this one was surprisingly boring.

It starts out amazing, setting the scene in ancient Egypt to introduce what is thought to be one of the oldest written accounts of someone swearing (during a protest, no less). But then very quickly it becomes repetitive and predictable.

First it goes through different kinds of swearwords, from religion-inspired ones to sex-related ones, via the historic route, comparing a few languages on the way. Then it goes through the functions of the same words, from exclamations to “unfriendly encouragements”. And then it goes through the same words once more, this time categorizing them into religion-related, genitalia-related, mom-related, etc.

Almost halfway through the book, there is a chapter on people who swear. It tells how teenagers are the most active users of swearwords, and that there are stereotypes like “working class males swear more”. There’s also a mention of a small study carried out by a psychologist who joined a bunch of British zoologists on a demanding expedition in Norwegian mountains. The study showed that when it was hard, people swore, and when it was really hard, they didn’t. Presumably this has something to do with showing that one is in control of the situation.

Swedish press is said to become more and more informal in their use of the language, and this chapter quoted some studies showing how words “fan”, “jävla”, and “skit” have grown their presence from 2–9 occurrences per 1 million words in 1976 to 12–15 in 2003. Notably, 99% of those occurrences happened to be in articles on culture, reviews of radio/tv, personal columns and alike.

The rest of the book is spent going through the promised 25 languages and giving the crown of the most swear-able language to Russian.

The languages are mostly grouped in families. Each chapter goes through the established categorization (these are the exclamation swearwords, these are the religion-inspired ones, …​), translating the nasty things to Swedish both literally and figuratively to ease the fullest understanding. For most of the chapters, this could’ve been a table. In case of a couple of the languages there are some anecdotes or a lightweight analysis, but for the most part it is just words and categories, categories and words.

I couldn’t enjoy these language-family-chapters anyway because thanks to the access to a couple of native speakers I realized that the facts in those chapters are far from being straight. For instance, in the chapter on German, there is a swearword which doesn’t exist outside of a few pages on the internet written by English speakers; and the chapter on Russian has numerous mistakes in spelling and translation, as well as some false wide-reaching statements.

On the bright side, due to the book being repetitive, it is pretty approachable for someone who doesn’t know Swedish that well yet. And, since it covers Swedish swearwords in detail, that should bridge the gap that traditional language courses might’ve skipped. Not only does the book teach a number of words to use in a tough Swedish situation, it also teaches how to insert them into a sentence or a question in an idiomatic, grammatically correct way.

Also, Finnish expressions listed in the book are hilarious.


(223 pages, ISBN: 9172274425, Worldcat, Open Library)

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