Profanity and Hilarity: Crossing the Line
Rikker’s post about the etymology of ทุเรศ reminded me of a phenomenon that all speakers of foreign languages should understand.
Foreigners cannot use profanity and nasty phrases to the same effect as natives. Attempting to do so only makes them look silly.
Most everybody can remember an event from back home where an irate foreigner started dropping the f-bomb or making up profane phrases on the spot. I think it’s fair to say that any time this happens, it’s pretty darn funny. And of course, when the foreigner realizes that people are laughing at him, then he will be angrier still. Recently, I watched Harold & Kumar Go to Whitecastle (I am not lazy: the ampersand is really part of the title). Harold has a slight accent while Kumar sounds native. The filmmakers clearly use Harold’s profanity for comedic effect. Another example from Hollywood is The Big Lebowski in the scenes where the nihilists use profanity to sound tough but only make us laugh.
The practical lesson here: if you are a foreigner somewhere and you become upset, do not resort to the dirty words you learned in your first six weeks here. It’s counterproductive. You want to raise your voice? Fine. You want to say something socially unacceptable? No problem. But if you use profanity, then you become a clown and that will not help you at all. You must learn that effective communication in a foreign language means profanity is off-limits.
Where is the boundary of counter-productiveness which we must not cross? Certainly, it depends on the country and culture. In Thailand, simply having the wrong color skin is enough, even with perfect pronunciation. In the United States, skin color isn’t important (native-born Americans are all colors already), but accent is.
For foreigners in Thailand, I believe that the word ทุเรศ represents the borderline of what foreigners can get away with without sounding silly to Thais. If you say ทุเรศ, you mean business, and it just barely cancels out the clown factor. Words stronger than ทุเรศ are out of reach, since the clown factor dominates over the word’s meaning. A rule of thumb: borderline words are words which parents discourage their small children (under age six) from use. โง่ is another borderline word. ไอ้บ้า ผัว เมีย กวนตีน ห่วย and all the words more profane than these are inaccessible to foreigners wishing to communicate effectively.