Word! The Language Column
Save the old invective!

Illustration: two speech bubbles above a book
A verb gives a name to an action | © Goethe-Institut e. V./Illustration: Tobias Schrank

You’re sometimes better off venting your spleen than keeping it all bottled up inside, says Hasnain Kazim, who declares that invective is an art. For which you need good tools: namely, choice put-downs with a regional or historical touch.

By Hasnain Kazim

When I was a kid, there was a boy in the neighbourhood who was a few years older and much stronger than I was. He used swearwords to command respect amongst us kids. He had a put-down for everyone, some of them really vile. He called me Arsch mit Ohren (Arse with Ears), though I didn't find that one so bad compared to his usual grossness. Arsch is certainly one of the most commonly used swearwords in German. But specifying Arsch mit Ohren (arse with ears), rather like the epithet Arschgeige (lit. “arse fiddle”, used to mean “arsehole”, “dickhead”, “cheese dick”), at least shows some effort to attain to verbal distinction, which I appreciate.

The liberating effect of venting

I keep reading that we shouldn’t “vent”: we should “treat one another with respect” and “communicate non-violently”. Fair enough. There’s far too much aggro in the atmosphere as is. And yet, thunder and lightning do sometimes have a liberating effect. A storm of invective releases tension which, if kept bottled up, might explode and wreak havoc. A proper verbal drubbing, a right old row, can defuse the situation. That’s the way human interaction is now and then: of a tempestuous nature. But if we know how to have at it in a civilized fashion, we can behave with decency and decorum towards each other again afterwards: after we’ve given vent to our frustration, the rage peters out.
But this presupposes we’ve mastered the art of execration. Which, in turn, requires a repertoire of abusive language that, on the one hand, hits home – otherwise it wouldn't be abusive – and, on the other, won’t cause such offence that you’ll never be on speaking terms again. Because there are, of course, some names you should never call anyone. Names that are dehumanizing.

Long live the boor!

Not everything was better in the past. But it occurs to me whilst ruminating on name-calling that the German language holds a wealth of wonderful old terms of opprobrium. They’ve mostly fallen into oblivion, alas, but we really need to bring them back lest we find ourselves completely at a loss next time we need to blow off steam. It’s obviously a matter of taste, but I’m more partial to a cultivated outburst that displays some verbal wit than to saying, “Hey, your microaggressions are rubbing me the wrong way, let's talk about it.”
Knilch (twit)! Lümmel (rascal)! Banause (boor)! Compared to the vulgarities in circulation today, these old-fashioned put-downs sound downright conciliatory, almost affectionate. So do Rabauke (lout)! Rohling (ruffian)! Spinatwachtel (old crone)!

Regional touch

When I recently issued a call on social media to save old terms of abuse, I got hundreds – nay, thousands – of aspersions cast my way! Awesome! And regional subtleties, even and especially in matters of excoriation, make for variety. I’m a North German myself, but I wasn’t familiar with regional slights like Gfrastsackl (rogue, son of a gun) and Schneebrunzer (blowhard), though I did know Dösbaddel (dunderhead) and Dumpfbacke (dimwit). Bagalut is also from northern or Low German and means something like Radaubruder (rowdy, yahoo) or Rüpel (boor, lout). But I didn't know Bagalut – or, for that matter, Haderlump (scoundrel, good-for-nothing), which appears to be more common in Silesia, southern Germany and Austria. And I'd heard Hallodri (playboy) before, but I didn't know it meant a person of, well, loose morals.
Terms of abuse also go to show that connotations around the world can be worlds apart. What if someone called you an “owl’s son” or “owl’s daughter”? Wouldn't you feel a little flattered because the owl is a symbol of wisdom and sagacity in our linguistic latitudes? In South Asia, however, it symbolizes the opposite, so “owl’s son” and “owl’s daughter” are put-downs there. Though I find them strange because they actually insult mothers and fathers... Anyhow, the point is that some digs only work in certain cultures.
I find Furzknoten (lit. “fart-lump”, used to mean “little twerp”), for example, offensive. In the course of my study of verbal vilification in German, however, I’ve learnt that Furzknoten is used in the Ruhr area as a term of endearment for a child. Very well then. Guess I’ll just have to live with it.


To my ears, Schlawiner (smooth operator) is a nice-sounding epithet with an undertone of affection for someone who’s cunning, canny, clever. But Schlawiner can also imply untrustworthiness. The origin of the word is uncertain, but it might be a xenophobic slur for Slovenes, in which case it’s politically incorrect and off limits. So, knowing the etymology of a word can spoil it for you. Which is a good thing.
But many folks don’t care. In Austria, Hirnschüssler is a widespread put-down for someone who’s considered stupid. The word dates from World War I, when it was used to mean someone who’d been shot in the head. Good grief, I think to myself, how could anyone utter a word with such a fraught back-story? But the Viennese I talk to about it just laugh. And blithely continue calling people Hirnschüssler.
At any rate, I aim to continue collecting old-fashioned German put-downs: Armleuchter (bonehead)! Stinkstiefel (stinker)! Krawallschachtel (yob, lout)! Schrapnelle (old hag, shrew)! Freundchen (buster)! Sportsfreund (buddy, sport)! Knallcharge (buffoon)! Halunke (rascal)! And while I’m at it, I'm also starting to think about good ways of apologizing.

Word! The Language Column

Our column “Word!” appears every two weeks. It is dedicated to language – as a cultural and social phenomenon. How does language develop, what attitude do authors have towards “their” language, how does language shape a society? – Changing columnists – people with a professional or other connection to language – follow their personal topics for six consecutive issues.