Why degrading female members of someone’s family is considered the highest form of insult


By Sheshu Babu*

One of the best forms of effective and precise communication   is language. It not only exposes one’s mood and state of mind but also ability to choose words for expressing the intended meaning. While there are many effective ‘good’ words to indicate happiness and joy, there are few words which hurt certain communities or gender when anger or annoyance is expressed.

In an article analysing swearing words (“Mind your language! Swearing Around the World”, by James Harback,  6 March, 2015, bbc.com), explaining usage of swearing words, the author says, “Strong language often involves naming things you desire but aren’t supposed to desire; at the very least, it aims to upset power structures that may seem a bit too  arbitrary” .  He continues: “We tend to think of swear words as one entity, but they actually serve several distinct functions.”

Steven Pinker in the “Stuff of Thought” lists five different ways we can swear: Descriptively, idiomatically, abusively, emphatically and cathartically. None of these functions require swearwords. In Bikol (a language of the Philippines) there’s a special language vocabulary – many words have alternative words that refer to the same thing but also mean you’ re angry.  In Luganda (an African language) you can make a word insulting just by changing its noun class prefix – from a class of persons to a class for certain kinds of objects, for instance.

In Japanese you can insult someone badly by using an inappropriate form of ‘you’.


Usually the cuss words used to indicate very strong aversion or hate often refer to bodies of women or physical deformity. This is stark reality in Indian languages which contain derogatory words laden with offensive word or phrases pointing to specific parts of body with ugly references. Swearing often has a lot of obscene words and phrases which indicate the extent of misogyny in society.

As Taimur Ali in an article “Roots of misogyny in language” (August 14, 2016, tribune.com.pk) says,  “Rarely do we find curse words that target the male relation of an individual: rather it is always the females that are threatened with assaults or worse. The existence of such profanity is inherently ironic: degrading the female members of someone’s family is considered the highest form of insult, because of the concept of honour, but at the same time, such language has become so mainstream that society considers it normal.”

As he rightly points out, the issue is twofold: first, profanity-filled language centres around women is misogynist. Such language is based on the premise that a woman’s identity and social existence is regulated through her relationship to a man. Secondly the frequency of such profanity is symbolic of how desensitized society has become to such obscenity.

Caste and religion in language

India and south Asian languages have addition of caste and religious slurs in their swear word vocabulary used very frequently.

When ‘ neech rajaniti’  (Hindi language) was used in political jibes, furore rose about its caste connotations. One of the meanings of ‘neech’ is low or lower which often refers to marginalised castes. When a Union Minister likened Dalit children to dogs, many pointed the inherent caste-hate statement. (“Why dogs and puppies are swear words in India: A short guide to Hindi profanity for the BJP”, by Shoaib Daniyal, published October 22, 2015, scroll.in). Similarly, in 2013, Modi seemed to compare Muslims killed in 2002 pogrom as puppies.

While English cuss words can, by and large, be categorized as sexual (genitals, F-word, etc.), bodily functions (most obvious being ‘shit’) and social identity (race, nationality, parentage or even disability) , in Indian and subcontinental languages like Hindi/Urdu, religious and caste add another dimension to the list of swearing words.

Hindi has a large number of imprecations which are actually references to caste (‘Chamaar’ caste) or ‘Kajar’  (caste which in ancient times had practiced hereditary prostitution). These daily obscenities reflect the extent of caste system embedded in the society. Most of the expletives in Hindi refer to a wide field of honour and relations. Notably, honour killings reflect dominance of male over the rights of marriage of women.

Disability as swear words

In any language, words referring to disability are common and used frequently without any sense of offensive. Most often phrases like blind beliefs, blind alleys, falling on deaf ears, paralysed economy, etc are used in many prominent literary writings. These are integrated into a language in such a way that even persons with disabilities use them on most occasions without any sense of feeling hurt. But on examining carefully, these have impact – may be even mildly- on the persons experiencing disability.

As Martand Jha in an article (“Time to avoid idioms that mock disabilities”, updated October 9, 2018, thehindu.com) says, “The normalisation of such terms (turning a blind eye, paralysed economy, etc.)  not a coincidence – there is a  sociological reason behind their genesis  and usage. Apathy on the part of society towards people with disabilities has led to these terms becoming commonplace, to such an extent that no one bats an eyelid while using them”. These terms convey bad state of affairs or disappointment or negative aspect of social order.

Alternative needed

As the international day of disabled persons approaches, the state of ‘ handicapped’ will be assessed. The ‘ dfferent abled’ persons are not only ‘bearing’ the brunt of apathetic society which is unable to provide accessible technology and socio- economic support but they are forced to accept helplessly the use of language which blatantly accepts cuss or derogatory words or phrases that are deeply misogynist and show deformity in poor light with negative meaning.

As Taimur Ali points out, “If we are to truly rid ourselves of the menace of assault, abuse and oppression of women  ( and disabled) the reform must come from within each of us to purify our language and not celebrate the use of obscenities in private sphere. Whether religiously, culturally or pure morally, incorporating the abuse of our mothers and sisters into everyday language and then becoming desensitised to it, is vile at all levels. No marginalised group, whether women or transgender or any other (disabled, etc.), can be truly liberated without neutralizing the integration of their oppression into our language.”

A universal language like Esparanto has been a positive step towards achieving unity of all people. It has almost no cuss or offensive words. There is a need to change usage of offensive words and replace them by more acceptable vocabulary.

Use of words has a notable impact on mind and some words, intentionally or unintentionally, hurt certain class of people. Hence, the problem must be debated.

*Writer from anywhere and everywhere is interested in learning various languages of the world

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