7 October 2008

Teri Ma Ki: An Analysis of Common Swear Words

To You Know Who and would-be Bhaybheet’s father, thanking them for their valuable inputs.
To TVS R S: thanks for the encouragement!

The Compact Oxford English Dictionary defines the word ‘abuse’ as “insulting and offensive language” and the phrase ‘swear word’ as a “an offensive or obscene word”. In common parlance, a swear word is a ‘dirty word’, something odious and vulgar used to express anger, astonishment, shock and other such like extreme emotions; a medium of not just expression but also of pleasure, if on may say so, sadistic pleasure- of hurting people, of taking out one’s frustration by attempting to degrade somebody/thing else in a given socio-cultural context. It is a word which essentially evokes stock images and ideas: indeed, it’s very strength lies in hitting the receiver with very powerful sexual taboos and bamboozling him/her with great, onerous challenges, things in essence the cornerstones of society. A swear word is, therefore, extremely subversive, a sign of marked rebellion against established social norms and customs.

This paper will critically analyse five genres of the commonest Hindustani swear words in context of the socio-cultural make-up of Indian society so as to establish the same as a genre which subverts by direct attack at the fundamental constructs in a society as well as a set which reflects attitudes towards numerous contentious issues of topical interest. To do so, it will begin by ascertaining the nature of Indian society and then move on to discuss in separate sections the import of each of these terms with reference to their etymologies. It will conclude with an overview of the arguments so presented.


Indian society, to an overwhelmingly large extent, is patriarchal. Since the writer happens to be Indian and the readers, if any, too will be Indians, or at least those well acquainted with India, it will be not only redundant but also extremely tedious if a comprehensive description of Indian society is brought in this work. Yet, for purposes of this study, it will be useful if some salient features of this patriarchy were discussed briefly.

The father is undoubtedly the most important member of the family. The sole breadwinner, he is the solid bedrock upon which the entire family is built. The family, each of its members, derives expression, identity, from the central father figure: without him the whole structure breaks down, dissolves to nothingness. The honour of the family is reflected in his person and conduct; further, as the only link between the microcosmic family and the macrocosmic society, his role as the ‘protector’ is of prime importance.

The notion of honour, of course, is central to this analysis. The Hindustani word izzat, which is translated as “honour, respect or dignity” and hence means more or less the same thing, has various connotations. A man’s, and by extension his family’s, izzat is determined by numerous factors, most significantly by the izzat, or honour, of the women under his care. It is his sacred duty to protect and uphold the izzat of his womenfolk and it is his performance in this field, as a protector of his women from the sexual dangers outside the safety of the home in the wide world of men, which ultimately decides his mardangi, manliness, and establishes him as a mard, man, in society.

Hence, though ambiguous, honour, specifically men’s honour, can, and usually is, defined through the aforementioned parameters of chastity and conjugal faithfulness.


Let us now turn to our case studies. We will begin with one of the most elementary of all Hindustani swear words (hereafter referred to as gaalis)- haramzada.

This is a composite made of haram and zada; while the meaning of the latter is not very clear, some taking it as signalling agreement, the former refers undoubtedly to forbidden, sinful activities- things not exactly permissible in the normal framework of society. This comprises of a lot of things, including extramarital sex: the same is apparent from the connotations which the word harem brings to the mind. In fact, the word harmazada itself means progeny of an illicit sexual relationship, someone who in English is known as a bastard. To call somebody a haramzada is to question his/her (the female equivalent is haramzadi) parentage: specifically, to question the identity of his/her father. As children derive expression and identity from the father, this gaali, by effectively de-stabilising and jeopardising the same, seeks to establish a person as a social outcast, one who stands out as an ‘other’ in hordes of ‘acceptable’, ‘respectable’ people…

The very nature of haram makes it a convenient prefix for a number of other gaalis. Notable amongst these are haramkhor (one who refrains from doing what is right) and harami (an illegitimate child or one who refrains from what is acceptable), both of which attempt in their own ways to establish a person as an aberrant break-away in society and thus disorient by dislocation.


Other commonly used gaalis include kutta, saala, kameena, chutiya and thukai. The first of these means dog, the second brother-in-law, the next bastard, the fourth ignoramus and the last refers to violent sexual intercourse. As is apparent, the first two are more or less incongruous, with no evident reason for causing offence except for the fact that they are now part of genres of “obscene” language. However, the last three, with clear sexual implications, do have basis for causing offence and hence their presence in this study.


Next on the list is chode, taken unanimously to be the Hindustani equivalent of the English fuck. It, like fuck, refers to sexual intercourse in a derogatory sense, having more to so with sex that is the consequence of not love but lust. Forced sex and perversions, all of these come under the ambit of chode. Further, as for haram, the graphic universality of chode makes it a suitable descriptive suffix for numerous types of sexual intercourses, all of which, needless to say, fall outside the domain of accepted sexuality.

Chode usually refers to incestuous, extramarital or casual sexual intercourse: hence the gaalis bhainchode (one who has sex with his sister), machode (one who has sex with his mother), betichode (one who has sex with his daughter) and ladkichode (one who has illicit sex with a girl). The intention here is to establish a person as a licentious misfit with a dangerously aberrant sexuality, something which threatens the existing order of society. The fact that all of these gaalis are usually directed at men makes this genre all the more interesting as one which, by attempting to show the man disastrously incapable of performing his duty of upholding the existing moral codes of society, exploits fully the old motif of protector turned predator/assaulter. This further attempts to strengthen the ‘otherness’ of the unfortunate receiver, making him a creature who deliberately breaks one of the worst possible taboos for his own gratification.


While chode includes all types of sexual orientation under its ambit, there is another genre of gaalis that deals specifically with anal sex, something which, continuing from the nineteenth century, is widely held to be unnatural. Prominent amongst these are gaand marane aya hai, gaand sil de and gaand phat rahi he kya, both of which clearly have connotations related to anal sex. This, combined with the fact that these are generally used in context of male homosexual relationships, makes the two extremely loaded terms. All of this helps advance the aura of unnaturalness which these gaalis attempt to create.


Till now we had been considering genres of those gaalis which attempt to establish those at whom they are directed as deviants indulging in or party to some of the worst possible sexual taboos. We will now briefly consider those which directly attempt to undermine their honour by challenging their mardangi, i.e. their capacity to defend/protect the honour, izzat, of their womenfolk.

Popular amongst these are the fill-in-the-blank gaalis teri/uski ma ki… and teri/uski ma ki aankh[in this context vagina]…, both of which attempt to pose grave challenges to a man’s mardangi by threatening to violate the izzat of his mother, or mother-figure. For one, leaving the threat incomplete, by not mentioning what dire fate awaits the ma, heightens the sense of insecurity. Then, issuing such a threat, of the destruction of that cornerstone of familial and, by extension, social life- the sanctity of the mother, is in itself one of the gravest possible challenges to a man’s mardangi and therefore, to his izzat.


As these arguments conclusively establish, gaalis or swear words are essentially subversive terms which bring into public consciousness some of the fundamental taboos in a society and hence, by exploiting these fundamental fears, attempt to threaten the very fabric of that society. Not just that, by the very virtue of being exploitative, they also highlight attitudes towards, amongst other things, gender and sexuality and so provide valuable insights into the socio-cultural framework of a society.

Afterthoughts and Clarifications-

Being stuck on damn for quite some years and not in the mood to proceed, doing this was pretty difficult for me…in any case, since I have done this I intend to forget it. It’s quite a horrid thing!

To all those people who’re ready to condemn me to eternal damnation after reading my ‘description of the Indian society’- hold your horses/curses! I have described society as it is seen through the prism of conventionality: these do not happen to be my own views.

And yes, I know that nobody thinks of all of these things while swearing because unfortunately, that has become, and is increasingly becoming, quite an acceptable habit of so many people. Perhaps, though that’s not likely enough (yet there’s nothing wrong in being optimistic!), these will give them second thoughts…


tunni said...

oh man .. this is a research or what . neways reading this type of a blog was my first , thing is vulgarity , your disrespect to others and so on .
we arent making anything out of it .. but as this has the subject/heading of an argumentative indian .. its influenced .. we all are part of it , izzat and mardangi stuff , even girls abuse alot.
its not all about men , its about our soceity which is growing in a way where people have an attitude , ego and arrogancy problem .. i would go by thinking this way.

Anonymous said...

***** **** ************

abey kuch toh sharam kar.....

r these things meant 2 b discucssd on blogs n produced as research papers...?

fuck off!!

Prianca said...

came across your blog
there is only one word which comes to my mind after reading it, WOW!!!

no seriously, who gave you the bright idea of presenting a detailed research paper complete with a thesis statement on such a vulgar subject?? though the manner in which you have presented it pass you off as an individual who, himself is quite pious :p

impressive man
btw, so check out my blog too, if you haves some time. nd keep up the good work, though on less vulgar subjects *chuckle*

ssp said...

Highly interesting and quite intellectualy stimulating (some might call me a pervet for saying so... please feel free to do so).

It is not my habit to derive interpretations and analysis from works written by other authors. I believe that an author holds full copyright over his work and so it, and will always remain, his (notice the internalized patriarchy... 'his') text rather than the reader's text. The author know best, so I shall not offer any analysis of the work. I shall only commend you on the excellent quality of research, fine quality of writing, and strikingly intellectual dissection of the common swear words of our culture.

I would, though, like to point out that even saala has the potential to have sexual connotations. Calling somebody a 'brother-in-law' is - I believe - indicative in every way of having bedded the sister of the receiver.

And yet, as you point out, we are so used to it all that all this fails to dawn on us.

A final note before I end - the gentleman who has commented above and chosen to withhold his name provides such a brilliant example of the 'conventional' portrait of Indian Society you have pointed out. Highly interesting... is his disgust at the mention of gaalis on blog posts, and ease of comfort in using the same on blog comments! I wonder if he ever thought of the sexual connotations before commenting...

nipun chopra said...

dear anubhav ... topics like these need not be discussed through blogs.......i respect ur opinions .....but u should take care of the society as well .....hope u understand..

AP said...

To tunni-
It would help if you could express yourself in a more coherent manner. I do agree that girls also swear and that "its about our society" but I don't get the import of the first few lines of your comment. Do you think I am being "vulgar" in being so argumentative?

To Dear Mr/Ms Anon-
Nothing is sacred- least of all this which I have attempted to analyse. It is only to establish the same, i.e. gaalis, as odious and not befitting civilised persons of delicate sensibilites as yourself that this paper has been brought out.

To Prianca-
Well, the idea occured to myself. I was reading sociology and one thing led to another till I thought how gaalis betray in a dramatically subtle fashion attitudes towards gender and such like issues.
Though I won't say I'm pious...balanced, yes. But not pious.

To ssp-
Yes, the anon gentleman/woman appears to be an interesting person. It would be interesting to analyse him.

To Nipun-
Like I told Anon, nothing is sacred to the rational analyst. Yet, you are, in a way, correct- had society not been so hegemonically domineering a great many number of other semi-academic research paper on more sacred things would've appeared on this blog.

Scribblers Inc said...

well, I read the whole thing, for beginners.And yes, you have done quite a thorough research to present all the facts.In short, I am totally impressed by the amount of work that must have gone in to come out with something which would have proved to be a preposterous topic of research for a large portion of the society.

Thumbs up!!:D
Scribblers Inc.

AP said...

Hey Scribblers!
Even I think this is a preposterous topic but then it's also so very interesting!

esperante said...

This made for a very interesting read! Kudos to your research and presentation. I found your arguments on izzat particularly illuminating.

It's funny how pervasive these swear words are - some non-Hindi speakers in my class feel no compunctions in using them left,right and centre, without even knowing what they mean. I'm sure that's true of certain Hindi speakers too!

I wonder why some people feel swear words aren't worthy of analytical focus. What do you think?

AP said...

Hullo esperante!

I say it's more than funny: it's sickeningly funny.

One of the reasons behind this was this very aspect, that people use gaalis without even understanding their full import. In this category come most school kids...students of even third are capable of gaalis these days; perhaps we were exceptional, but at that age we used to shake at the mention of even gaadha and chamar!

Well, I think this aversion to dissection of swear words has got to do with the inherently Indian, and perhaps universaly human paradox of loving the taboo. A majority of Indians are very hush-hush about sex but, at the same time, Indians are, as far as I know, quite sexually active/energetic. I think it's the same with gaalis: people use them all the time but few will ever admit doing that.

Random Guy said...

Actually, since most people use the words without knowing the exact implication, they are growing steadily less offensive and more acceptable. Hearing the phrase teri maa ki... would not generate cause a frequent user of the word to visualise the offense, as opposed to someone who is not as often exposed to the word.

Sorry for the late comment, I bumped into this and just had to have a say on this.

AP said...

True, true.

Yet, a complete stranger recently hurled a ma-behen gaali at me and I was, to say the least, shocked! Though it was the first time anybody had ever used such langauge with me...

Anonymous said...

interesting stuff. but why are you pluralizing galli as gallis instead of galliyan?


AP said...

Precisely- Hinglish! Didn't occur to me back then though! :-)

Anonymous said...

Dude ,well done. This is the first objective take on Indian swear words that I have come across.Frankly speaking whatever you have discussed here is a part and parcel of our society.Its something that everyone knows but looks the other way.Any one who feels morally outraged after reading this blog is either a hypocrite or had been hibernating all his life. Coz c'mon, almost all of have used them one time or the other.(Even if we have now developed a moral security system which refrains us from using them....) Excellent research......

AP said...

Thanks! Why Anon though?

Annie said...

Enlightening in ways more than superficial.

Must commend you on your work, and its good timing. Abusing of this level has become the most out-on-the-roads thing nowadays. I feel you must also add the ones related to prostitution.

AP said...

Thanks, Annie! Absolutely right about prostitution too, though, of course, when I'd done this I wasn't as much in the world as I am now and didn't know any of that type. Also, like all people who claim to be writers, I smile when I think of earlier works and think them lacking in much. But yeah, thanks nonetheless!

Anonymous said...

very well done I must say...

However one slight correction would be that the word kameena doesn't mean bastard, it rather means rascal and does not have any sexual offense