To swear, or not to swear, that is the question by Saumya

Blog post by Saumya Sadanand

I am a Palakkad Iyer, born in Mumbai and raised in Pune. My parents too hailed from similar backgrounds with dad having lived all his life in Ahmedabad and Mumbai and mum in Pune. Needless to say we didn’t exactly fit into the mold of the quintessential ‘pattar family’. For one, dad and my periappas preferred talking in Gujarati while at home and secondly no one knew to read or write Tamil.

My ‘Tamil education’ of course wasn’t sorely neglected (or so I thought) because it wasn’t until I was a bit older that people started laughing at my absurd Tamil. This didn’t deter me at all and I persisted without making much improvement which pretty soon earned me the nickname ‘nammal’ since I never knew where to use the word and always referred to myself as ‘nammal’. Getting away with my flawed Tamil was of course very easy because the only people in my life who did speak Tamil were my family, having attended a school where speaking in English was strictly enforced and people everywhere else preferred sticking to Marathi. And so I lived in my little cocoon for 16 years and apart from a few failed attempts at being taught to read Tamil by my amuma, (courtesy a few Tamil children books that I picked up while in Chennai with the superb ambition that I’d master reading it in a few weeks!) I didn’t make much progress. Suffice to say that the Tamil script (which I agree with my non-Tamil friends does resemble ‘jalebis’) put me off mastering the language and thereby having any hopes of ‘fitting in’ at social functions.

Well, as they say life goes on and my deficiency never really bothered me until I joined junior college in 11th standard and for the first time found myself in a co-ed environment. The boys of course wanted to know Tamil swear words and WHAM! I realized that I didn’t know any…. Little things are so often taken for granted. We never realize that swear words very often need to be taught. Does anybody ever remember the naughty little girl in primary school who explained what ‘fuck off’ meant? (I’m referring to the 90s, when little kids still relied on peers to get ‘corrupt’.)

Not being someone to give up easily, I did the sensible thing and called up my cousin (I’d like to state that this was way back in 2005 and Google wasn’t as ubiquitous as it is today) who taught me two words ‘tevadiya paiyya’ and ‘veppatti’. Basking in the glory of having learnt words deemed dirty enough by my brother (or so he claimed) I went ahead and explained them to my friends. But to my utter dismay a ‘son of a bitch’ and a ‘mistress’ were considered childish and I was shooed off for not being cool enough. Utterly despondent I got back home and in the course of my regular conversation with mum squeezed in said words and well, all hell broke loose!! It was my first lesson that words deemed uncool by friends are well a ‘little too cool’ for Tamilian moms!

Final outcome you ask? Well, let’s just say I’m 26 now and I still don’t know any Tamil swear words other than the above two. And as I write this, I think it is high time I Google a few. This time of course I shall be wise and use it on people who have no clue what I’m talking about! I guess a few people at work might be great guinea pigs!


7 thoughts on “To swear, or not to swear, that is the question by Saumya

  1. This is an unusual TB report, may be the guy is still an young male in India, fascinated
    by sexy swear vulgar words. And Tamil has such great literature, rhyming- Karka Kachadara.., ViRpara Vizavum Kannjana Mallum Vezhamum Paganum Veezha, …
    May be I am old I guess at 84.
    A few decades ago I was working at LMT and there was a smart young engineer (MIT) who
    also wanted to know Tamil swear WORDS. I could tell him one that rhymwd with
    OKLAHOMA- take off HO. He was contented.
    Avvaiyar would have been upset.
    Wallowing in bad Tamil and shaming culture is NOT TBic.


    1. Yes you are old at 84! There is no quarrel with the notion thay Language is a window to culture.
      And the fascination of the author’s classmates to know swear words in an unfamiliar language might be more adolescent curiosity than cultural enquiry. Your concerns about this being in any way culture shaming is at best misplaced if not misconceived.



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