Profanity is a kind of national sport in Turkey. But it can also be risky business, sometimes leading to lawsuits or even death. One political scientist researching Turkey’s unique way of conjuring curse words explains what the country's inventive slurs reveal about its fears and prejudices.
ISTANBUL — “Take your mother and get lost!” That’s the literal translation of what Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the authoritarian Turkish president, once said to a farmer 15 years ago when the man complained about economic problems.
The Turkish people were shocked by his choice of words, but it was the farmer who was led away by police and later forced to make a televised apology. As he recently explained in a newspaper interview, he is still dealing with legal proceedings as a result of the incident because he is accused of insulting the president, not the other way round.
Erdogan’s behavior was certainly unusual for a head of state, but many Turks also saw it as honest and authentic. “In Turkey, working-class people often use rude words, which are seen as more straightforward and sincere,” explains Ahmet Özcan, a political scientist at Istanbul’s Boğaziçi University, who is currently working on a research project about Turkish slang.
Özcan says that swearing and cursing are part of daily life in Turkey. “It’s a fundamental part of how we interact.” That’s why he thinks it’s impossible to understand Turkish culture without knowing about the country’s long and ever-changing tradition of swearing.
The basic rule is: “When life is hard, you can’t be polite.” He says that means Turkish people see swearing as proof that someone understands the reality of life. Although swearing is common in Turkey, there is a line you shouldn’t cross: “Your mother”. For centuries, mothers have been highly valued in Turkish culture. Even in the Turkish rap scene, almost no one dares insult them.
“The first and most important thing that a Turkish child learns is never to insult someone’s mother,” says Özcan. He says there is nothing more offensive for Turks, and it would be seen as a declaration of war. “In Turkey, people are prepared to commit murder if someone insults their mother.”
Different rules for women
It’s certainly true that people are often injured or killed for insulting someone’s mother. Sometimes, the insult can be something as common as “amına koyim,” a phrase that has even made its way into German slang and is often abbreviated to "AMK" online. Literally — and perhaps a little more politely — translated, it means, “I stick it in female genitalia.” It’s usually implied that the speaker is referring to the other person’s mother.
Feminists see this as discrimination, but some Turkish men believe it shows the opposite. According to their way of thinking, this expression shows how highly valued a mother’s — or sometimes wife’s or sister’s — honor must be to make it a target for someone wishing to insult them. Using that kind of expression to a woman is seen as especially reprehensible. However, Özcan says that “many men don’t like it when women use these expressions. They think it’s not appropriate for a woman."
That’s precisely what Turkish feminists, such as activist Gamze from Istanbul, say is unfair. “Men think that only they are allowed to be rude and disgusting,” she says angrily. She claims this leads to society viewing women as fragile, delicate beings, unlike men. “We need to rise up and challenge the male view of women as polite and respectable,” says Gamze. Why should society have different rules for women when it comes to swearing? She swears especially loudly about it, just to spite them.
Like a Bedouin who meets a bear in the desert that rapes him.
The word she uses most often is a variation of “sikmek”. The vulgar verb for having sexual intercourse appears in many creative and often very longstanding expressions. For example, when something goes badly wrong, Turks say it's like a Bedouin who meets a bear in the desert that rapes him. Slightly less vulgar but just as odd is the expression “like a butterfly on a horse’s penis,” used to describe something very ugly or out of place.
AMK, short for "amına koyim”
What it tells us about Turkish prejudices
The Turkish language also has phrases that appear harmless but are in reality more offensive: for example, “Hıyar,” another word for gherkin, used to describe a rude or especially stupid person. Or the word for parsley, a herb that is as ubiquitous in Turkish cuisine as salt and pepper. Turks use it to mean an annoying person who sticks their nose into everything.
Similarly, the phrase “ayran heart,” which refers to the yogurt drink, may seem charming, but it is a very derogatory term for people (usually men) who fall in love at the drop of a hat and jump from relationship to relationship.Perhaps a more obviously insulting term is “göt lalesi” – ass tulip. That may not sound like much, but it is an insult. In the past, butchers used to place a flower in the anus of animal carcasses that they’d hung upside down in their shops. The swear word is now used about people who are considered as superfluous as this flower.
For Özcan, it is the history of swear words that makes them an important subject for research. He divides them into categories to find out more about how sexism, racism and xenophobia are perpetuated. “For example, there are lots of expressions that directly target specific ethnic groups,” he says. These are also used to denigrate people who don’t share that ethnicity.
He suggests that “these centuries-old expressions don’t just represent old fears and prejudices in society, but also emphasize the dominance of a particular gender, religion, sect or race over all others.” They served to create solidarity within those privileged social groups. In a world of insults, you don’t want to be on the wrong side.