Uglier Than A Monkey's Armpit by Dr Robert Vanderplank

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Uglier Than A Monkey's Armpit by Dr Robert Vanderplank

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Category: Trivia
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: Everything you wanted to know about being rude in a foreign language, but were too afraid to ask. It doesn't make for as fresh or intriguing a volume as you'd expect, but is still worth thinking of come gift-book time.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 128 Date: October 2008
Publisher: Pan Books
ISBN: 978-0330464482

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Now I've always been one for delivering a nice meaty insult. And if you think otherwise then you're just a #####ing ******** of a !!!!!!!!!!, with a &%&%&% for a $$$$$$. But I've been brought up with the usual British malaise when it comes to learning foreign languages, and so beyond knowing that Leche! is a bit meaty in Spanish, I could not help to cuss and swear like whatever other languages might have for trooper.

And those troopers wear different sleeves, as this book proves. If you hadn't realised it, this cunning linguist has, and surveyed the world and found which countries refer to the posterior and its output in their bad-mouthing, which others sexual inability, while others slander the mother, and yet still more The Virgin Mother, and other religious heresies.

Thus each language group and culture is analysed as regards their habits of swearing. Several times it has become apparent that one once-heinous word has become common or garden punctuation – putain! in French, perhaps, and the F-word in English.

One of the more bizarre facts is that English dictionaries were only free to liberally print the F-word as recently as 1965. Whether the prevalence of the global glottal cuss is to be welcomed or not is not worth debate here, and this book does not pass judgement (which is only good, as it would then have to reveal to itself its own insalubrity).

Certainly F--- is itself a global term, as I found in a Polish bar here in the UK a few months ago. That individual had decided it was nearly meaningless, and I suppose Rany Boskie is not as hard-hitting. (Yes, stronger Polish words are included in this book, but I've got to keep this review clean.)

The book shows the inventiveness of other tongues, as they come up with such delightful cat-calls as that in the title. It's not just the simplistic cuss words of the world that are here, but the phrases at the root of many a culture – going back to the oldest curses and wishes of ill omen from ancient Greek literature, for example. After all, when we say damn you! or somesuch when someone cuts us up it would once have had the most literal meaning – now it, bastard! and much more is used without thought to the actual sense of the word.

People have won and lost careers through bad language. The Toyota people who try to sell the MR2 in France have a hard time of it, as M R Deux sounds a trifle silly. I didn't know the Honda Jazz has another name for the non-Europeans as its original is a Scandinavian unmentionable. We need therefore to have a lexicon of fruity words (and who can claim to be fluent in anything without knowing the street slang and so on?), which is where this book comes in, purporting to be a useful guide – how to diss someone, and how to recognise it when you're flipped the finger verbally. Hence you leave these covers knowing that Arabian speakers would not appreciate being called a 'dog', and when a Turk shouts cucumber! in your direction he's not congratulating you on your manhood (or indeed, anything).

With all that said I don't think the book is as brilliant as it could have been. I'm so glad it uses the correct spelling for the A-word, but a paragraph on when, why and how the Americans decided to replace it with 'ass' in the first place would have been welcome. It's a book that takes a nice quirk, and while not replacing it with a charmless splurge of detail, does iron out a lot of the fancy joy to be had in the subject. Of course, it's not a volume to be read in one go, and would be much more suited to the dipping-into over months pile.

Shelve this alongside the Tingo books. It is very much like those, although with of course the more singular approach. It features almost as broad a range of languages, and a guide to pronunciation those lacked, but in its flaws perhaps suggests there was not a whole book to be had from the one topic.

I don't want to be a party pooper, and there are translations of that here, but I do have to suggest this book is a gimmick suited to a minority audience. It's certainly educative, and gets one thinking (if not learning), but as a guide to global languages is not of the greatest use, and as a guide to wacky witticisms, is suffering for lack of content and what has preceded it. It's still worth considering, but look before you leap.

We would like to thank Boxtree for sending us a review copy.

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