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Most human swearing and cursing is based on either bodily functions (notably reproduction and waste elimination) or on religion. In an alien society where there are no taboos along those lines and where there is no religion, what might take the same place as words used for emphasis? These are words to use in anger, to attack other people, or to add emphasis to points. What do these aliens say when they accidentally trap a tentacle in the door?

For more information on the aliens:

They evolved from 6-limbed octopus-like creatures that moved onto land and developed two strong walking legs and 4 manipulator tentacles.

They were/are scavengers and are able to eat pretty much anything, so have no real disgust aversions for bodily waste/rotting carcasses/etc.

They did have religion but have since moved away from it and are now almost completely atheist, the last "believers" died many generations ago.

Technology level is similar to ours, maybe twenty to thirty years ahead of ours. They have some people on their moon and more in orbit but most space exploration is automated probes.

All members are hermaphrodites. Reproduction is usually done through asexual means, they can mate and produce offspring with share DNA but there is no particular urge to do so and it's not considered strange either to do so or not do so.

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    $\begingroup$ Domesticated animals and plants are also possible sources of insults. Consider "pig", "cow", "potato", etc. $\endgroup$ – Pyritie Nov 11 '15 at 13:39
  • $\begingroup$ Since a lot of people will say things like "God Dammit" or "Holy Hell"; or make similar insults about private and special body parts... I think its safe to say an Athiest alien civilization would curse using whatever it is they A) do hold sacred or special and B) whatever it is they do actually think is taboo. $\endgroup$ – shiningcartoonist Nov 11 '15 at 13:54
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    $\begingroup$ Also, they MIGHT still use some religious based curse words just as a artifact from when people did believe. The insults are so ingrained in the culture that every once in a while someone still uses it. "Damn it" is a very religious idea yet I can't quite see it going away in English even if society moves even more toward secularism. (ooops, just saw your comment @StigHemmer. Move along, move along) $\endgroup$ – Zessa Nov 12 '15 at 14:03
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    $\begingroup$ @TimB If it helps, Steven Pinker points out that the point of swearing is to immediately inject a distasteful thought into someone else's head; it comes from the immediacy of the distaste available to the imagination. "Fucking" is a swear word precisely because it refers to a mean, aggressive, rapey form of sex. "Shit" is a swear word precisely because that word helps you to smell it; "poop" instead takes your mind to playful kid land. For their ecosystem, similarly common-ish distasteful things might include burning, acid, disease, or even just "I will feast on your liver, ingrate." $\endgroup$ – CR Drost Nov 12 '15 at 16:13
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    $\begingroup$ Maybe you may want to distinguish between swearing and cursing. Or perhaps take a more literal meaning of curse, i.e. to wish some evil/damaging thing to happen to the person being cursed. You can curse without swearing, see some yiddish curses, which rarely use swear words. Also consider that the words used for swearing/cursing sometimes are not evil/bad in themselves, such as the "I'll pray for you" which could be a pretty bad curse/insult depending on who/how says it. $\endgroup$ – frozenkoi Nov 12 '15 at 19:09

18 Answers 18

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"I hope you get (fatal health problem) and crawl back into the (lower lifeform) nest you spawned from and die, you (deformed) (disease)-ridden piece of (low status) (socially unacceptable habit) filth!"

"(Predator) bite me, I'm cursing too much again!"

Basically, any bad thing that can happen to one (swearing and cursing), or anything that makes one unattractive to potential mates or society at large (cursing only).

Note from real life: I live in the Netherlands, where sh#t and g#dd#mn already lost a lot of their effect and are even used on TV (in the evening mostly). "Cancer!" has become a popular (and much-despised) curse word here among the less considerate people.

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    $\begingroup$ This is a terrific answer, mostly because it addresses the etymology of the word "curse". Just like a mummy's curse, it is an instruction for bad things to happen to the becursed. $\endgroup$ – dotancohen Nov 11 '15 at 16:03
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    $\begingroup$ "Death!" was a curse-word (and a strong one, at that) in medieval England. "Blood!" wasn't far behind (too much of the latter often leading to the former). So perhaps your alien species would curse someone by saying "Oh, yeah? Well, bleed out and DIE!" - or, in alien speak, "Do you really believe what you just said is the truth? Well, I most sincerely hope that all of your circulatory fluid drains from your body, which subsequently ceases to function!". :-) $\endgroup$ – Bob Jarvis Nov 15 '15 at 3:21
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Curses and cursing have trends. And the society goes for highest taboo which exists. Example from history:

  1. Religious taboo (medieval) - people used to believe that saying deity name would actually hurt such deity. OK, your setting can skip this
  2. Bodily functions: Naming people as taboo bodily parts. In our case these are organs used for sexual reproduction and/or bodily functions, namely defecation. While you rule this part out, still there can be body part which is considered taboo and "talk to the hand!" may be purely offensive
  3. Racial and race based: You either can use slang word for one race as offensive or abusive. Also to this group you can have social status in the group, so "you are beggar" can be also offensive
  4. Mentality and psychological based (current trend in our society). Any word connected with fact that such person may have low IQ is considered really abusive in our society.

Start with having some taboo If you are intelligent species, you do not talk about something. We like to have something hidden, because it does not go well with our "perfect" world.

Good picks to start:

  1. A person who is perceived as negative. Earth example: Adolf Hitler
  2. Racially different group, or having caste system in place (beggar versus noble)
  3. Notable meme of such society. Examples: Grumpy Cat
  4. Historical event which was perceived as negative. Example: Hiroshima, Vietnam War
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    $\begingroup$ The historical figure idea is really good. I'd not thought of that and it works really well. $\endgroup$ – Tim B Nov 11 '15 at 13:01
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    $\begingroup$ I like the "talk to the hand" suggestion - possibly the primary walking appendages have devolved much of their tactile/sensory capability. --- Racial/Psychological are really simply classification of someone else, combined often with a particular tone of voice - so whatever castes or groupings there might be to distinguish particular individuals from others in the society can be looked upon as undesirable ("dirty", "stupid", "menial", "arrogant", "over privileged", "sun baked") $\endgroup$ – Code Jockey Nov 13 '15 at 19:23
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    $\begingroup$ hmm - I really like the idea of "sun-baked" as evolved cephalopods might have some degree of increased sensitivity to environmental factors (too much sun or swimming too long [they do swim, right? right?!]) could make them too hot or too cold, too sun burnt, too dry, or even too wet, etc. -- "when was the last time you got wet?!" $\endgroup$ – Code Jockey Nov 13 '15 at 19:27
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Kids cartoons suggest you can use any word, and as long as it is used as a curse word the meaning will be clear. Spongebob Squarepants uses "Barnacles" and "Tartar Sauce" as curse words. Jake and the Neverland Pirates uses "Coconuts" It is obvious they are curse words by the way they are used.

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    $\begingroup$ A common one in the animated Strawberry Shortcake series is, "Oh, muffin crumbs!" $\endgroup$ – Ellesedil Nov 11 '15 at 16:39
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    $\begingroup$ Larry Niven's Gil the ARM stories (Earth and nearby bodies, not too far in the future): There are two curse words: "censored" and "bleep"--they were used so much in the context of profanity that they became the profanity. $\endgroup$ – Loren Pechtel Nov 13 '15 at 6:22
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    $\begingroup$ Similarly, from "Elf": "Cotton-headed ninny muggins" and "Son of a nutcracker!" $\endgroup$ – Tim S. Nov 13 '15 at 17:37
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Insults and swears are not only based on bodily functions or religion, but on everything that can be socially awkward: family (especially moms), mental or physical capacities (disabilities), age or gender... And swears have trends.

Joking or insulting people about their sexuality is a thing now, but a few centuries ago, it was more a threat as you could be killed for being gay for example. Same with races.

Find what's bad in your alien society: belong to a certain group (family, politics, activists?), have mental or physical differences, or have a badly considered professional or personal activity ("immoral" like prostitutes, or unuseful).

Raging with something cute like ponies and butterflies would be ridiculous. It has to be something evil/immoral/ugly/dirty/ridiculous... Pick one and find something that fits in your alien society.

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    $\begingroup$ Who said cute cannot be evil? $\endgroup$ – John Dvorak Nov 11 '15 at 14:26
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    $\begingroup$ These stopped to be cute xD ! And that makes a strange insult : "Hey, you, night killer pony ! You'd better hide yo' bloody fluffy fur !" $\endgroup$ – Tyrabel Nov 11 '15 at 14:50
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Since they are aliens they need not even want to curse.

They might release a pheromone that labels them as injured, or flutter their tentacles when pained, but have no particular vocal urges. That would mean these things serve the similar functions.

Reflexive responses might not even affect their consciousness much. That is, a squidcritter could smash his tentacle in the door and respond by turning all kinds of weird colors and/or releasing a weird cloud as he simply pauses in saying anything he was saying, perhaps momentarily distracted while evaluating the damage, before continuing much as if nothing happened. That would make them seem quite stoic, but actually be quite different from human.

In that sort of alien culture, the set of taboo words would have nothing to do with physical pain. Of course, even so, an angry squidcritter might use or pantomime the damage sign as an insult.

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    $\begingroup$ I like that, so his curse might be turning a certain color or performing a dance with his tentacles or similar and not anything verbal at all. Nice suggestion :) $\endgroup$ – Tim B Nov 11 '15 at 22:01
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    $\begingroup$ I like the idea physical reactions replace cursing. $\endgroup$ – bowlturner Nov 11 '15 at 22:09
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    $\begingroup$ "I'll ink on your grave!" $\endgroup$ – frozenkoi Nov 12 '15 at 19:05
  • $\begingroup$ "Dost you flip your fin at me?!" $\endgroup$ – The Nate Nov 14 '15 at 19:04
  • $\begingroup$ Similar to 'the bird' @TimB $\endgroup$ – Daniel Nov 14 '15 at 19:39
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Status in the society is another common means of insult. Take for example calling someone "common" has certain connotations associated with it. There is also the inverse where calling someone "posh" is rarely used in a positive way. It could also take the form of racism or xenophobia. Although again, this is likely linked to the status of the group in society.

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    $\begingroup$ "hey look at this guy, he drives a zobrafrop! Not a hard enough worker to afford the gobratorp model? what a loser!" $\endgroup$ – NachoDawg Nov 11 '15 at 11:52
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Unfortunately, I cannot remember the name of the book(but I think it was written by Heinlein), but I remember reading of a similar scenario. In that case, the vilest curse uttered by the advanced alien being was: "Entropy!" because it was the worst imaginable situation for that particular alien race.

I imagine something similar would work for you. What is the worst thing that can happen to one of your squids? Losing a limb? Being born with only 5? Whatever it is, turn it into a curse.

As an aside, your aliens may not be offended by bodily waste but they certainly cannot consume it. I think "eat excrement" would still work, at least as a mild curse, because as waste, it can serve no purpose.

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    $\begingroup$ "aliens may not be offended by bodily waste but they certainly cannot consume it" - dunno about "certainly" ... if its good enough for Mr Bunny, maybe its good enough for Mr Squiddy-Alien? en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cecotrope $\endgroup$ – Stevie Nov 11 '15 at 15:48
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    $\begingroup$ +1 for "Entropy!" That's excellent and might have to find its way into my own vernacular. Though I agree with @Stevie: I think the lack of aversion/indifference to consuming waste was clear in the OP, precisely to avoid the kind of predictable curses many humans already use. $\endgroup$ – underscore_d Nov 11 '15 at 19:08
  • $\begingroup$ @Stevie Thanks for mentioning that fact! Wanted to point that out myself. $\endgroup$ – Noctis Skytower Nov 12 '15 at 16:17
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In addition to actual new topics, I'd like to add that cursewords die quite slowly, at least among humans (tentacles might differ). If you have written history for their tentacle-religion, it's likely there are some remnants still lingering around, probably in form that current day tentacle guys don't even recognize as religious curse words.

I use example of Finnish relatively mild curseword hitto. It predates Christianity in Finland, and wasn't really adopted to Christian mythology and vocabulary unlike some other pagan terms. Yet, it still hangs around. Original root was most probably hiisi (meaning sacred grove and later spirits and even giants). Most users have zero idea of the word's origin but it has good cursing qualities with it's strong consonants and shortness. It snaps from the tongue. (Though longer cursewords can work, like perkele, which is 3 syllables, but has extremely good cursing quality.)

Especially for expressing anger and frustration, the cursing quality of the word is important. So it's also possible that your tentacle-dudes have nonsense words which have mutated from good old cursewords. PERuna (=potato) is almost as satisfying as PERkele (actual curse word).

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Since you say they moved away from religion, it sounds like it had been for purpose, so someone who is still faithful may contradict with the common society, and under such circumstances I would be disgusted if you would call me an "greenly religios dumphead" Or stuff in such a way.

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Interesting quote by Stephen Fry recently on this very topic.

Stephen Fry: If an alien was looking down on us and inspecting our language they would see the worst things we do on this planet is we torture, we kill, we abuse, we harm people, we’re cruel, and those are the things of which we should be ashamed.

Among the best things we do is we breed children, we raise them, we make love to each other, we adore each other, we are affectionate and fond of each other.

How odd the language for the awful things is used casually all the time, ‘oh the traffic was agony’,’it was hell’, ‘it was cruel’, ‘it was torture waiting in line’ You use words like torture? That’s the worst word.

Yet if you use the F word, which is the word for generating the species, for showing physical affection to one another, then we’re taken off the air and accused of being wicked,and irresponsible and a bad influence to children.

Now we’re part of this culture so we often don’t question it, but if you think of someone from outside… it is very strange.

Source

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  • $\begingroup$ Very interesting, but doesn't seem too relevant. Do you think the aliens would call their enemies 'torturers', or stub their toe and cry 'oh, waterboarding!' ? or would they just cut out the middleman and insult each other through comparisons to humans? there's an idea already hinted above: cursing through accusing someone of being a member of the enemy or simply the different outgroup of the day. $\endgroup$ – underscore_d Nov 11 '15 at 19:10
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    $\begingroup$ I don't see why not. There's no major taboo against any of the classic "English" sorts of insults and swearing, so it makes sense to me that the most taboo things to this society could be the worst their civilisation is capable of. Calling someone a "torturer" or shouting "Genocide" when stubbing one's toe is certainly not beyond the realms of possibility. $\endgroup$ – Miller86 Nov 12 '15 at 9:09
  • $\begingroup$ I'm just reading some stories by Howard L. Myers. (Collected in "The creatures of man" available from the Baen free library). A good collection of those stories play on the idea that humankind's competition amongst themselves (from war to personal advancement) is a positive and desirable activity for the betterment of the species (in a Darwinistic way). However, he did place it in the far-off future, where the two main societies engaged only in a bloodless "econo-war" were it was also undesirable for the two sides to become too unbalanced, as peace would also neutralize the positive effect. $\endgroup$ – fr13d Nov 12 '15 at 14:03
  • $\begingroup$ @fr13d That last sentence is just basic economics. Think of two equally-capable companies in the same (free) market versus a monopoly; the two companies have to compete with each other for market share, which might not be good for the companies in the short term but is ultimately beneficial to both consumers and the companies in the long term, while a monopoly loses most of the competitive aspect and thus may not provide as much of a benefit to consumers while potentially stagnating or lessening in advancement as they don't have as much of a need to improve their product or service. $\endgroup$ – JAB Nov 12 '15 at 14:13
  • $\begingroup$ Now you touch upon deep truths. We use shocking curse words because few indeed of can or will bend our minds to genuine hate and spew real wishes of bad things. $\endgroup$ – Joshua Nov 15 '15 at 22:13
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"you scruffy looking nerf-herder!" "You're one of the sheeple" "moron" "jerk"

Almost anything could be used. Comparing someone to anything unpleasant or 'broken'. Which, unless their poo smells like roses, calling someone a 's***head' will always be an insult.

The thing is most 'cursing' is 'bad' because of religious connotations. So without religion, (any kind) there is no 'cursing'. Now Vulgarity is something else again. Vulgarity is more what I think you are going for. Words and phrases that are offensive. These could still be sex related, 'F*** a duck', 'necrophiliac', 'Mother F*****' etc. While sexual orientation may not be an issue there are still things one could have sexual relations with that are inappropriate.

Bodily wastes will still be 'icky' and have locations to put them for waste management (Toss pot). There will also be garbage/trash, things being thrown away that have no more value. Including ideas.

curse - invoke or use a curse against. "it often seemed as if the family had been cursed"

Vulgar - making explicit and offensive reference to sex or bodily functions; coarse and rude.

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  • $\begingroup$ You could have just posted the first five words and I would have up-voted. $\endgroup$ – James Nov 12 '15 at 15:56
  • $\begingroup$ @James I was certainly hoping that would have garnered me more votes than a measly 3! $\endgroup$ – bowlturner Nov 12 '15 at 16:04
  • $\begingroup$ Which, if you actually do the research, a 'nerf' is the Star Wars equivalent of a particular bread of livestock, so in earth terms, Leia is calling Han a farmer... $\endgroup$ – Daniel Nov 14 '15 at 19:41
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In a society I am familiar with, before Americanisation became the fashion, some "coarse" words (or surprise interjections) have been taken from everyday language (thunder, lightning, mother, ...). In fact, many sexual slang has been taken from everyday language, over time rendering the usage of those everyday words in their original context laughable or even frowned upon. Thinking of the original Battelstar Galactica series ("frack"), you could possibly get away with just using any nonsensical word for which you do not need to provide any etymology. If you want to be clever, you could choose such words to carry additional story content (e.g. sarcasm at your favourite cause to heap scorn on, e.g. "politician!" or "lawyer!").

A bona fide curse, on the other hand, does not make much sense in a truly atheistic environment, as it is universally involves the invoking of some metaphysical idea to bring misfortune on the cursed, that the curse would not normally be able to bring about through his own power. But if you are prepared to relax the atheist attribute a bit to still allow such wishes of calamity, you are only limited by your depth of creativity and humor ("may a thousand lawyers pursue you till the universe's entropy death", "may you receive 70 versions of this software in the afterlife" (apologies to Dilbert), "... went on with a suggestion that the [person] go amuse himself in a manner both vulgar and physically impossible.", "Go take a barbed-wire enema..." (both from the writings of Howard L. Myers), etcetera ad nauseam.

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You could have words that were formally names or words which mean things that are still terrible.

For example, since the last believers of this species's religion died generations ago, you could use their words for "faith have-er" or "faith having" to describe a person to be ignorant, blind to reality, or unscientific.

If this species has some terrible people, there's all kinds of things you can do. For example, "Hoover" or this species equivalent, could mean "lazy leech" or be a vulgar term for "hypocrite".

There's probably some actions that are still obscene, which could work as material. "ass-raping" is a vulgar act no matter what language it's said in, what species performs it, or the religion of the speaker is. The same is true for other things such as "theiving", "hypocritical", etc. The same is true for "Horse fucker", since the horse can't consent.

You could look to the environment of the species for material. If their home planet is poor in resources, there could be a bunch of vulgar words for wasteful. If there's a lot of unsafe areas, various disaster-related words may have emerged.

If these people are not ethnically or politically united, there may be some material there. Derogatory terms may have emerged for other groups. In english alone, we have the N word, all kinds of deragatory terms for various asian groups, "cheese eating surrenders" for the french, etc. You could also use the labels of a single group as a curse word itself, like how the green party is a topic of mockery in west virginia. There's a lot to work with there.

There's a lot to work with here.

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This is something I struggled with in my own science fiction comic series, Unity. I ended up using corruptions of names which were based on reviled historical figures (the origins of which were never explained in-universe) and things that were found to be unfortunate circumstances but distorted beyond all recognition.

I also "borrowed" the expression "jar breeze" from the much-better comic One Over Zero, although that one has origins in bodily functions.

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Interesting one... I was going to suggest words based around social class, culture or other behaviour, things like "your mother was a hamster and your father smelled of elderberries" or "you sir, are a vegetarian!" but then I realised these are insults, not curse words.

So what else would be used when trapping your tentacle in a door, words used here have to be short and sharp. Quick to exclaim "b****d" or "F*** this".

AS octopii based lifeforms maybe they'd be more concerned with environment, "dryness!" could be the kind of exclamation, or "you really inked that one" for a huge mistake or failure, or if they change colour like some octopii "taupe!" for cases where an ancestor might have changed to a certain colour to avoid a predator.

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  • $\begingroup$ this is a brilliant idea - I particularly like the idea of "Taupe!" or "you blue buddy?" (i.e. you chicken!) $\endgroup$ – Miller86 Nov 12 '15 at 16:12
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The worst criticism I think is saying someone is evil, that is, someone that wants to harm or benefit from others.

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    $\begingroup$ could you expand a bit on this one? One sentence answers should generally be a comment. $\endgroup$ – bowlturner Nov 11 '15 at 21:37
  • $\begingroup$ Hello, I had no permission to comment posts. $\endgroup$ – NaBUru38 Nov 12 '15 at 17:34
  • $\begingroup$ Pavel J posted a great insults list: - Bodily functions (s***, d***, c***) - Racial (n****, p******, b****) - Mentality and psychological based (idiot, stupid) But the worst of all to me is calling someone evil. In Spanish, a common insult is "hdp". I don't consider it literally, but I (like many people) use it to describe someone as evil, for example politicians. $\endgroup$ – NaBUru38 Nov 12 '15 at 17:35
  • $\begingroup$ @NaBUru38 you can always edit your own post better as writing it in comments $\endgroup$ – bilbo_pingouin Nov 12 '15 at 19:06
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Things that stink.

Things that imply harm. Consider the British "bloody". Nothing wrong with blood but something has to have gone badly for anyone to end up bloody (and back before lab techs might break a vial of it things had to have gone quite badly to end up bloody--although it could be to something else. A butcher could be bloody without having suffered misfortune but the cow sure did!)

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You can pick any word as a curse, insult or smear.

Just look at Captain Haddock smear words collection. The context makes the insult, not only the meaning.

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protected by Community Nov 12 '15 at 13:51

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