August 30, 2006

Oh sleepies!

What do you call the crusts of dried mucus that you sometimes have to rub or wash out of the corners of your eyes when you wake up? The dialect map that Bert Vaux collected for this item shows the variants sleep, sleepers, sleepies, sleepy bugs, sleepy dust, sleepy seed, eye crud, and several others, without suggesting much in the way of geographical regularity. It looks like Americans have a lot of idiosyncratic and mostly childish names for this substance. But none of us, as far as I know, pronounce any of these names in order to express frustration, annoyance, exasperation or pain.

In Finnish, I've recently been told, the word for sleepies is rähmä, and when something fails in a frustrating way, you can exclaim "voi rähmä!", where voi is an exclamation similar in force to English oh. I should add that, according to my Finnish correspondent, this expression "is pretty strongly associated with a local long-time celebrity who tended to use it in a TV show". And an online Finnish-English dictionary offers somewhat more generic glosses for rähmä, like "discharge" and "secretion". Not that muttering "oh secretion!" seems a whole lot more satisfying, as a way to discharge frustration, than "oh sleepies!" is.

This came up because I was quoted a couple of days ago in a Philadelphia Inquirer column by Faye Flam ("Why are sex words our worst swearwords?", 8/28/2006) , repeating something that I'd been told a long time ago by another Finn, namely that Finnish cuss words have to do with religion rather than sex. Since my knowledge of such aspects of Finnish is limited to these rather casual memories, it's lucky that what Faye actually quoted me as saying is apparently not completely false:

You can't employ Finnish sexual words to swear, he says, since it would come out something like "Oh, intercourse!"

According to my anonymous Finnish correspondent:

This is pretty much true for words about sex or intercourse, but not about sexual organs. The hands down most common Finnish swear word vittu translates as "vagina", although the way it's used corresponds very well to English fuck. If something or someone is unpleasant, he or it is vittumainen, "vagina-like". If you run your mouth at someone, trying to provoke or embarass, the verb is vittuilla.

You can also call a person a mulkku, which translates as "penis". Kyrpä is also a rather uncivilized word for penis and it can be used to refer to an unpleasant person or when cursing out loud: "voi kyrpä!" (voi = oh). You can also blurt out "voi perse" (= "oh arse"). Someone who's an asshole in English would be vittupää (vagina-head) or kusipää (urine-head) in Finnish, etc. Then you have creative stuff like "voi vitun viikset" (= "oh vagina's moustache") and so on. If someone has "a penis on his forehead" ("kyrpä otsassa"), he's very disgruntled indeed.

The possible source for this misunderstanding is that apart from vittu, which many younger people use as a comma, most of the commonly used swear words in Finnish are indeed about devil, hell or similar religious affairs. So, there is a distinct register of strong swear words that are not sexual. Apparently the word vittu was originally about animistic magic and it was used to call up the magical power of women or the female genitalia. The idea of a male using it as a swear word was apparently rather ridiculous.

Not as ridiculous as cussing about sleepies, in my opinion. Of course, the whole cussing phenomenon is faintly ridiculous, when viewed in the light of reason. Anyhow, I feel that I got off easy in my role as a self-appointed expert on Finnish cussing, compared to Bill Bryson. My anonymous Finnish correspondent explained:

When talking about Finnish language with foreign people, you very often find out that for some weird reason someone in the group knows one or two Finnish swear words. This makes a certain legendary misunderstanding about Finnish swearing rather amusing. Some devious person fooled the author Bill Bryson to think that there's only one swear word in the Finnish language: ravintolassa, which means "in a restaurant".

Bill Bryson's gullibility and carelessness is on display in his book The Mother Tongue, about which one Amazon reviewer writes:

... as many others have pointed out, every page is just error after factual error. Bryson simply does not understand how languages work, and whatever his sources are are frequently wrong. My favorite mistake is when he claims that in Finnish, there is only one swear word, ravintolassa, meaning "in the restaurant" (page 214). Now, ravintolassa DOES mean "in the restaurant," but that's ALL it means. Finnish has plenty of native swear words (saatana, perkele, vittu, jumalauta, and more), and I still cannot imagine how Bryson came to the conclusion that, not only did it have only one, but that it was the word for "in the restaurant." It's truly mind-boggling.

[Of the four Finnish cuss words cited, three are religious: saatana = "satan", perkele = "traditional Finnish thunder god" (currently also a name for the devil), jumalauta = "God help". The wikipedia article on perkele asserts that

The term also has the role of realizing and strengthening the Finnish national identity. It is a typical Finnish masculine curse word, used to appeal to Finns as a rural attitude in which trouble is faced and conquered with determination and direct action. This has also inspired to the today quite commonly used (originally Swedish) expression "Management by perkele" to describe the often somewhat stern attitude among Finnish chief executives.

The following comment was removed from the same entry as being "stringly [strongly?] POV":

'Perkele Satan' is a common expression used to expres piss offedness. However, this is just a pure anger expression. I am finnish and knew nothing about thunder gods and swedish priests and crap adopting this and turning our wonderful gods into satanistic worshipping people. So, I don't quite see how you can put so much history and stuff into a simple word that is really only the finnish equal of 'God Damnit!!'. God damn the people who turned this fine finnish expression into the material of a dictionary.

This deserves to be preserved as an example of "lexicography by perkele". ]

I suspect that the spectacular "in a restaurant" blunder reveals something about Finnish deadpan humor as well as something about Bryson's scholarship, so perhaps we should reserve judgment about that whole "penis on his forehead" thing, pending further lexicographical research. But blindly trusting that that my anonymous Finnish correspondent is not a "devious person", we can continue with the Finnish cussing lessons:

... there are no words about sexual intercourse that correspond functionally with the English word fuck. There are several widely used vulgar expressions for sexual intercourse which are at least somewhat demeaning and impolite. They correspond with such English expressions as "screw", "bone" etc. Those kinds of expressions are not something you'd use in polite situation or around older people you don't know, but depending on the relationship, you can use them playfully with your girl or boyfriend or spouse. You can't really swear or curse with them, though. If you tried, you'd pretty much end up saying something weird like "oh, screwing", unless you got creative. Well - you can call a person a "wanker" in the same way as in English, if that counts.

And "oh sleepies" makes more sense when we realize that sleepies are basically dried mucus, and another way that Finns voice frustration is with "voi räkä", meaning "oh snot".

There's a theory about how all this stuff works, not only in Finnish but around the world. In fact, as you'd expect, there are several theories. More on that another time -- for now, here are some other Language Log posts on related topics:

"The FCC and the S word" (1/25/2004)
"The S-word and the F-word" (6/12/2004)
"You taught me language, and my profit on't/ it, I know how to curse" (7/17/2005)
"Curses!" (7/20/2005)
"Goram motherfrakker!" (6/7/2006)
"The history of typographical bleeping" (6/10/2006)
"The earliest typographically-bleeped F-word" (6/15/2006)
"Avoiding the other F-word" (7/4/2006)
"C*m sancto spiritu" (8/7/2006)

[And, courtesy of, here's the passage on p. 214 of The Mother Tongue where Bill Bryson exhibits his gullibility and/or ignorance of Finnish:

Some cultures don't swear at all. The Japanese, Malayans, and most Polynesians and American Indians do not have native swear words. The Finns, lacking the sort of words you need to describe your feelings when you stub your toe getting up to answer a wrong number at 2:00 A.M., rather oddly adopted the word ravintolassa. It means "in the restaurant".

Given how badly Bryson got taken by the Finnish restaurant gag, it'd be smart not to trust his word on Japanese, Malay, or American Indian languages either. And indeed, a bit of web searching turns up plenty of information about cussing in all of these.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at August 30, 2006 07:24 AM