May 07, 2007

Diaper-headed Whores; Or, How Not to Translate "Nappy-headed hos"

[This is a guest post by Reinhold Aman, editor of Maledicta: The International Journal of Verbal Aggression]

On April 4, 2007, radio host Don Imus, on his nationally syndicated program "Imus in the Morning," referred to the Rutgers University women's basketball team as "nappy-headed hos."

Imus was speaking with executive producer Bernard McGuirk when the NCAA Championship game between Rutgers and Tennessee came up. McGuirk compared the game to "the jigaboos versus the wannabes," and Imus commented, "That's some rough girls from Rutgers. Man, they got tattoos...." "Some hardcore hos," replied McGuirk, to which Imus added,"That's some nappy-headed hos there, I'm going to tell you that."

These three words -- nappy-headed hos -- set off the media frenzy that sometimes erupts when a well-known person says something racist, sexist or homophobic in public. And they also resulted in a host of false, misleading or ridiculous translations around the world.

For the past 40 years, two of my major interests have been maledicta (insults, curses, slurs, blasphemies, obscenities, vulgarities, and other "bad words") in all languages and their (mis)translations into other tongues. Don Imus's "nappy-headed hos" has demonstrated once again how incompetent many translators are in matters of maledicta and how non-English-speaking readers are misled by such poor translations. The Italian saying traduttori, traditori ("translators are traitors") comes to mind. Almost all translators mistranslated nappy-headed or hos or both. Below are samples from 16 languages to prove my assertion that foreign readers were severely misled by the wrong translations and that Don Imus was depicted as having been far nastier than he actually was.


Some French, Italian and Swedish translators made the understandable (but inexcusable) mistake of looking up nappy only in British dictionaries, instead of also consulting American ones; after all, their source, Don Imus, was quoting Black American English.

My four U.K. dictionaries (Chambers, Collins, Concise Oxford, Longman) define nappy only as "(baby's) napkin," American English "diaper," without any reference to hair, except for Collins which also lists "having a nap; downy; fuzzy" among its seven definitions of that adjective. For whatever reason, those translators were not puzzled by their strange translation "diaper-headed" or by the bizarre image of black women having diaper-shaped heads or wearing diapers on them. Perhaps those translators thought that nappy-headed was a synonym of "rag-headed" or "towel-headed," common pejoratives applied to Arabs because of their customary headdress.

The Germanic languages' equivalents of "nappy-headed," kraushaarig, kroeshaar, krøllhåret and krullhårig are neutral terms for such hair (all meaning only "curly-haired"), unlike the English nappy, frizzy and kinky, which have (slightly) pejorative connotations.

The Spanish, Catalan and Romanian translations of nappy as "dirty, disheveled, unkempt, filthy, nasty, soiled, unclean, unwashed" are very wrong, because nappy characterizes only the shape of hairs (curly, kinky, frizzy), not their state of cleanliness or the social class and level of education of curly-haired people, as a major Romanian newspaper implied.


Black English ho, derived from the pronunciation of "whore" (analogous to poor > po, for/four > fo, door > do), has a wide range of meanings and should not be simply translated as "whore." Translating it as "whore" is just as foolish and wrong as translating the positive black phrase "She my bitch" into German as Sie ist meine Hündin. The correct German equivalent is Sie ist meine Alte ("my old lady"). And some merry gentleman endearingly referred to as a "gay old dog" certainly isn't a homosexueller alter Hund.

According to American blacks interviewed, depending on context and who uses it, ho can mean anything from "an affectionate term of endearment" to vile misogynistic and racist abuse. While ho is used by American blacks of certain ages and income levels, especially by rap and hip-hop musicians, many blacks dislike this word intensely -- especially when a white person (like Imus) uses it.

Black English ho has become only mildly pejorative for some (mainly male) users, reaching something like the status of "bitch," or perhaps even "chick" or "broad." However, it remains quite offensive to nearly all women, African-American or otherwise, and is deeply offensive in its implications, especially in the sort of context that led to a recent lawsuit against the NYPD, but it is certainly no longer necessarily just a dialect pronunciation of "whore."

Similar negative/positive terms exist in many other languages, such as Yiddish mamzer, French crotte and German Hund, where the user, target and context indicate whether the word is an insult or a compliment.

In all Germanic languages, hos was mistranslated as "whores": hoeren, horer, horor, Huren. Most other translators did the same: donotes, prostitutas, prostitute, putinhas, puttane; curve, kurvák, kurwy; drolje; orospular. They had no idea what ho really means, and their readers must have been shocked by Imus's purported nastiness of calling those athletes "black whores," "prostitutes" or "sluts." He absolutely did not; his intent was to refer to them in a jocular sexist way, with roughly the force that white Americans associate with a term like "broads," which is far less offensive than "whores". In this, Imus followed the lead of his producer, Bernard McGuirk, who was the real culprit. It was McGuirk who first called the basketball players "some hardcore hos," with which Imus then agreed: "That's some nappy-headed hos there...."

(Of course, that sort of thing is exactly what Imus hired McGuirk to do, as "On the Media" documented in 2001 -- see the transcript here. Another typical example of McGuirk in action: during Imus's Nov. 2, 2005 broadcast, shortly after President Bush nominated Judge Samuel Alito to the U.S. Supreme Court, McGuirk called Alito a "meat-ball sucking wop." That ethnic slur, like many others on the program over the years, didn't make the international news.)

In the Romance languages examined, the Spanish mujerzuelas and Portuguese mulherzinhas are fairly good translations, because they use only deprecatory words for "woman" (mujer, mulher plus mild pejorative suffixes). All others (Catalan, French, Italian, Romanian) using the equivalents of "whores" and "prostitutes" are dead wrong.

Not being competent in Slavic languages, I checked only Croatian and Polish. It's curious that of all languages checked, only the two Polish papers didn't print the complete word but euphemized kurwy ("whores") as k.... and k...y. Yet Kurwa! (used like Fuck! or Shit!) is not an extremely vulgar word and is one of the most popular Polish exclamations.


1. Dutch:
hoeren met kroeshaar (whores with curly hair). de Volkskrant (The Netherlands).

2. Flemish:
hoeren met kroeshaar. De Standaard (Belgium).

3. German (Germany, Austria, Switzerland):
(a) kräuselhaarige Huren (curly-haired whores). Der Spiegel (Germany). Other German publications used the synonymous kraushaarige.

(b) kraushaarige Huren (curly-haired whores). ORF = the official Austrian radio and TV network.

(c) kraushaarige Huren. Basler Zeitung (Switzerland).

4. Norwegian:
krøllhårete horer (curly-haired whores). Dagbladet (Norway).

5. Swedish:
(a) krullhåriga horor (curly-haired whores). Eskilstuna-Kuriren (Sweden).

(b) blöjhövdade horor (diaper-headed whores). STV = Swedish TV.

6. Bavarian:
This is a language without a standard orthography, but I would translate "nappy-headed hos" into my Central-Bavarian mother tongue Niederbayerisch as wuggalhårade Waiwa (Germanized: wuckerlhaarige Weiber), "curly-haired broads."


1. Spanish (Spain, Mexico, Arizona):
(a) mujerzuelas de cabello sucio y espeso (uncouth/loose women with dirty and thick hair). El Diario Marca (Spain).

(b) mujerzuelas de cabello negro y espeso (uncouth/loose women with black and thick hair). ¡Ehui! (Mexico).

(c) prostitutas de pelo desgreñado (prostitutes with disheveled/unkempt hair). La Voz (Phoenix, Arizona).

2. Catalan:
donotes de cabells bruts i espessos (whores/sluts with dirty/filthy/nasty/soiled/unclean and thick hair). El Periódico (Barcelona, Spain).

3. Portuguese (Brazil and Portugal):
(a) prostitutas de cabelo ruim (prostitutes with bad/horrendous hair). Último Segundo (Brazil).

(b) putinhas de cabelo pixaim (whores with curly hair). Globoesporte (Rio de Janeiro).

(c) mulherzinhas de cabelos negros e espessos (loose women with black and thick hair). Correio da Manhã (Portugual).

4. French (France and Canada):
(a) putes avec une tête de couche (whores with a diaper head, diaper-headed whores). Le Monde (France).

(b) putes aux cheveux crépus (whores with frizzy hair, frizzy-haired whores). Le Figaro (France).

(c) putes à tête crépue (whores with a frizzy head, frizzy-headed whores). Radio-Canada (Montréal).

5. Italian:
(a) prostitute con i pannolini in testa (whores with diapers on their head, diaper-headed whores). Internazionale.

(b) puttane pettinate alla negra (whores [with hair] combed in the Negress manner). La Stampa.

(c) puttanelle nere spettinate (black tousled/disheveled whorelets/sluts). LSDI Libertà di stampa.

(d) zoccole ricciolute (curly-haired whores). Novamag.

6. Romanian:
curve negre nespălate (dirty/filthy/unwashed/low-class/uneducated black whores). Jurnalul Național. According to Mr. Bratescu, in this context, the meaning is definitely "low person, uneducated."


1. Croatian:
kovrčave drolje (curly-haired sluts/whores). Javno (Croatia).

2. Polish:
(a) przyprawione k.... (??? whores). (Poland). I was unable to find an appropriate translation of the adjective przyprawiony in Polish dictionaries and therefore contacted professors and professional translators in Poland, but none has been able to provide a definitive answer. The primary meanings "flavored," "seasoned" and "spiced-up" (all referring to food) can't refer to hair or head, neither can the older slangy "drunk"; "fixed, attached" may refer to ribbons and the like used to embellish hair but is unlikely. The suggestion by Anna G. that "spiced-up" hints at illegal substances those "hos" might be using is perhaps the closest we can get to that puzzling Polish translation, even though it is unrelated to curly hair.

(b) te "trawniki" to k...y (these "lawns" are whores). SuperExpress (Poland). Mariusz Max Kolonko, an American correspondent for that tabloid and Polish Television TV4, translated nappy-headed hos as "these 'lawns' are whores." He explains that trawniki ("lawns") is slang for "black women," because of their short-trimmed hair. In an e-mail received from Mr. Kolonko, he states that trawniki is "a crass insult against African Americans."

Confusingly, that article about African-American women with short-cropped curly hair is illustrated with a photo of four black women with long hair, some of them sporting even long straight ("processed") hair. This photo bears the caption, "The expression trawnik (literally "lawn," but here meaning "crop-haired person") in the mouth of a white person is a crime. Only black people can call themselves that."


1. Chinese (Hong Kong and USA):
(a) man tou juanfa de jinü (curly-headed prostitutes). Ta Kung Pao (Hong Kong).

(b) juanfa dangfu (curly-haired sluts). Epoch Times, New York.

2. Hungarian:
(a) bongyorhajú kurvák (curly-haired whores). Index. The adjective bongyorhajú reportedly is an "obscure dialect word" referring to tight little curls of human and dog hair; it is completely neutral and does not imply hair color.

(b) kócos, dróthajú ribancok (disheveled/unkempt/rumpled, wire-haired sluts/whores). Népszabadság.

3. Turkish:
kıvırcık kafalı orospular (curly-headed whores). Medyatava (Turkey).


I wish to thank the following for verifying some of my translations or for adding more examples: Adrian and Marta B. (Hungarian), Anna G. (Polish), Artur J. (adding the Polish Super Express "lawn" mistranslation and misinformation), John Swindle (adding two Chinese examples), Alan Crozier (Hungarian, Romanian), Peter Wells (adding Le Monde), Aniko Szabo (Hungarian), Cristi Bratescu (Romanian), and dozens of Polish academics and translators for trying to figure out just what that puzzling przyprawione could mean.


[The above is a guest post by Reinhold Aman]

[Update -- Paul Bickert writes to draw our attention to Gene Weingarten's "Chatological Humor" discussion at the Washington Post, which quotes and comments on a relevant joke:

I am in receipt of an interesting correspondence from Peter Sagal, host of NPR's terrific improv comedy show, "Wait, Wait ... Don't Tell Me!"

On his show a week ago, he and his guests were talking about the death of crooner Don Ho, and it was noted that Ho had dozens of grandchildren and great grandchildren. On the air, with a sudden inspiration, Sagal said "You know, when all those babies were in diapers, that means dozens of nappy-bottomed Hos."

The audience roared. Some groans could be heard. Afterwards, NPR fielded some complaints.

Peter asked me if I thought he had gone over the top.

Nope. That was a great joke, edgy but harmless. It was not about race. It was a joke on the entertainer's name, and on the Imus furor.

People need to get a life and stop looking for reasons to get offended.


Posted by Mark Liberman at May 7, 2007 12:29 AM