Strong language

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(HOST) Marrying into another language and culture inevitably entails moments of frustration, and helplessness. At those moments, it’s good to be able to swear in many languages. Fortunately, commentator Philip Baruth’s father-in-law is a world-wide authority on strong language. Here’s Philip.

(BARUTH) Life is a crapshoot: sometimes you lose, sometimes you lose really badly. But strangely enough, at the biggest craps table of them all, the one where you get your in-laws, somehow I broke the bank. My wife and I eloped before I ever had a chance to meet her family, and that could have turned out really badly. She is from another country and I could have spent the first ten years of our marriage communicating with my in-laws by means of sketches on napkins.

But how’s this for luck? Both my mother- and my father-in-law teach English. Even better than that, my father-in-law is a linguist with a specialty in American slang, and best of all, my father-in-law’s linguistic sub-specialty is swear words.

Seriously. The guy’s a recognized world authority. Magnus Ljung is this incredibly courtly Swedish man, and he’d never, ever use any of the phrases he knows in anger.

But just everyone knowing that he knows them is what’s so effective. It’s like being in the room with a Navy Seal: you know there are forty-five separate ways he can kill you, so nobody makes any sudden moves.

Why is it so desirable to have a father-in-law who knows every Swedish and American swear word and their Finnish, Greek, German, Latin and Icelandic roots? Because much of what Magnus knows he has written down in books. These books have been endlessly useful to me, because marrying someone from another country, means that you spend a lot of time moving around in the dark, culturally speaking, and inevitably you’re going to bark your shins on something sharp and jagged, culturally speaking. And at those times it’s great to have the linguistic firepower to handle the situation properly.

Case in point: When I bought my laptop, I took it to Sweden thinking I could just plug it in and put together a really important report and then bingo, just email it back to the U.S.. But I’d forgotten that I needed an adapter. So I waited patiently, and the next morning I must have called fifteen stores before hitting pay dirt. Finally, a man answers and says they have the adaptor, but unfortunately they’re closed that day for a holiday called “Pingst”.

I stalked into the kitchen to ask Annika what “Pingst” was. She didn’t know. Her mother Birgit didn’t know. It was just “Pingst”, they said, difficult to translate. But fine, whatever. If I got on it bright and early the next day, I could still have the report done in time. Next morning, I called the electronics store again.

“We’re closed today as well,” the Swedish guy said. “Today is Annandag Pingst.”

I could feel my ears getting hot. “What’s Anandag Pingst?” I asked.

The guy thought for a second. “Well, in English, it means ‘Another Day of Pingst,’ ” he answered.

And that’s when reading those books by my father-in-law, who can melt paint in six languages, really paid off. Because after the guy hung up, I not only slammed that phone down, but I knew exactly what to say. “Heista nupa!” which, in a phrase Swedes borrowed from the original Finnish, means that the phone could smell my bellybutton.

And I would have said it too, but it was Pingst. Or Ananday Pingst. And, you know, I thought I should show some respect.

Philip Baruth is a novelist living in Burlington. He teaches at the University of Vermont.

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