The Finnish pain of the profane

Can the same word be profane and profound? We check up on Finnish swearing habits.

On Finnish Language Day, April 9, some Finns – especially young ones – may celebrate their fondness for colourful language. Undeterred, our reporter shares his views on the subject.

Finland is a conservative country. At least, this conventional wisdom is echoed in countless guidebooks and newspaper articles. But in many instances, Finns refuse to act as you would expect conservative people to behave.

Their use of language, whether their own language or a foreign one, is a case in point.

Look up Finnish profanity on Wikipedia and it will tell you that in Finland ‘it is commonly considered impolite to swear excessively…and particularly in front of children’. This generally holds true.

The V-word

However, a large slice of Finnish youth seems overly familiar with the less polite zones of their language, mostly expletives describing various parts of the human anatomy. These words have a way of popping up in public situations: on buses, on trains and in shops. And they leave the mouths of boys and girls alike.

Profanity is part and parcel of language usage, of course, as any linguist can tell you, but shouldn’t it be saved for special occasions? Some Finns now claim that the V-word (if you don’t know what the really bad words are in Finnish, we’re not going to repeat them here) has been said so often that it’s lost its shock value.

Don’t get me wrong. I must point out that most Finnish kids are not programmed to utter expletives. But the polite, soft-spoken ones are often overshadowed by the minority that go to extremes.

Words that get the job done

Leaving aside the juvenile talent for forming whole sentences comprised of anatomy-related obscenities, a fair amount of strong Finnish language is unrelated to the body and its functions. We don’t suggest that you add it to your vocabulary, but the old standby perkele refers to the Devil and derives from the pre-Christian word for the god of thunder.

Finland’s Swedish neighbours refer to “management by perkele”, a reference to the supposedly direct approach of Finnish bosses to dealing with workplace situations and the frequent use of the word to punctuate their orders. This makes Finnish offices sound much scarier than they really are, but it’s part of Finland’s myth in many Swedish eyes.

Our F-word

Visitors to Finland may notice the casual use of English profanities – although this particular phenomenon seems to be audible in most countries nowadays, no matter what language the locals speak. The Finnish proficiency in English is admirable, but it does not need to extend to the liberal use of our F-word (“our” referring here to English speakers).

It’s our F-word, after all. The Finns wouldn’t like it if we used their equivalent with the same lack of sensitivity.

Things would be much simpler if the words of popular travel writer Bill Bryson were true. Infamously, in one of those gaffes that Finns will never forget, he states in his book Mother Tongue that “some cultures don’t swear at all… The Finns, lacking the sort of words you need to describe your feelings when you stub your toe getting up to answer a phone at 2:00 am, rather oddly adopted the word ‘ravintolassa’.”

This perfectly polite word simply means “in the restaurant”. It makes you wonder who was pulling Bill’s leg.

A cross, crass hedgehog

Finnish cartoonist Milla Paloniemi has made swearing into an art form with a comic strip entitled The Cursing Hedgehog. Bored during an art history class, she drew a bad-tempered hedgehog, later self-publishing it online and as a photocopied zine.

It became a bestseller and for the past couple years a publishing house called Sammakko has been releasing hardcover collections of the prickly character’s adventures. It won the Comic Strip Finlandia Prize in 2008.

Just about every episode ends with the hedgehog screaming swearwords, yet the comic strip is amusing and appealing. Maybe that’s because it expresses what the rest of us would like to say but can’t – because we’re too polite.

–Peter Marten

By Tim Bird, April 2009