A mythical beast known as the "grass-mud horse" has become an Internet phenomenon in China. The New York Times reported Thursday that the alpacalike creature's Mandarin name just happens to be a very, very dirty pun. Times style rules prevent the paper from clarifying the joke, but other, less-dignified outlets explain that the phrase Cao ni ma is a homonym for "fuck your mother" in Chinese. Is some variant of motherfucker used all over the world?
Pretty much. While it's not quite a universal insult, variations on the command to commit incest with one's mother appear in every region of the globe. Anthropologists note that, across cultures, the most severe insults tend to involve a few basic themes: your opponent's family, your opponent's religion, sex, and scatology. Because motherfucker covers two of these topics—plus incest, a nearly global taboo—it's a popular choice just about everywhere. In Mandarin Chinese alone, riffs on the basic phrase include Cao ni ma ge bi,meaning "fuck your mother's cunt," and Cao ni da ye, "fuck your elder uncle." Given the Chinese culture of ancestor worship, Cao ni zu zong shi ba dai, or "fuck your ancestors of 18 generations," may be the worst incest instruction of all. *
Incest-related invectives are only one class of mother insults, which may impugn a mother's sexual integrity—as in the Italian phrase "If the streets were paved with pricks, your mother would walk on her ass"—or suggest that the speaker is about to rape or violate the listener's mother himself. (For example, the great Turco-Mongolian curse, "I urinate on your father's head and have intercourse with your mother!")
In Mediterranean cultures, where the relationship between mother and son is particularly sacred, insults about incest carry special potency. The nastiest Greek curses, for example, are gamo ti mana sou, gamo tin Panagia sou, and gamo to Khristo sou—"fuck your mother," "fuck your madonna," and "fuck your Christ," respectively. According to G. Legman's classic Rationale of the Dirty Joke, "Go fuck your mother" (Idy v kibini matri) is the "Russian ultimate-insult." Other cultures that venerate motherhood use variations of the phrase as well. Mexicans like to hurl the invective chinga tu madre at their rivals. During the Vietnam War, the Vietnamese exclamation du me—literally, "fuck mother"—morphed into the popular American military slang term doo-mommie.
African cultures yield some colorful entries in the motherfucking canon. AnthropologistPhilip Mayer, in a 1951 article on joke-telling among the Gusii people of Kenya, noted that close friends were likely to rib one another with the directive, "Go eat your mother's anus!" The Igbo people of Nigeria use the phrase O-ra nna ye!, or "fucker of his mother!"
The first known print appearance of the English phrase—as the adjectival intensifier motherfucking—dates to a legal document from 1889. In a case before the Texas Court of Appeals, it was reported that the defendant had been referred to by another man as "that God damned mother-f—cking, bastardly son-of-a-bitch!" The phrase was considered so vile in late 19th-century America that, in another Texas court case, it was argued that a man who had been called a "mother-fucking son-of-a-bitch" by a person he later shot "could not be found guilty of a higher offense than manslaughter," so grave was the offense.
Going back even further, medieval Arabic literature is a font of motherfucking, mostly in the form of ritualized insult-dueling. For example, Al-Nu`man ibn al-Mundhir, a sixth-century king of Al-Hirah, was lampooned in a poem as "a king who fondles his mother and his slave(s),/ His joints are flaccid, his penis the size of a kohl-needle." An eighth-century Persian poet named Bashshar ibn Burd dissed another poet, Hammad Ajrad, by writing, "Ajrad jumps on his mother: a sow giving suck to a sucker." To which Hammad responded: "You are called Burd's son, but you are another's. But even if you were Burd's son (may you fuck your mother!), who is Burd?"
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Explainer thanks Reinhold Aman of the journal Maledicta, Timothy Jay of the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, Jesse Sheidlower of the Oxford English Dictionary, and Robert Vanderplank of the Oxford University Language Center.
Correction, Jan. 6, 2010: The original sentence included a misspelling of "zu zong." (Return to the corrected sentence.)