Studies from a 19th-century phrasebook about swearing in Tibetan and Newar.

When Nepali Gets Naughty 

When Nepali Gets Naughty 

Lexicon Valley
A Blog About Language
Feb. 25 2016 11:05 AM

When Nepali Gets Naughty 


Wellcome Images/Wikimedia Commons

This post originally appeared on Strong Language, a sweary blog about swearing. 


It’s always entertaining to look up rude words in a dictionary. This activity can tell you something about the editor, and perhaps the intended audience. A 19th-century single-copy handwritten dictionary that translates between Tibetan and Newar (a language of Nepal) offers a uniquely joyful smutty read.


The dictionary was photographed, and a transcription with English translations published under the title A Tibetan-Newari Lexicon Cum Phrase Book (cum *snigger*) in 1996. The editors, Christoph Cüppers, Kashinath Tamot & Philip Pierce, do a commendable job capturing the spirit of the original language.

As the editors note in the introduction, what makes the content of this book so interesting is the way in which it was written.  Reading through, you get a clear sense it was most likely written by two people sitting and chatting; some sections are basically a dialogue. It also moves through different semantic domains the way people in a house may work their way though the space, starting with the kitchen items, then the farming items, and so on.

But we’re not here because we’re interested in Tibetan and Newar names for farming implements. The text has around one and a half thousand words and phrases, and for a small book it has quality sweary content. Because the book is set out in meandering stream-of-consciousness thematic groups, rather than alphabetically, the reader cannot target rude words and phrases, but must stumble upon them while browsing. For example, the rather painful phrase “a testicle burst” is between “the body is swollen” and “you need to measure it,” while “give me some pussy” is between “give the load to me” and “please be a worker.” Any surrounding text begins to sound inappropriate too.

Much of the joy of this text comes from the fact that all the rude words are given in phrases; you don’t just get penis, you get “due to syphilis the penis wasted away.” You also get an idea of the personalities of the writers; two lines back-to-back give an idea of their views on woman, with the phrase “women as a class are very avaricious” followed by “furthermore, (they) are very lustful too”.


In these linked phrases you really get a feel for the fact that the authors were enjoying themselves greatly. I leave you with the English translations of my favorite string of entries:

“whatever (you) do, it is all right”
“don’t show (your) mother (your) penis”
“don’t show (your) father (your) vagina”
“ha ha”
“what a laugh!”

Lauren Gawne is a postdoctoral research fellow in linguistics at SOAS, University of London.