Do other languages have vulgarities and obscenities that are used in conversation as they are in English? My husband worked in his youth with Italian-speaking laborers and says the worst he ever heard them say in Italian was “fangooloo.” (He says that, contrary to popular impression, this means only “make a tail,” in other words, “show me your back,” or “go away.”

I’m sure we’ve all heard of “merde,” but do people speaking other languages ever say anything stronger? If so, what? In particular, does the now-common “F-word” have a counterpart in other languages? –Sally B., Boston

Honestly, Sally, were you raised in a convent? English obscenities are a pale shadow of the invective used in other languages. The F-word is the least of it. If there’s a language that doesn’t have an equivalent, I’ve yet to hear about it. Poles have pierdolic, the French foutre (from the Latin futuere), Soviet Georgians secems . . . you get the idea.

As for fangooloo (in my neighborhood we pronounced it fongool), I’m afraid you’ve heard the expurgated translation. According to Kevin Beary’s Florentine Locutions (1991), it’s properly spelled vaffanculo, a contraction that literally means “go do [it] in the ass,” i.e., bugger off, fuck off, fuck you. “Some Italians affirm that the ass referred to is that of one’s interlocutor, while others assert that the orifice in question is not yours or mine or anyone’s in particular, but rather the universal anus,” Beary says.

Vaffanculo is merely the best known of a rich tradition of Italian oaths and imprecations, although the consensus is that Spanish is the champ in this department. Herewith a few of the more printable international classics, culled from the pages of Maledicta: The International Journal of Verbal Aggression, published by Reinhold Aman:

Mecagum les cinc llagues de Crist, “I shit on the five wounds of Christ,” Catalan. Even more bloodcurdling is Mecagum Deu, en la creu, en el fuster que la feu, i en el fill de puta que va plantar el pi, “I shit on God, on the cross, on the carpenter who made it, and on the son of a whore who planted the pine.”

Matumbo yangu huzaa maradhi, “My womb has born a disease,” Swahili. Said by a mother to a disobedient child.

La reputisima madre que te recontra mil pario, “The twice most whorish mother that bore you again and again one thousand times,” Spanish (Argentina).

Krijg de mazelen, “May you get the measles,” Dutch.

Mabial agpi-agpi ke mabial nganswang, “[You have] very short breasts like the breasts of a porcupine,” Dinga (spoken in Zaire). Or: Dem inear-inear, “[You have a] greatly lined and wrinkled belly.”

Melewe silom we ie maragus, “Your mother has yaws,” Ulithian (Ulithi is a coral atoll in the Pacific). Also: Falfulul silom, “Your mother’s pubic tattooing!”

Bi damaghi babat rydam, “I shit on your father’s nose,” Farsi (Iran). Also: Guz bi rishit, “May a fart be on your beard.”

English isn’t totally lacking in creative vulgarity. Sanford Margalith, writing in Maledicta 10, fondly recalls the Southerners in his World War Two artillery battalion who said things like, “I wouldn’t piss on his ass if his piles were on fire.” Noninsults were pretty snappy too: after a rough night on the town one soldier said he felt like he had been “shot at and missed and shit at and hit.” Clearly we don’t lack potential, just ambition.

My grandfather once told me I could tell the temperature outside by counting cricket chirps, but I’ve forgotten the formula. Do you know? –George Dailey, Denton, Texas

You have to ask? The official formula, worked out by A.E. Dolbear in 1897, is temp = chirps per minute – 40 / 4 + 50. If that’s a bit much you can get approximately the same result by counting the number of chirps in 14 seconds and adding 40. If you can’t hack that either, call up the weather service like everybody else.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.