August 13, 2008

Ta ma — shut yo' mouth!

Kevin Guilfoile pointed out what seemed to be a particularly confusing bit of self-censorship in yesterday's Chicago Tribune, from a guide to Chinese txt abbreviations.

"TMD: A swear word, short for Ta Ma De, which is the Chinese equivalent of something-something-mama."

As Kevin noted, it would be easy enough to assume that one of those somethings is "fuck," but what would the other be?

But a little Google work turned up a shock: Ta ma de actually can be translated as "something-something-mama," where the "somethings" are not placeholders for other words.

The Profane Chinese site offers the alternate translation, "his mother's," and explains,

Ta ma de is actually an exclamation, the sort of Chinese swear word that's used in exasperation, or frustration, or occasionally surprise. Although the phrase implies the existence of a third party (his mother's), there doesn't actually have to be a "he" involved - you could say ta ma de to your television set if you cable shuts out, or you could mutter "ta ma de" after just missing the bus.

In short, then, ta ma de, used as a Chinese swear, really means something more like "Shit!" or "Fuck!" or "Dammit!" to use some English usage examples. [Although] the component words do not, on their own, imply vulgarity, the phrase itself is considered a vulgar Chinese curse.

I believe what that writer means is that while the component words are not on their own vulgar, they do imply vulgarity. And that implication is what Trib writer Kevin Pang was trying to convey with his translation, as he explained to me in an e-mail (after gently suggesting that I was taking his light-hearted piece way to seriously). He acknowledged that a literal rendering would be more along the lines of something-mama-something, and that while it doesn't mean "fuck your mother," it at is that level of offensiveness.

Given that, Pang probably should have used a word other than "equivalent" in his definition, but what I found interesting is that newspaper readers are now so conditioned to writers and editors protecting them from vulgarity, that we now fill in the blanks on our own even when we shouldn't. Thus does the practice of self-censorship obscure journalistic facts even at a remove.

What, too serious again?

Posted by Daniel Radosh


Slightly off-topic, there's a bit of amusing half-censorship I noticed in a New York Post interview with Jon Hamm of Mad Men:

You don't just think, "he got a s*** deal" or "his contracts' bad" or "he hates his trailer." It's like, all of our contracts are bad and all of our trailers are shitty - we're in the same boat!


It still seems to me that the sister slang for this phrase in English would be "Your mother!" Those seem similar etymologically if not quite in degree of offensiveness. I still don't quite understand "something mama something."

It's also true that it doesn't matter whether I understand it or not. Kevin Pang is no doubt right to be bemused by the fact that I am so confused.

But you wouldn't say "Your mother!" when the cable goes out. "Motherfucker!" is probably closer in usage and vulgarity.

Personally, I'm going to start saying ta ma de. Just like in Firefly.

Thinking about this some more (because what else do I have to do) it's interesting that the Trib printed it at all. Assuming the paper has at least some Chinese-speaking readers, this phrase is far more offensive to them than anything the paper would allow in English. I know New York papers have censored Spanish and Yiddish vulgarities, if inconsistently.

Which raises the question: if a paper did want to quote someone saying "ta ma de" while also avoiding vulgarity, which word would they replace with dashes? None of them is actually obscene!

We're back to the point made at the end of this post: "if you have a word in mind and display some symbols to your audience so that the audience realizes what you meant to write, then you have communicated the word to them." That's the power of the phrase itself, isn't it?

But you wouldn't say "Your mother!" when the cable goes out.

Really? We did when I was growing up, and frequently at inanimate objects. Mostly video games.

Personally, I'm going to start saying ta ma de. Just like in Firefly.

I'm going to start saying "Something-something-mama!" Woe to the person to whom I text: SSM!

I had totally forgotten that was the go-to swear word on that show. Nice.

I'm pretty sure I heard Amy Wong say it on Futurama.

What does the Times do with vulgarities that aren't, in their parts, vulgar? What about "'After he was caught fingering Saddam's mother he decided to defect to the West,' Secretary Rice testified of Mr. Chalabi."

The vulgar phrase being, of course, "Secretary Rice."

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