Culturally Determined Insults

The controversy over what Marco Materrazi said to Zidane to cause him to go ballistic is just one step over tabloid-level debate. But that doesn’t mean I’m not obsessed by it. Some people seem convinced that the subject was racial: he either called him an “Algerian terrorist” or used the phrase for a traitor in the Algerian civil war. Others seem convinced that he impugned Zidane’s mother. Materrazi admits to have insulted Zidane and pulled his shirt, but denies that he went down either the racist or anti-mother tracks. His defense against the latter is especially telling, and completely, stereotypically, Italian: “For me the mother is sacred, you know that.” The Guardian has a great piece today unpacking what different cultures consider insulting. The general point seems to be that in Catholic countries mother-insults are much more serious than in Protestant or post-Christian nations (like Britain). That may be true, but it doesn’t explain the intensity of mother-insults in African-American culture. It may be the idolatry of the mother in A-A culture comes from the prevalence of father-abandonment. Do our readers have any general theory explaining variations in what cultures consider insulting?

Oh, and one particular insult from the article jumped out at me. Apparently in Finland it is considered a serious insult to say, “Your mother copulates with reindeer.”

Author: Steven M. Teles

Steven Teles is a Visiting Fellow at the Yale Center for the Study of American Politics. He is the author of Whose Welfare? AFDC and Elite Politics (University Press of Kansas), and co-editor of Ethnicity, Social Mobility and Public Policy (Cambridge). He is currently completing a book on the evolution of the conservative legal movement, co-editing a book on conservatism and American Political Development, and beginning a project on integrating political analysis into policy analysis. He has also written journal articles and book chapters on international free market think tanks, normative issues in policy analysis, pensions and affirmative action policy in Britain, US-China policy and federalism. He has taught at Brandeis, Boston University, Holy Cross, and Hamilton colleges, and been a research fellow at Harvard, Princeton and the University of London.

8 thoughts on “Culturally Determined Insults”

  1. Apparently in Finland it is considered a serious insult to say, "Your mother copulates with reindeer."
    Wow – those Finns ARE touchy, aren't they……?

  2. The rumour that we heard from our Paris office is that he called Zidane's mother a Manchester United fan.

  3. The Geneva newspaper Le Temps reports (in French) on an interview in which Zidane claims that Materazzi said "very personal things about my mother, my sister. He sai[d] some words, very harsh words and repeated several times. When you hear them once, you try to walk away. That's what I did because I did in fact go away. You hear it twice, and then a third time…" The newspaper notes that nobody asked Zidane whether there was something racist in the insult, and he didn't volunteer anything. Zidane apologizes profusely for the head-butt but says he won't claim to regret it (which makes it seem like less of an apology, to my mind):"I can't regret my action because that would mean that he was right to say what he did. I can't, I can't, I can't say that."
    Apologies for any flaws in my translation.

  4. Another little-known fact: if you tell a Finn "your mother copulates with caribou," they won't realize it's an insult, because most Finns don't know caribou and reindeer are pretty much the same thing.

  5. I found that article pretty moronic. Its obvious that in every language some very serious insults have moved from being taken literally (and thus seen as really insulting) to being mere ejaculations, place holders, expressions of annoyance. Son of a bitch? Britons don't care about it not because they don't care about their mothers but because the phrase has become denatured by overuse. Hijo de puta? its clear that if beckham heard it over and over again from people he knew, enough so he could use it as a kind of involuntary expression of rage, that its everyday use isn't really as seriously insulting as the article pretends. Its use to an authority figure( a ref) is a different matter. But that is true for absolutely everything. What is appropriate among friends (the dozens? the phrase mother f&^cker) becomes an insult when used between combatants for prestige in a hierarchy. So what else is new? It has nothing to do with the text of the words, their "real" meaning (mothers, not mothers) and everything to do with the situation within which they are spoken.

  6. Did it really matter? France lost 5-3 in PK. Zidane, even if he was there, and would have made his goal, still would have been insufficient.
    While totally inappropriate and shocking that a player of his caliber would do it in that situation, I must admit that it was a marvelous, marvelous headbutt. Man, I wonder if Materrazi ended up with a myocardial contusion. Wow. Again, Zidane shouldn't have taken the bait, but punks that talk trash deserve any beatin' they get. Zidane should have kicked his teeth out when he was down and spit in his eye for effect.

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