Pinoy Kasi

Profane mysteries

/ 05:09 AM January 17, 2018

Have you ever thought about how Filipinos, or at least Tagalogs, of previous generations, might have cursed (nagmumura) or used profanities?

I’ll be a spoiler and tell you right away: They don’t seem to have used the most common profanities we have today, which are largely imported from the Spaniards, Americans and, surprisingly, the Chinese.


I got curious over the holidays when I got a gift — one of the best — from national artist Virgilio Almario. It was a copy of Fr. Juan de Noceda and Fr. Pedro de Sanlucar’s “Vocabulario de la Lengua Tagala.”

Of course, what I got was not the original edition which dates back to 1754, or its 1832 and 1860 reprints. Almario, together with Elvin Ebreo and Anna Maria M. Yglopaz, all from UP Diliman’s College of Arts and Letters, decided to translate, into Filipino, an 1860 edition.


In 2013, the Komisyon ng Wikang Filipino published Almario, Ebreo and Yglopaz’s translation and last year, it was reprinted, so this early work of Spanish friars has found new life in the 21st century.

Compiling dictionaries is difficult but the Spanish missionaries were a dedicated lot, the dictionaries important to preach.

Right after I got the “Vocabulario,” I did a random browse to see how the meanings of words might have changed.

Appropriately, with Mayon threatening to erupt as I write, I found buga, which retains the old meaning of “hipan gamitin ang bibig” (to breathe with the mouth), but also meant “bato ng bulkan” (volcanic stones). I thought of how profanities, when uttered, do take on either of the 17th century meanings of buga. Next time you listen to the President, think of a volcanic eruption.

With a bit more reading of the dictionary, I wondered if profanities might be listed.

No ‘T’, many ‘P’

Mind you, our two friars did not seem to censor themselves with sexually-related words. There was an entry for “t-t-” which had several meanings but not the penis. Anyway, since the “t” word is not used to curse, I will move on to the “p” words that our President likes to use.


Yes, “p-ki” was an entry, with the same meaning as we have today but there were two more entries: “p-kik-” and “puk-ngking” with the same meaning, the longest version being used to refer to the anatomical part for sanggol (infants).

Were the words for the female anatomical part used as curses, as they are today? We don’t know because the dictionary entry did not mention it being used as an expletive.

I looked up the other “p” word “p-ta,” using both “u” and “o” and found an entry using “u,” accent on the first syllable. But its meaning was to finish a task and the sample usage given by the friars was: “Nakaputa na tayo, we finished the work!”

So there’s that “p-ta” and there’s the other “p-ta,” which is Spanish and obviously did not need to be translated by the friars.

I did wonder if we might have had local words for that profession in the 16th and 17th centuries. I didn’t have the time to check the entire dictionary but might mobilize students from two research methods classes I’m teaching this semester. Maybe it’s time for a digital version of these old dictionaries.

I thought then of other expletives we use today that are not necessarily sexual. Even without looking them up, I suspected I would not find entries for tarantado, and indeed there was none. Jose Villa Panganiban’s “Diksyunaryo Tesauro Pilipino-Ingles,” published in 1973, explains that the word comes from the Spanish atarantado, which means “a person with misdirected acts, rascallion” with barumbado as a synonym, which isn’t quite an expletive. (See how languages change? That English rascallion is almost never used these days.)

The fact that the friars did not list tarantado and other Spanish sexual expletives (including that other notorious “p” word that President Manuel L. Quezon was said to spew out left and right) may have been because they knew it did not have to be translated.

So why did we end up using tarantado and all those Spanish words? My guess is that we suffered for centuries with Spaniards using the words as insults, then, imitating our oppressors, began to use them as well.

It occurred to me that we Filipinos do tend to use, as expletives, words that put down other people’s intelligence: gonggong and gago. The two words were not in the “Vocabulario.” Being a native Minnan Chinese speaker, I’ve long suspected gonggong as being of Chinese origin, my father and his businessman friends frequently using gong to scold me not for poor academic performance but for choosing to teach!

I do wonder about the contexts through which non-Chinese Filipinos took up the word … and decided to say it twice, which could have meant the target person was doubly stupid or, as we do when we repeat a word, to make it less harsh, or even affectionate, as we do with people’s names e.g., Bongbong, Tingting, etc.

Gago was more elusive. It was not listed in the “Vocabulario” but gaga was, with no definitions suggesting stupidity. So I turned to Jose Villa Panganiban, who has an entry for gaga, which turns out to be borrowed from Spanish, referring to “one who stammers, stutter or pronounces badly” with derived meanings of “one who can’t understand things or usually misinterprets meanings of things.” Gago is not a separate entry but part of gaga, cited as the masculine form.

So, there, that cerebral quickie exercise — I admit I only had about an hour to look through the “Vocabulario” — shows you what you can, and can’t do with dictionaries, old or new, as a research tool. It seems our contemporary profanities came late, through Spanish and American colonialism; I need not name the many English expletives that litter our conversations, as well as through encounters with the Chinese, who came to the Philippines as merchants and, for those who stayed, as vendors, and other professions that brought them into close contact with the local population. We borrowed words around food … and gonggong; I’m trying to imagine the contexts where the words were exchanged and borrowed.

We see, too, how analyzing the dictionaries isn’t just a matter of what’s listed but also what’s not listed, as well as the lack of identification of vulgar words, which you do find in modern dictionaries.

Although our friar-lexicographers were hardworking and had many examples of usage in a sentence or even in riddles, we would still need other bodies of written work, like novels, to look at the context of the use of words. We could look at Francisco Balagtas’ “Florante at Laura” (published in 1838), or Rizal’s two novels from the late 19th century, but we don’t know if they were censoring themselves with profanities.

Fortunately, for researchers in the years ahead, they will have ample material to analyze, not just dictionaries but all our online and digitized newspapers, novels and short stories, teleseries and movies … and presidential speeches. No more mysteries of the profane for them.

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TAGS: curse words, cursing, dictionaries, Michael l. tan, Pinoy Kasi, profanities, Virgilio Almario, Vocalbulario de la Lengua Tagala
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