Once, while out with his nonna, my son, who was just learning to talk, proudly identified the backside of a strange woman standing beside them: ‘Culo!’ My extended Italian family members were highly amused by my mother-in-law’s subsequent retelling of the episode. I, on the other hand, was mortified yet sadly unsurprised, for neither my husband nor some of his relatives refrain from removing the colour from their speech in the presence of children.
I am not the only English-speaking expat who has noticed the discrepancy between comfort levels. ‘I have a huge problem with what appears to be a complete lack of concern about swearing in front of kids,’ says Jonnel Licari. ‘There is a cultural difference for sure,’ agrees Jennifer Hall. ‘Just this morning [I heard] a mother keep saying cacchio to her infant son!’ ‘My husband and my mother-in-law say cazzo all the time,’ complains Ellie Giorgio. ‘When my son was three he said it, and I just told him that we say cavolo and if he heard daddy and nonna say it he should tell them off.’
Indeed, the equivalent of ‘dick,’ most often used in contexts English speakers would say ‘shit,’ is arguably the most popular way for Italians to curse. ‘It’s the word that slips the most from my husband’s mouth,’ admits Molly McIlwrath, whose two-year-old surprised her by saying it. ‘And yes, I admit, mine too, when angry in Italian and among people I’m close to. It’s so engrained in the daily speech at times here, especially during election period!’ Kirsteen Travers agrees: ‘It is so commonplace it doesn’t pack a very sweary punch, and my mother-in-law doesn’t bat an eyelid when people say it in front of her. But you would never say ‘dick’ in front of any British mother-in-law—that would be shocking.’
One might be tempted to chalk up this clash to a simple puritanical-versus-passion-fuelled issue. However, when it comes to blasphemy, the tables are turned. ‘It seems that scatological profanity is less bad [to Italians],’ says Miriam Hurley. ‘I think culo sounds at most as bad as ‘damn’ to us and the other way around.’ I am inclined to agree. Expressions that would make a devout, old Italian lady faint just sound silly to me: ‘God is a wolf,’ ‘the Virgin Mary is a pig.’ OK, maybe that second one is bad, but nowhere near as strong to my ears as the c-word, for example.
Despite being grounds for immediate expulsion from the Italian Big Brother reality TV show, many Italians nevertheless blaspheme with regularity. And some English speakers raising kids here, while noticing the cultural difference, are relaxed about it. ‘The occasional f-bomb is nothing compared to stringing them together with the intention of causing hurt and destroying someone,’ says Alyson Long. ‘Have I ever done this in front of my daughter? Once or twice when provoked.
Trampling my kid to get on the free Ikea bus will do.’ Elizabeth Petrosian feels similarly: ‘Perhaps because we have removed the ‘mystique,’ my kids almost never swear and seem to have little interest [or] fascination with the whole subject. To me creative swearing has a place in culture, whether it be Elizabethan England, a Dublin pub in the 1970s or modern-day Tuscany. I’d even argue that certain people elevate swearing to damn near an art form.’