It’s the mother of insults, one might say. But what is it about the combination of these words that gives them such power? Is it the commanding assonance—mu-ther fu-cker—that lends such clout to the expletive, or is it indeed the accusation that the object of the insult is a fucker of mothers? And not just any mother: within most contexts, the term refers to one’s own female parent.
The paper trail of such insults reaches back to the eighth century, at least, when satirists Bashshar ibn Burd and Hammad Ajrad took the “yo mama” battle to their Persian verse. Burd, who was known throughout Iraq for his acid tongue, said of his rival, “Ajrad jumps on his mother: a sow giving suck to a sucker.” Ajrad shot back, “You are called Burd’s son, but you are another’s. But even if you were Burd’s son (may you fuck your mother!), who is Burd?”
In his 1951 writings about humor within the culture of Kenya’s Gusii people, anthropologist Philip Mayer noted that a common kiss-off was “Go eat your mother’s anus!”
The spectrum of incest-based insults is even wider than your mom. In China, “Cao ni zu zong shi ba dai,” or “Fuck your ancestors of 18 generations,” is considered to be the most egregious of insults. And popular in several South Asian languages is the expletive “sister-fucker.” “Bhenchod,” a Punjabi term used at least as early as the 19th century, has spread throughout the Indian subcontinent as an insult of choice.
So what is it about incest-based insults that just makes them so, well, insulting? For Nicholas H. Harkness, Assistant Professor of Anthropology, the terms that we use for our family members are laden with ideas about how we should behave toward kin.
“In contrast to kin terms that invoke a cultural model of legitimate and appropriate social behavior, lexicalized or fixed-phrase insults that make reference to incest point to the cultural proscription of social behavior,” he said.
But as most middle schoolers can attest, a greeting of “Hey, motherfucker!” is not necessarily an indictment. Harkness explained that the meaning of an insult can be inverted within an “in-group.”
“Just as taboo speech can be transformed into a sign of covert prestige among members of an ‘in-group,’ insults of all sorts can also be used as a sign of intimacy, especially through joking,” he said. “At the extreme, the meanest insult you can give in one context can actually produce intimacy in another.”