Tag Archives: insults

The Owl… as a Fool?

The Interviewer will be referred to as ‘I’, and the informant as ‘P’. Translations for Hindi words will be italicised and in parentheses. The Informant is a 48-year-old Punjabi woman, born and raised in North India.

P: Saying “ullu ka/da pattha” (child of an owl) is just an insult, it’s an abuse (in this case, the word ‘abuse’ is referring to a curse word or insult). It literally means ‘child of an owl’, but is used more like ‘child of a fool’, because ‘ullu’ (owl) has come to mean fool more in the way we talk.

I: The owl is usually a symbol of wisdom in Western cultures — why do you think it’s so different here, why would it mean fool?

P: Um… I would presume because owls are nocturnal, and generally, people don’t relate with that? It’s unusual, weird… and usually when people do unusual or weird, or, or foolish things, the response of calling them ‘ullu ka pattha’ is normal, but now it’s just become more like an abuse, like… ullu pretty much means fool more than it does mean owl. So, a person who behaves in unusual or silly ways — saying you are the son of a fool. Which is also weird because why would that make sense? You’re abusing (insulting, cursing out) the parent, you’re just saying that he is the son of a fool, not that he is one. 

Analysis:

Insults can tell a person a lot about a culture and its values, and here, one thing that stands out to me, other than the owl discrepancy, is exactly what also stood out to my informant: the act of insulting a parent rather than the person themselves. This is especially apparent in many Indian insults, where there is an equivalent to essentially any imaginable animal as or sexual act being performed upon a parent, or a relative (usually a sister or a mother, which points to sexual taboos and gender-centric disparities). I think this points to the family-centric nature of Indian culture and its values, where an insult about a family member is an even more grievous insult than an insult to the self. The owl part is largely explained by the informant, and I concur with their explanation, the idea of acting unusual or weird as being foolish, worthy of being insulted (or having your family insulted, in this case), even though the owl is a creature of wisdom in many Western cultures, for example, within Greek mythology, the owl is representative of the goddess Athena, primarily known to be the goddess of wisdom and strategy, among other things.

Playground Taunts

Background: The performer is my college roommate and friend. She spent the first fifteen years of her life in Minneapolis, Minnesota before moving to Thousand Oaks, California for high school. She is currently in her twenties and attends school at the University of Southern California.

Main Text:

“Brick Wall

Waterfall

Boy you think you got it all

You don’t

I do

So poof with the attitude

Loser, whatever

Flyaway forever

Where’d you go?

Loserville

Population? You!”

Context: The performer explained that traditionally this taunt was chanted in elementary school, usually from the age ranges of eight to eleven. She explained that most of the time, they chanted it on the back of the bus on the way home from school, usually with friends. She mentioned a social heirachy on the bus, which stemmed from the fact that children were all different ages but lived in the same area, so the third graders, who didn’t like the fourth graders and so on, would chant it back and forth in a playfully “mean” manner. Sometimes it was targeted at a specific person and other people would join in.

Thoughts: Growing up in a different state from the performer, I had not heard this chant before, nor did I ever take a bus to elementary school. Still, I think the chant is amusing, especially looking at how it eases tensions for young children in a way that isn’t violent or truly hurtful. Instead they trade somewhat playful stock insults, which other children are encouraged to join in on. I wonder if there was a standard rebuttal phrase the performer and her friends would use if others sang this at them. The comment about the age-related hierarchy is also interesting, presumably because this sort of chant would only be learned by listening to old kids singing it. In addition to the lyrics, the performer had simple hand motions to accompany the lyrics (“where’d you go”/shrug, “population, you”/pointing at other person).