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. 


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.