Oral Origins: The Etymology of Putang Ina and Yawa

Oral Origins: Putang Ina, Pisting Yawa. Written by Tricia Zafra for SubSelfie.com.

Editor’s Note:
Here is the sequel — 
Oral Origins 2: Gago and Leche

I faintly remember what led to our teacher’s ire that afternoon and why she was scolding the class. All I can clearly recall now were the dusty black shoes I was wearing. They were the first things I saw when I looked down in shame upon hearing my classmate swore in class in the presence of our teacher: “’Tang ina mo!” (Your mother is a whore.) I flinched. This was in high school. It was a stage in my life where I was still practicing these expletives in my mind and to utter them, even when no one was hearing, felt so wrong. It clearly wasn’t directed at our teacher who I remember yelling afterwards: “Nakita mo bang nag-puta ang nanay niya? Paninirang puri ‘yan!” (Have you seen her mother become a whore? That’s slander!) I don’t remember what happened after that.

I summoned this memory as SubSelfie.com attempts to trace the history of curses that are usually uttered by our new President. Among these are putang ina mo, putang ina, ‘tang ina and its other derivatives; the utterance of which probably leads to a tidal wave of dopamine in the brain thus leaving the best feeling in the mouth afterwards — especially after 1969 when the Supreme Court absolved putang ina mo of slanderous character.

Putang Ina Mo (Your Mother Is a Whore)

In the 1960’s, the municipal trial court of Cavite City convicted a person named Rosauro Reyes of grave threats and grave oral defamation for cursing Agustin Hallare. Reyes was upset for having been terminated from the Naval Exchange at Sangley Point as a civilian employee and conducted protest actions in front of the office and at the residence of Hallare who Reyes believed had influenced his dismissal.

In June 1961, at Hallare’s residence, Reyes shouted the words: “Agustin, putang ina mo. Agustin, mawawala ka. Agustin lumabas ka, papatayin kita.” Hallare sued Reyes. The case reached the Supreme Court after the Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court’s decision. In the high court’s ruling, however, while the conviction of Reyes for grave threats was upheld, he was acquitted of grave oral defamation:

 “The charge of oral defamation stemmed from the utterance of the words, ‘Agustin, putang ina mo.’ This is a common enough expression in the dialect that is often employed, not really to slander but rather to express anger or displeasure. It is seldom, if ever, taken in its literal sense by the hearer, that is, as a reflection on the virtues of a mother. In the instant case, it should be viewed as part of the threats voiced by appellant against Agustin Hallare, evidently to make the same more emphatic. In the case of Yebra, G.R. No. L-14348, Sept. 30, 1960, this Court said: The letter containing the allegedly libelous remarks is more threatening than libelous and the intent to threaten is the principal aim and object to the letter. The libelous remarks contained in the letter, if so they be considered, are merely preparatory remarks culminating in the final threat. In other words, the libelous remarks express the beat of passion which engulfs the writer of the letter, which heat of passion in the latter part of the letter culminates into a threat.This is the more important and serious offense committed by the accused. Under the circumstances the Court believes, after the study of the whole letter, that the offense committed therein is clearly and principally that of threats and that the statements therein derogatory to the person named do not constitute an independent crime of libel, for which the writer maybe prosecuted separately from the threats and which should be considered as part of the more important offense of threats.”

Among the countless things the Spaniards left behind after 300 years of colonizing the Philippines are its curse words that insult and demean mothers. A non-exhaustive list prepared by Michael A. Estrada entitled “Profanities, Insults, etc. Across Spanish-speaking Countries” published online back in August 2011 shows that most Spanish curses are “mother-directed” such as hijo de puta (son of a bitch), puta madre (bitch mother) and tu puta madre me la chupa (your bitch mother sucks me). There were nineteen of these insults compared to sixteen that belittle a person’s intelligence or character.

13 curse words were found to be “religion-based”, 11 fall under a “general” category [which includes puta (bitch) and zorra (slut)], 8 are “attacks on the person’s indolence/laziness”, 6 were seen as “sexually-based” insults and 5 were categorized as “homosexual insults”.

James Harbeck’s article “Mind your Language! Swearing Around the World” published in March 2015 for BBC provided an analysis on why “the most transgressive language in many cultures involves sexual acts on a person’s mother (sometimes specifying her genitalia).”

According to Harbeck: “Morality is a control system maintaining male dominance but also some level of security for a wife. Prostitutes defy a wife’s exclusivity and a man’s ownership, which is likely why words for ‘whore’ are also very common strong language in many parts of the world – and in some languages (such as Luganda) why words for genitalia are avoided: prostitutes use them. In fact, the cultures that swear the most about mothers tend to swear about prostitutes a lot too.” The Latin culture has also been specified by Harbeck as among those that has the mother involved most in its list of offensive language. He also noted that these cultures “tend to be extended-family rather than nuclear-family societies.” Hello, Philippines.

My professor in Latin back in college would always tell the class that language anchors itself on culture and its rules are formulated through social conventions. When the vast Roman Empire fell, Latin use in its classic form gradually faded away. What emerged was the Latin language that is more culture-specific for Spaniards, Portuguese, Italians and French. The same thing happened to Spanish curses when their colonization of the Philippines had ended. While the cultural undertones of these insults found its comfortable place in our society, our Tagalog ancestors found it rightful to mix in some of our own conventions. Thus, hijo de puta became putang ina and putang ina mo.

UP Diksyunaryong Filipino 2010 Edition defines “Putang ina!” as an exclamatory remark (padamdam), a shortened form of “puta ang ina”, and is: “isa sa pinakamasamang mura laban sa kaaway;” and “ekspresyong bunga ng pagkainis, pagkabigo at katulad.”

The entry “puta” in the same dictionary has more surprising definitions. One definition classified it as a noun that means, “ritwal na pag-aalay sa mga espiritu.” In colloquial terms, “puta” means “lalaki o babaeng binabayaran upang makipagtalik.” An ancient Tagalog (Sinaunang Tagalog) definition of “puta” uses the word as an adjective that means “natapos ang isang gawain, gaya ng pista o kasal.” Another entry of “puta” can be found but the stress is on the second syllable. This word is also an adjective but has totally different definitions, which are: “nakaligtas mula sa bagyo” and “mag-iba ng kilos mula sa matagal na ginagawa, gaya sa paglalaro o pag-uusap.”

Islas Filipinas. The influence of the Spaniards run deep in our culture, including our curse words.
Islas Filipinas. The influence of the Spaniards run deep in our culture, including our curse words.


Filipinos who have no Visayan roots probably wouldn’t notice whenever the President would utter yawa in his pronouncements. But it is a word also used as a curse. Its English translation is devil. 

Where did this word come from?

Of all places where Spain established its stronghold for colonizing the Philippines, it had to be Cebu in the Visayas. Of all places the first holy mass was to be held, it had to be, according to disputing local historians, in Limasawa or Masaoa that are, either way, still in the Visayas. Among the first Filipinos to be baptized, it had to be the Visayans. And among the many Visayan words that are to be relegated to eternal damnation, it had to be yawa – a word that is said to have originated from a Visayan goddess named Malitong Yawa, a character in one of the world’s longest epics, Hinilawod.

According to the epic as recounted by anthropologist Dr. F. Landa Jocano, Malitong Yawa or Nagmalitong Yawa Sinagmaling Diwata is the young and beautiful wife of the powerful lord of darkness, Saragnayon. This, however, did not prevent a demigod, named Labaw Donggon, who already had two wives by then, to pursue Saragnayon‘s wife.

A battle ensued between the two that resulted in Labaw Donggon‘s defeat and imprisonment. He was saved later on by his two firstborns. Upon his rescue, however, Labaw Donggon had lost his mind because Malitong Yawa had cursed him. According to the legend, it took long before Labaw Donggon‘s first two wives were able to break the curse.

The powerful enchantress also figured in the epic’s second part which talks about the adventures of Humadapnon — the chief of the Sulod people and Labaw Donggon‘s younger brother. According to the story, Humadapnon saw the lovely Malitong Yawa in his dream. When he woke up, he decided to go to Halawod river where Malitong Yawa lives to ask for her hand in marriage. Along the way, Humadapnon was lured and captured by an evil sorceress. With the help of Humadapnon‘s spirit-friends, Malitong Yawa learned of Humadapnon‘s capture. So she disguised herself as a man named Buyung Sunmasakay and rescued Humadapnon. Upon revealing herself, Humadapnon was said to have been struck by the diety’s beauty.

They went to Halawod river together, got married but had to part ways again when Humadapnon decided to accompany his brother Dumadalpdap to a journey to the Upper World to ask for a maiden’s hand in marriage. The journey took seven years that Humadapnon‘s mother, Matan-ayon thought her son was not coming back so she told Malitong Yawa to remarry instead. The latter heeded the suggestion. Just as when the marriage ceremony between Malitong Yawa and her new husband-to-be was about to start, Humadapnon and Dumalapdap arrived. Humadapnon killed everyone and stabbed Malitong Yawa to death. Realizing later that what happened was a mistake, Humadapnon summoned the help of his sister, Labin Anyag to bring Malitong Yawa back to life. But Malitong Yawa felt humiliated so she ran away from Humadapnon and sought refuge in the Underworld ruled by her uncle.

Humadapnon went after her but was challenged to a fight by Amarotha, another demigod who was also pursuing Malitong Yawa. They fought for seven years until Alunsina, the goddess of the eastern sky got tired of watching them and decided to cut Malitong Yawa into two. The duelling demigods went home each with a bride and Humadapnon ruled Panay with his wife for centuries.

In an analysis published in UP Forum in 2012 entitled “Beyond the Bark: Reexamining Our Roots,” Arbeen Acuña asserted: “Indigenous practices, knowledge and belief systems are preserved—or perhaps hidden—deep in their folk epics.”

Before the patriarchal Spaniards set foot in Cebu, women and men were of equal footing. If folk epics were indeed telling of our indigenous culture, Hinilawod‘s Malitong Yawa represents the prowess wielded by women in pre-colonial Visayas. While Labaw Donggon had the choice to acquire as many wives as he pleased, Malitong Yawa had the choice to flee from him; while Humadapnon had the prerogative to go on another quest just after getting married, Malitong Yawa had the option to move on and remarry; and while Humadapnon had the strength to end Malitong Yawa‘s life, it was a goddess who had the power to resurrect the latter. In the end, it was also a female character, the goddess Alunsina, who was able to resolve the conflict and restore peace in the Sulod nation.

This of course did not sit well with the Spaniards who also used literature to impose their religion and patriarchal culture. Thus, the oppression of women and the damnation of Malitong Yawa and her male persona, Buyung Sunmasakay.

Acuña cited the findings of Dr. Rosario Cruz-Lucero of the UP Departamento ng Filipino at Panitikan ng Pilipinas on the evolution of word meanings from folk epic Hinilawod in particular:

For instance, yawa from Malitung Yawa, Labaw Donggon’s third wife, was originally the baylan (priestess) with the most powerful pamlang (magic), while the Buyung is a leader of warriors who go downhill to attack pueblos. The friars then began using yawa and buyung as derogatory terms or cuss words.”

In UP Diksyunaryong Filipino 2010 edition, “yawa” is defined as an exclamatory expression meaning “demonyo” or “pahayag ng pagkainis, pagkainip, at ibang di-pangkaraniwang damdamin”. “Buyung” on the other hand is an anatomical term meaning “bayag” (scrotum).

From powerful mythical beings, their names became associated with the devil and the male sex organ.

The attachment of meanings by friars to once neutral names were easily embraced by the locals for according to an account of Ruth Elynia S. Mabanglo, in the book “The Age of Discovery: Impact on Philippine Culture and Society” published in 1993, the friars “were the only people in direct contact with the natives during the colonial period” and were instrumental in shaping the behavior of the Christianized Filipinos:

“Literature as a form of art was used by the Spanish colonial regime to further its interests in the Philippines. This was done principally by ‘Christianizing’ the oral literature of the natives. Various indigenous epics were replaced by the Pasyon, the life of Jesus Christ sang in the major languages during the Lenten season, and by awits and corridos which heavily reflected adaptations of European metric romances. Folk narratives echoed European virtues and traditions, while folksongs and proverbs became the vehicle for teaching Christian ideals and values. These folksongs, narratives and adaptations were even performed on stages in churches and outside through rituals and religious entertainments, such as the comedia, santacruzan, senakulo, flores de mayo, and pastores”

A classic example of such is the Niños Inosentes Day also dubbed as “yawa-yawa” or “devil-devil” festival held in Aklan every December. The festival re-enacts King Herod’s order to kill the infant Jesus Christ, which resulted in a mass murder of male children. An activity somewhat similar to trick or treat is also reportedly held where people dress up in devil costumes to ask for money or goods from households.

Anthropologist Susan Russell, in her lecture Christianity in the Philippines prepared for the Center for Southeast Asian Studies of Northern Illinois University, said that most of our ancestors were easy prey for colonizers due to decentralized power and lack of political organizations:

Most Philippine communities, with the exception of the Muslim sultanates in the Sulu archipelago and Mindanao, were fairly small without a great deal of centralized authority. Authority was wielded by a variety of individuals, including 1) headmen, or datu; 2) warriors of great military prowess; and 3) individuals who possessed spiritual power or magical healing abilities.”

The absence of centralized power meant that a small number of Spaniards were able to convert a large number of Filipinos living in politically autonomous units more easily than they could have, say, converted people living in large, organized, complex kingdoms

Post Script

I do not remember the first time I finally was able to use putang ina in a conversation but I will never forget the feeling I still get up to now: empowered and free. It must be the same feeling many people share when they hear cuss words nowadays in the mainstream media live, uncensored, unfiltered, raw. After discovering the history of these curse words and how deeply-rooted they are in the control and oppression of women, there’s more reason for these to be subjected to intellectual discourse as this could pave the way for reclaiming what once belonged to women and ultimately, to the Filipino people.

Then again, these are still curse words. Mindful speaking is still the key to civility and meaningful discourse.

About the Author:

Tricia Zafra

Tricia Zafra is a correspondent and anchor working for GMA News. She graduated from UP Diliman with a degree in Bachelor of Arts in Broadcast Communication, cum laude, and is currently taking up graduate studies in the Department of Psychology in the same university (on leave). She is a vegetarian, painter, and a certified open water scuba diver. Read more of her articles here.

5 Comments Add yours

  1. messylifecom says:

    Reblogged this on Site Title and commented:
    Behind this profanities


  2. messylifecom says:

    AMAZING. My friends says “yawa” to each other as a joke. We are aware of its meaning but we don’t have any idea that there’s a story behind the word “yawa”


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