There are certain curse words that have become part of daily conversations. But do we really know where these words come from? After discussing Putang Ina and Yawa in the first edition of our special report Oral Origins, our sequel presents two more familiar utterances.
We all have probably gone through the nasty habit of christening our childhood playmates and classmates with amusing nicknames based on their weird smell, grotesque features, perpetually runny noses, funny surnames and other defects.
Looking back, we realize that it was totally uncool, juvenile and definitely immature, but it may have had served an important purpose in the development of language in the middle ages. In fact, gago, a Filipino cuss word we often hear and indiscriminately use to insult those whose actions we disapprove of, could have been coined from such habit.
According to the UP Diksyunaryong Filipino 2010 edition, gago is the masculine version of gaga (with stress on the first syllable), a Kapampangan adjective for utal or stutterer. The dictionary also noted that it is also colloquially used to mean tunggak, a Kapampangan and Tagalog adjective, which means mahina ang ulo o nahihirapan o matagal umunawa (slow-learner).
The word also occurs in Portuguese dictionaries defined as stammerer. In the opinion of Portuguese lexicographer Candido de Figueiredo, gago is an onomatopoeic word imitative of sounds a stammerer makes.
Interestingly, Dr. Steen Fibiger of Rehabilitation Centre at Odense, Region of Southern Denmark said that throughout the world, “the word for stuttering is an onomatopoeia, an imitation of stuttered speech with an element of repetition.”
He cited “the Egyptian expression nit-nit, the Greek words battos, Battalos (nickname for a PWS), battarzein and battarikso, the Latin words balbuties and blaterator, the Italian balbuzie, the Esperantobalbuti, and the French bégayer” as examples. In fact, Fibiger also noted that the word “stuttering” itself “is an onomatopoeia.”
It is perhaps not far-fetched to suspect that gago could be related to the English word “gag,” which according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is defined as a noun for any means used to prevent someone from speaking, a verb for restraining someone from doing the same, or a word that refers to the act of choking. OED further indicates that gag could have had its roots from an Old Norse word gaghals, which means, “with the neck thrown back,” or a word “imitative of a person choking.”
In Filipino vocabulary, the UP Diksyunaryong Filipino 2010 offers the noun gaga with the emphasis on the second syllable, which means bagay na ipinapasok sa bibig upang pigilin ang pagsasalita (object placed in the mouth to prevent speech).
Considering the information we have, the inclusion of gago in the vocabulary may have started from making fun of stutterers, taking these poor people afflicted with the condition as morons.
The world, as we know, is ruthlessly biased toward the articulate, extrovert ones. But gago did not only make it to the dictionaries as an adjective. It also found its way to the earliest population census of the Middle Ages as a family name.
When Medieval Europe’s population grew from small farming villages to bigger towns, the need to differentiate “John the Articulate” from “John the Stammerer” arose. And gago was among the many derogatory nicknames to be assigned as a surname.
According to Brian M. Scott and Joshua Mittleman’s paper entitled A Brief Introduction to Medieval Bynames published in 1999, the assignment of surnames or bynames in Medieval Europe included “nicknames” that describe the “physical, mental, or moral characteristics of the bearer.” This is apart from three other categories of surname choices — patronymic, locative, and occupational or status-based.
According to Scott and Mittleman: “Nicknames are a grab-bag of all bynames that don’t fit into any of the first three classes, but some common types can be identified… Many were derogatory and others were ironic: although they appear to be complementary, they were not. For example, Henry Bigge 1177 might have been a small man. The most common nicknames were very simple and concrete: Hamo le Reed 1296 ‘the red’, Roger le Wis 1203 ‘the wise.’”
Other examples cited by Scott and Mittleman include:
Smalbyhind 1379 ‘small behind’;
Cunteles 1219 ‘cunt-less’;
le Gidye 1219 ‘the mad’ (now giddy, with much weakened sense);
Wytelas 1275 ‘witless’;
William Aydrunken 1279 ‘always drunk’;
Thanks to the Spaniards, gago made its way to the Philippines.
According to an account of historian Ambeth Ocampo written for The Philippine Daily Inquirer in 2013, Governor General Narciso Claveria in 1849 “decreed that all Filipinos should take a surname as a step to improve census data and tax collection.”
Ocampo says, along with the decree came the Catalogo Alfabetico de Apellidos or an alphabetical catalog of surnames “from which surnames were distributed geographically.” The browsing of which, according to Ocampo has “provided” him “hours and hours of fun:”
“Now imagine if your ancestors were unlucky and had to choose from leftovers in letter B. They could be stuck with: Babuy/Baboy (pig), Baca (cow), Balbon (hairy), Balbas (beard), and, worst of all, Bangcay (corpse). But not all the names in the Catalogo were taken, and I have yet to see someone with the following surnames: Vulgar, Vulgarizado, Cupal (foreskin), Otong (nipple), Tanga, Gago, Otot/Utut, Ututan (fart), Tae, Ungas, Onggoy (monkey), Dilis, Dilangbaca (cow tongue), Dilangusa (deer tongue), Dilangbutiqui (lizard tongue). Worse, can you imagine being made to pick Muta (mote) or Colangot (snot)?“
While Ocampo is yet to encounter a certain Mr. or Ms. Gago in the flesh, the web is teeming with accounts and digital records of persons purported to have gago as family name.
A website dedicated to genealogy, www.myheritage.com, claims to have documented 6% of persons with family name Gago from the Philippines. Most people who bore the surname are based in Spain (35%). Other countries with recorded existence of Gago families are Argentina (15%), USA (9%), Portugal (7%), Poland (4%), Peru (3%), Brazil (2%), Mexico (2%) and Venezuela (2%).
Like most kids in Central Luzon, I grew up on leche flan and pastillas de leche delightfully made to perfection by adult Kapampangans at home who also happen to find catharsis in swearing letse! when things get unsuitable to their taste. As an introspective child, it was baffling. It also didn’t help learning in my adolescent years that letse is a Spanish word (leche) that translates to “milk.”
Surprisingly, now that I am doing this entry for SubSelfie.com, I found out that milk has indeed something to do with the insulting nature of letse. The UP Diksyunaryong Filipino (2010) has three entries for the word. One is a Spanish noun for gatas or milk, another is a Spanish adjective for someone who still needs to be breastfed such as babies, and the third is a Spanish exclamatory remark, which means alipusta para sa tanga; ibig sabihin pasusuhin pa (derogatory term for someone who is so stupid that he still needs to be breastfed).
By the way, there is also letsera, a noun of Spanish origin, which means babaeng naglalako ng gatas (a woman who sells milk). It is quite a wonder why this did not make it to the list of our cuss words.
Apart from milk flowing from plump bosoms, Spanish word leche could also mean “milk” squirting from erect penises, at least according to The Alternative Spanish Dictionary 2004 edition compiled and edited by Hans-Christian Holm:
leche (noun, fem.) milk (literally), semen (fig.) Note: As an expletive it translates roughly as shit, fuck.
However, the anonymous blogger behind Ask A Filipino (askthepinoy.blogspot.com), urges everyone not to buy the purported figurative meaning of letse as semen:
“…leche is derived from ‘Me cago en la leche,’ which literally translates to ‘I defecate in the milk.’
“Now, this phrase is meant to be not just irreverent and profane but outrightly blasphemous of the Catholic rite of Communion. Why? Because leche is used interchangeably with the word hostia (host) — as in ‘Me cago en la hostia,’ among many other colorful usages, especially in Spain and Puerto Rico.
“For Catholics, the ‘host,’ of course, is the religious symbolism for the ‘Body of Christ,’ or the transubstantiated Host of the Eucharist. So how more offensive can you get to Catholics than by uttering that deplorably hideous phrase?“
I will leave it at that so you may still indulge in the delectable heavenly goodness of leche flan. And please remain focused when you line up for Communion this coming Sunday (lol).
Allow me though to share this thought-provoking quote from James Harbeck dated March 2015: “Strong language often involves naming things you desire but aren’t supposed to desire; at the very least, it aims to upset power structures that may seem a bit too arbitrary.”
[Entry 163, The SubSelfie Blog]
About the Author:
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. She is a vegetarian, painter, and a certified open water scuba diver. Read more of her articles here.