Really excellent footballer Zlatan Ibrahimović (see above) does not like to make referees’ lives easy (see below), and the PSG forward was recently accused of using abusive language towards French officials, but doing so in English or Italian to avoid detection.

Avoiding detection

However, if Ibrahimović really is looking to vent his spleen while not being understood in France, English and Italian are not the wisest choices.

Given the prevalence of English-language culture, there are many English words which are understood by even monolingual French people (and among such words we can surely rank our most popular swears). Similarly, it is not a huge leap across Romance languages from French to Italian; it’s hard to imagine that a referee wouldn’t see a link between, for example, puttana (it.) and putain (fr.).

The question might be, then, why Ibrahimović wouldn’t swear in his native Swedish (or perhaps Bosnian, picked up from his father*), which is far more likely to go unnoticed by French referees?

The psychology of second-language swearing

Recent research put forward the idea that one’s mother tongue is spoken with ’emotionality’. By contrast, however fluent you may become in other languages, they will always retain a sense of ‘artificiality’. While a native language continues to feel intimate, other languages will retain a certain sense of emotional detachment, or ‘disembodiment’, even if this goes superficially unnoticed by the user.

When it comes to swearing, this idea of emotionality and artificiality leads to two opposing theories: on the one hand, multilingual people could automatically reach for their native, natural tongue when needing to use such emotionally-charged language; alternatively, a second language may be favoured for taboo topics (such as abusive language) as the emotional detachment makes the words less dangerous, or at least easier to use without thought to their deeper meaning and implication.

A more likely explanation

Given Ibrahimović’s character, it seems unlikely that he feels emotionally uncomfortable swearing in his native Swedish. If it is true that he abuses referees in Italian or English, it seems more likely that he wants to be at least partly understood, knows this wouldn’t happen in Swedish, and is unable to do so in his halting French. Therefore he reaches for the next best thing.


And finally…in praise of industrial language in football

Whatever the truth of the matter, we at TLOF have to admit to taking a sneaky delight in much of the game’s more imaginative cussing. After all, who can honestly say they didn’t admire Roy Keane’s disregard for not only linguistic but anatomical correctness when he told Mick McCarthy to “stick your World Cup up your bollocks”?


* There may well be an argument that Ibrahimović doesn’t get the credit he deserves for speaking five or six language to a good degree of fluency.