Language, linguists will tell you, doesn’t exist in a hermetically sealed vacuum: it has speakers, and those speakers exist within a particular time, place, and context. That means that the language is also affected by time, place, and context. Nowhere is this more apparent than in a quick-and-dirty overview of common Finnish swear words.
Finland is, for those who don’t know, the Nordic country bordered by Sweden on the west and Russia on the east. It is, as a country, a bit of a cipher: in spite of spending most of its medieval and modern history as either a duchy of Sweden or Russia, it’s neither Scandinavian nor Slavic, but its own little island of Finno-Ugricness. Finns on the whole are reserved folks, yet their best-known export is Lordi and they proudly support what might be the only Men’s Shouting Chorus in the world. They’re also people of very, very few words, no doubt because they must regularly rassle with the likes of peruspalveluliikelaitoskuntayhtymä (which refers to a regional community health provider). In short, they are a people of contradictions, and their swearing is no different.
There are three primary words that make up most Finnish swearing (both historical and current). The first two are saatana and perkele. When uttered by themselves, they are interjections that roughly mean “goddammit,” though perkele is reckoned to be a little more severe, somewhere between “goddammit” and “fuck” (the official dictionary for the Finnish Language Office defines this sense of perkele as “a rough curse word”). Perkele is the sort of word that gets euphemized–one my Finnish grandmother would edit into per-sana, or “the per– word,” and that other Finnish friends merely refer to as “that word.” Saatana is less bad, though still not for formal settings or polite company. They’re slightly more popular with older Finns.
There’s some semantic connection between the English “goddammit” and the Finnish saatana and perkele, though the Finns cut right to the chase: saatana means “Satan” and perkele means “devil.”
(And now for a little pronunciation primer: Finnish is an initial-stress language, so all the words discussed here get stressed on the first syllable. Double vowels don’t signal a change in the vowel quality, but the actual spoken length of the vowel: it’s about double that of a single vowel. Double consonants are also held for twice as long as single consonants, which means that there is a glottal stop between consonants in many words. “R”s are rolled for maximum fun. You can find a decent (if somewhat slow) pronunciation of saatana by clicking the audio icon under the Finnish word. Same goes for perkele. You can also draw out that “r” in perkele for emphasis, as the audio example here does. And now: jatka!/carry on!)
It may strike you as odd that a people known for their comfort with public nudity as well as their love for a cussing hedgehog should use the proper name of the Prince of Darkness and his generic epithet as “rough curse words,” but they do. Remember that while Finland has a national epic that is a pagan tale (Kalevala, if you’re interested), the country has been both (nominally) Lutheran and Orthodox in turns since about the 11th century. Some have claimed that perkele actually stems from Ukko, the name for the Finnish god of thunder, weather, harvest, and the sky, but none of the Finnish dictionaries I have at my disposal give much credence to that derivation.
Both saatana and perkele show up modified by voi (Voi saatana! Voi perkele!) or “oh,” though the register-appropriate translation of these wouldn’t be “Oh goddammit” or “Oh fuck,” but rather “Goddammit” or “FFFUUUUUck.” You can, in Finnish, literally give many devils/fucks (Perkeleen paljon); someone can be as annoying/irritating/stupid as the devil (Suututtaa/ärsyttävä/tyhmä niin perkeleesti); and if perkele isn’t enough, you can always go with the intensive form, perkeleenmoinen (perkeleenmoinen valhe, “suuuuuuuuuch a fucking lie”).
There are a handful of other damnation-related swear words in Finnish that are less strong than perkele and saatana (notably hitto, which means “damn,” and helvetti, which means “hell”), but much more common, by far, is a curse word from the opposite end of the sociological spectrum: vittu. Vittu means “cunt.”
Vittu is a favorite of Finnish swearers, and it generally translates as “fuck.” It appears in Voi vittu (“Oh fuck”), no voi vittu (“for fuck’s sake”), mita vittua (“what the fuck?”), and painu vittuun (“GTFO,” with implied movement away from the speaker). The adjective vitun, best translated as “cunting,” gets applied to a whole host of nouns, including urpo (“idiot”) and kusimulkku (literally, “pissdick”). You can even append vittu to both perkele and saatana for a little extra crispy-spicy swearing (Vittu perkele! Vittu saatana!), and every once in a while, you might see the triumvirate vittu saatana perkele (or some combination thereof), though sometimes it’s only used as a joke.
But a vittu’s still a vittu, and there are common swears where it refers to a cunt. The most well-known swear also highlights one of the favored Finnish action verbs of swearing: haista, or “to sniff.” Haista vittu, a common way to tell someone to fuck right off, means “go sniff cunt.” A bowdlerized version, one every American Finn knows, is haista napa: “go sniff bellybutton.” (You can also haista paska, or “sniff shit,” which is a less inflammatory way to go fuck off.)
But as creative as all the vittu combos are, Finnish swearing reaches its apotheosis in what is perhaps the most Nordic swear ever created: suksi vittuun. It means “go ski into a cunt.” Kippis—holler it in good health.