What did Duterte call Obama?

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diplomatic rift between the United States and the Philippines was precipitated by comments that Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte made about President Obama at a Sept. 5 news conference.

Duterte's offensive comment was made in Tagalog (though most of his news conference was in English). In English-language press accounts, the Tagalog phrase putang ina has been translated as "son of a whore" or "son of a bitch." (NPR was less forthcoming today, variously referring to it as "an obscenity about Obama's mother" or "son of a fill-in-the-blank.") So what did Duterte really mean by putang inaChris Sundita, who has helped us with Tagalog translational issues in the past, comes to the rescue.

Chris writes:

The Filipino site Rappler transcribed and translated the relevant part as:

Putang-ina, mumurahin kita diyan sa forum na iyan. Huwag mo akong ganunin.

Translation: Son of a whore, I'll curse you at that forum. Don't do anything like that to me.

The translation centers around the expletive putang ina. It's a contraction of the phrase puta ang ina mo, which translates to "your mother is a whore." Puta (whore, prostitute), as you may guess, is from Spanish. The phrase is frequently written putanginamo but there are other variants such as: putangina ka, tangina ka, putangina, tangina, and tangna.

So, "son of a whore" is not actually a correct translation of this phrase. "Son (or daughter) of a whore" is anak ng puta.

Depending on the the context, a freer translation of putanginamo may be: "fuck you" (especially if the 2nd person pronoun is present), "fuck," "fucking," "shit," "damn," etc.  

Since there is no pronoun present in what Duterte said, it appears he is using it as an interjection or an intensifier rather than insulting Obama directly.

I would translate what Duterte said as:

"Fuck, I will cuss you out at that forum. Don’t do this to me!"

or maybe:

"I will fucking cuss you out at that forum. Don’t do this to me!"

I pointed out to Chris that "son of a bitch" has also been used as a translation, and that while this is even further away from the literal meaning, it at least captures some of the vulgar force of the original. Chris replied:

Now that I think of it, "son of a bitch" is a good example. It might be a good equivalent since people do not usually mean it literally. But it's not as strong as putangina.

So, for journalistic purposes, the milder interjection "Son of a bitch!" might be a decent translation, but that's not the same as Duterte actually calling Obama a "son of a bitch" (or a "son of a whore" for that matter).

Update: Some further thoughts via Facebook from JP Villanueva:

To me, that "putang ina" in particular is just a thinking filler. "Fuckin',… I would cuss you out!" That's his filler, it would need a pronoun if it were directed at someone. So in my mind it's vulgar but not directed at Obama. For the record I think Duterte is a murderous despot and I'm glad Obama "mutually rescheduled" on him, but the actual translation was a stretch for me.

And from Heather Michelle Villanueva:

The "na iyan" feels like it adds a tone of conditionality to me. If I were to translate it to Filipino English, I'd say the phrase "Mumurahin kita diyan sa forum na iyan" = "I would already be cursing you in that kind of forum!" In American English, it might feel like, "I would curse at you, even in that setting!"

As far as putang ina being a "thinking filler" for Duterte, rather than an epithet directed at someone, that helps explain why he's used the same phrase in many contexts, including when talking about the U.S. ambassador and Pope Francis, as noted by Stephen Colbert in this clip from "The Late Show" (starting at 2:57).

Update #2: It appears that Obama's people reached the same conclusion, perhaps with the aid of a native Tagalog speaker or two. From ABS-CBN:

Obama added, Duterte's cursing is not really directed at the person. He noted how Duterte once uttered expletives against the Pope.
"As I said, when I was asked about this in China, I don't take these comments personally because it seems as if a phrase he's used repeatedly, including directed to the Pope and others. And so I think it seems to be just a habit, a way of speaking for him," he said.


  1. Victor Mair said,

    September 6, 2016 @ 2:39 pm

    More on the back story and the language involved:

    "We Hired A Native Tagalog Speaker: Here’s What The Filipino Prez REALLY Said" (9/5/16)

  2. Victor Mair said,

    September 6, 2016 @ 7:57 pm

    When I was a boy back in Stark County, Ohio, about 65 years ago, the steelworkers and roughnecks used to talk about getting some "putang". I had no idea what language it came from or how they learned it, but I could tell from the way they said it that it meant the same thing as "pussy".

  3. Bob Couttie said,

    September 6, 2016 @ 8:00 pm

    Note that Duterte is not a native Tagalog speaker, his mother language is Visayan, Cebuano,

  4. GeorgeW said,

    September 6, 2016 @ 8:08 pm

    @Victor Mair: Same in small-town Florida in same era. Maybe from military people who were stationed in the Philippines?

  5. Steven Marzuola said,

    September 6, 2016 @ 8:23 pm

    Victor, could your acquaintances have been talking about "poontang"?

  6. Victor Mair said,

    September 6, 2016 @ 8:50 pm

    @Steven Marzuola

    I guess you're right — it sounded more like poontang than putang.

    What you say is confirmed by this note from another colleague that I just received:


    I can verify your claim that putang was used in northeastern Ohio when you were growing up. I grew up in nearby Summit County and heard a version of this from the WW II vets that I worked with at a wholesale grocery warehouse in Akron, only it sounded more like poontang to me. And yes, even as a 15 year-old I understood it to mean sex when they said, “I got a little poontang last night."


    So, if those northeast Ohio fellows were really saying "poontang", is that a variant of "putang"? Dialectal? In other words, are "poontang" and "putang" the same word, the only difference being the insertion of a medial nasal in the former?

  7. Victor Mair said,

    September 6, 2016 @ 8:55 pm

    President Duterte's expletive is all over the media and the internet. Here are a few of the stories that I came across early this morning:

    "Duterte tells Obama not to question him about killings" (AP 9/5/16)

    "The Philippine President's Vulgar Warning to Obama" (Atlantic 9/5/16)

    "Obama cancels meeting with ‘colorful’ Philippine president, who now expresses regret" (WP 9/6/16)

    This seems to be the week for colossal presidential blunders. Cf. "Annals of literary vs. vernacular, part 2" (9/4/16)

  8. Joseph C. Fineman said,

    September 6, 2016 @ 9:11 pm

    Spears's _Slang and Euphemism_ (1981) gives, as the first definition of "poontang", "copulation with a *black* woman" (my emphasis). That accords with my small acquaintance with the word in the 1950s. Spears also gives the more general meaning mentioned above, and the OED & AHD do not mention the racial sense.

  9. J.W. Brewer said,

    September 6, 2016 @ 9:14 pm

    Perhaps there is a more detailed scholarly literature on the etymology of "poontang," but Wiktionary says "From French putain "whore". Compare Jamaican Creole punaany. Also reported as from tagalog putang (as in putang ina mo), itself adopting it from the spanish puta." I assume that Fr. "putain" and Sp. "puta" (originally and as a loanword into Tagalog) are cognates, although I haven't investigated the matter so I suppose they could be false friends.

    I'm not sure where my old hard-copy AHD is currently (maybe in one of my kids' rooms?), so I can't check to see if Calvert Watkins had traced "poontang" all the way back to a PIE root.

  10. J.W. Brewer said,

    September 6, 2016 @ 9:21 pm

    See also Italian "puttana," from which we get "puttanesca" as a particular sauce/preparation for pasta.

  11. Coby Lubliner said,

    September 6, 2016 @ 11:39 pm

    There was a similar controversy around the soccer coach José Mourinho, who was supposed to have said filha da puta to the (female) team doctor when she rushed to the field to attend to an injured player against the coach's wishes, but it was determined by linguists (!) that he actually said filho da puta as an impersonal expression of anger. (Se here.)

  12. Levantine said,

    September 7, 2016 @ 2:15 am

    Nigella Lawson's colourful translation of "pasta puttanesca" is "slut spaghetti".

  13. Levantine said,

    September 7, 2016 @ 2:16 am

    Sorry, that should have been "slut's spaghetti".

  14. Boursin said,

    September 7, 2016 @ 5:37 am

    The Treniers' 1952 "Poon-Tang!" (written by the Broadway team Richard Adler and Jerry Ross) is coy enough to suggest that "poon is a hug, tang is a kiss":


    The illustration is, uh, remarkable.

  15. John OToole said,

    September 7, 2016 @ 8:59 am

    From Tony Thorne's Dictionary of Contemporary Slang (Pantheon Books, 1990); the citation is what has stuck with me (apparently an empty promise on the speaker's part):

    Poon, poontang: n American 1) the female pudenda. 2) women in general, seen as sexual objects. The word is from Louisiana French in which it is a corruption of putain (the standard French term for whore), first applied to black women. "I guess this means my poon days are over" (Remark widely attributed to John F. Kennedy following his inauguration as US president, 1960).

  16. Mark Dowson said,

    September 7, 2016 @ 9:04 am

    @ J.W Brewer. Rachel Roddy’s delightful cookbook, My Kitchen in Rome (Five Quarters in the UK) has an alternative possible explanation of the origin of Spaghetti Alla Puttanesca:
    Some friends of Sandro Petti, owner of a famous Ischian restaurant, arrived just as the restaurant was about to close, and cried “Abbiamo fame, facci una puttanata qualsiasi” – We’re hungry, make us any kind of garbage. Used like this, puttanata means “rubbish” even though it derives from puttana “whore”. From that day Petti included the dish on his menu as “spaghetti alla puttanesca“

  17. John OToole said,

    September 7, 2016 @ 9:23 am

    Etymologically, by the bye, "putain" goes back to the Latin putidus, rotten, fetid, stinking, spoilt (putere, to rot, spoil). The "ain" is from the old cas regime in Middle French (cf nonnain, cas regime of nonne). "Put" or "pute," strictly "puant," i.e. stinking, had a broader lexical field and was used to mean "dirty, bad, vile, nasty, odious." The term putois (polecat), for example, derives from the sense of a strong unpleasant smell. I also vaguely remember reading "put air" as opposed to "bon air" in a medieval French text ("air" meaning appearance in this instance). The term, however, was applied very early on to "femmes de mauvaise vie," to "loose," "lascivious," "debauched" women. See the Dictionnaire historique de la langue francaise, ed. Alain Rey (of Le Robert fame of course).

  18. J.W. Brewer said,

    September 7, 2016 @ 12:24 pm

    Boursin: that is a remarkable illustration, although I doubt it was part of any original promotion of the song's release in 1952 (especially since the internet says it was a b-side). Maybe it was done in the 1960's or thereafter by some hipster European/Japanese label doing a reissue for the collector's market? Maybe one clue to timing is the reference to "the exclusive recipe of Miss Pussy Galore." I'm not sure that "Pussy Galore" was actually an original coinage by Ian Fleming (in _Goldfinger_, first published 1959), but if there are earlier uses of that bigram, you can't find 'em on google books.

  19. Boursin said,

    September 7, 2016 @ 12:57 pm

    @ J. W. Brewer –

    It seems to be vintage according to this Google Books find: http://tinyurl.com/h63go72

    Could easily be post-Goldfinger though, as no date is given, and they had appearances at Vegas for years and years.

  20. January First-of-May said,

    September 7, 2016 @ 3:24 pm

    I've been reading quite a lot of assorted pornography since the late 2000s, and yet, somehow, up to this day I was pretty sure that "poon" referred to the male genitalia.

    …No, I have no idea why.

  21. Pflaumbaum said,

    September 7, 2016 @ 4:34 pm

    @ Levantine

    "Slaghetti"? Or would that be a little vulgar…

  22. Levantine said,

    September 7, 2016 @ 6:22 pm

    Pflaumbaum, I love it, and I'm sure Nigella would also. Alas, I don't think "slag" means much to Americans/Canadians.

  23. Pflaumbaum said,

    September 7, 2016 @ 6:35 pm

    Tartellini? But that's not faithful (as it were) to the dish.

  24. AntC said,

    September 7, 2016 @ 7:30 pm

    Duterte apologised almost as quickly as he insuted — that is if it was a directed insult as opposed to an in-general expletive. (I sympathise at his exasparation with journalists' disrespectful lines of questions.)

    I'm surprised he didn't claim it was sarcasm, or some such.

    Is it just me, or is there a parallel to another would-be president's unscripted style of speaking?

  25. GeorgeW said,

    September 7, 2016 @ 8:06 pm

    AntC: It was a Trumpian form of apology, "I regret . . ."

    I regret killing that no-good SOB now that I was given the death penalty. (An apology?)

  26. Becca said,

    September 8, 2016 @ 4:54 am

    I'm a Native Tagalog speaker and a language teacher, too.
    Hope my translations can help a bit.
    Yes, "putang ina" means son of a bitch, damn.
    While, 'Puta ang ina mo" means your mother is a prostitute.
    Among us Tagalog speakers, as we translate "putang ina" is very much
    different from "Puta ang ina mo".
    Grammatically, "Puta ang ina mo" is directed to the person you're talking or
    referring to, and "putang ina" simply means damn.

  27. Victor Mair said,

    September 8, 2016 @ 7:04 am

    Huanqiu / Global Times is a highly nationalistic daily Chinese newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party that is published under the aegis of the People's Daily. It is famous for being blatantly anti-American.


    Huanqiu Editorial: Why did the Philippine President dare to curse Obama with “the dirtiest words?

    According to a Huanqiu editorial published on September 7, 2016, Philippine President Duterte has recently called Obama a “son of a whore.” Although Duterte’s spokesman expressed regret afterwards, his words, like water poured on the ground, has been spread around the world. When Duterte was cursing Obama, he also said that the Philippines is no longer a colony. Except for the Filipino people, he has no other master. Huanqiu commented that “all the words are Duterte’s truthful words from his heart.” It will be very hard for the U.S. and the Philippines to get over this interaction.

    The Western world criticizes the Philippines' internal affairs or “human rights violations” and the killing of over one thousand drug dealers, but what Duterte has done is widely welcome in the Philippines. Of course Duterte cares more about the degree of support inside his country. The incident represents the repulsive emotions of “enough is enough” that the developing countries have when facing the impact of Western values.

    Source: Huanqiu, September 7, 2016
    (from Chinascope)

  28. Bob Couttie said,

    September 9, 2016 @ 7:38 pm

    Here's an analysis by the highly respected Raissa Robles, who is very clear that it was intended as a personal insult and says why https://www.raissarobles.com/2016/09/09/president-duterte-directed-his-son-of-a-whore-expletive-at-obama-not-at-anybody-else/

  29. David Marjanović said,

    September 11, 2016 @ 8:14 am

    Is it just me, or is there a parallel to another would-be president's unscripted style of speaking?

    He has been called "Trump of the East"…

    Here's an analysis by the highly respected Raissa Robles, who is very clear that it was intended as a personal insult and says why

    Don't you think she's simply committing the etymological fallacy? Consider the following Polish sentence:

    A co to kurwa jest?
    and/but/so what that whore is

    It means "so what the fuck is that". Sure, kurwa means "whore" in actual current usage, not just historically, and it is used often enough to insult people; but at the same time it's also used as a interjection that means no more than "I'm dissatisfied with the general situation" (and even as an expression of surprise, whether pleasant or not). Grammatically, the sentence is unambiguous. The K-Word is in the nominative, not the vocative, so it's less likely that it's addressed at the conversation partner. Although it is not isolated by intonation (which is why I've spelled it without commas), an understanding of "that whore" is impossible because to is neuter (arguably agreeing with co) rather than feminine, so the object of the question isn't being called a whore either. If you want to object to this sentence, you'll have to do it on the basis that it implies that prostitution is bad; and I think that's also the only coherent objection to Duterte's use of the interjection putangina here.

    The challenge in the article misses this point. If you say it to somebody, with no further context, they'll conclude by elimination that the etymological meaning was intended. That's not how Duterte used it.

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