No word for rape

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Several people have sent me this entry for the "No word for X" files — "When is it rape?", The Economist 11/15/2013:

In Urdu there is no word for rape. The closest direct translation is "looting my honour".

One of the correspondents adds:

Don't have any Urdu resources around, but one online dictionary turns up

زنا بالجب

Plug this into Google Translate and the relevant bits come back as as "repression" and "adultery", so I wonder if the standard Urdu for "rape" translates as something like "repressed into adultery". But your readers would surely know more.

I know less, so I'll turn this over to knowledgable readers for discussion. Is this one of the rare cases where "No word for X" makes a valid point about cultural differences?

I'll just note that running Google translate in the opposite direction gives some different alternatives:

In the recent Delhi gang-rape case, the convicted men were apparently speakers of Hindi, which is essentially the same language as Urdu. In last month's Mumbai gang-rape case, the men arrested for the crime may be speakers of Urdu. In neither case did I see any discussion of missing lexical items — is this something that the media overlooked?

Update — an anonymous Urdu specialist, quoted in a comment below by Victor Mair:

This thing about Urdu having no word for rape is utter nonsense and the one little entry shown from Arabic script is incomplete.

The commonest term used is to do "behurmati" to someone. That literally means to dishonor someone, but it's a little asinine when people get hung up on the etymology of terms. Then they need to look carefully about what the word "rape" implies about anglophone people's attitudes too.

There are many other words, most of which are euphemistic and all of which refer to a crime against an individual (not against family honor or some other stereotypical b.s.). The legal term is "zina bi'l-jabr" (aggravated fornication), and everyone who speaks Urdu knows what it means.

 



60 Comments

  1. Antariksh Bothale said,

    November 20, 2013 @ 1:28 am

    At least in Hindi, the most common word for rape is balaatkaar (​बलात्कार) [bə.lɑt̪.kɑr]

    The version of Urdu with loads of Arabic / Persian origin vocabulary would be quite difficult to understand for a native Hindi speaker, by the way.

  2. Ambarish Sridharanarayanan said,

    November 20, 2013 @ 1:45 am

    As Antariksh points out, balātkāra is from Sanskrit bala (n. strength or force), and kr̥ (v.t. to do) with a meaning of "a deed based on brute force". You can see how the word came to mean 'rape', a meaning it's used exclusively in today.

    But isn't that true in English too? I understand 'rapere' in Latin meant "to grab, to seize", and has come to mean "sexual intercourse by force" only in the 20th century.

  3. Terrence Lockyer said,

    November 20, 2013 @ 3:08 am

    Ambarish Sridharanarayanan wrote: "I understand 'rapere' in Latin meant "to grab, to seize", and has come to mean "sexual intercourse by force" only in the 20th century."

    That's not correct. Although "stuprare" is the more common Latin term for "sexually violate" (and denotes a range of illicit sexual activity), "rapere" is used in that sense too even in classical Latin; and both the noun and verb "rape" apparently occur in the sexual sense in English as early as the 15th century.

  4. Bob Ladd said,

    November 20, 2013 @ 3:11 am

    German has two words for 'rape', the ordinary one being Vergewaltigung and the legalistic one being Notzucht. Like the Hindi word cited above, both are transparently related to words meaning 'force' and 'necessity', and anyone who wanted to make a cheap journalistic point could say of Vergewaltigung that "there is no word for rape" in German and that "the closest direct translation is 'overpowering'". (The etymological and metaphorical associations with Notzucht are more complicated and would take a whole blog post to explore.) It might of course be interesting and revealing to explore the etymologies of words for 'rape' in different languages – violation, force, abduction, loss of honour, etc. – but to say that German has no word for 'rape' is clearly nonsense, and I strongly suspect the Economist's claim about Urdu is nonsense of the same sort. Language Log should continue to publicise its doubts about any "no word for X" claims it finds.

  5. Thomas Widmann said,

    November 20, 2013 @ 4:09 am

    I don't know Urdu, but surely there's a word that's used for expressing the concept of rape in that language. The real question is whether this word is also used for other concepts in the same context and in the same register.

    For instance, if Urdu used the same word for "rape" and for "commit adultery", with no obvious way to distinguish the two meanings, then The Economist's point might be valid.

  6. Jonathan said,

    November 20, 2013 @ 4:43 am

    When people say that language A has no word for x, what they often mean is that in language A there is no word that exactly matches the semantic range of the word x in their own language. It is hardly surprising that many such words exist. The semantic field of rape, sexual assault, sexual harassment is unusually rich, with plenty of overlapping, and it is in constant flux as social attitudes and legislation change. In Arabic there is a range of words that are relevant and no one word exactly matches the very specific legal concept of the English word 'rape', which usually requires penetration. Several of them are paraphrases along the lines of 'violating someone's honour'. The usual word, ighitisaab, often has a rather wider application. At the other end of the continuum, the recently coined word for sexual harassment, taHarrush jinsi, often includes acts that English speakers would call sexual assault. To sum up, to say that Urdu doesn't have a word for 'rape' doesn't tell us much about anything.

  7. Alon Lischinsky said,

    November 20, 2013 @ 5:02 am

    @Terrence Lockyer:

    "rapere" is used in that sense ['sexually violate'] too even in classical Latin

    that's true, although it's not found in the Golden Age authors. One of the earliest clear examples is Seneca Controversiae 7.8.pr.1.

    That said, the semantic extension ('take by force'→'sexually abuse') doesn't seem to have caught on the Romance languages. French has ravir, but (like the Spanish cultism raptar or Italian rapire) it seems to mean specifically 'abduct', which is far closer to the original meaning. My feeling is that only English preserves the sense you mean.

    The usual Spanish term is violar (lit. 'violate'). I suppose that the no-word-for-X crew would interpret that as meaning that Spanish-speaking cultures do not think of rape as a crime against the person, but against the legal system, or some similar nonsense.

  8. Jayarava said,

    November 20, 2013 @ 6:07 am

    As I'm sure we all know the lack of a single word in a language does not mean that the concept does not exist in that language – we don't have a word for "tying shoe laces" or "going to the pub to drink beer" and we manage OK.

    In Urdu and Hindi they certainly do have words for "no", "don't", "please stop", "please, God, no" and "you're hurting me".

  9. richardelguru said,

    November 20, 2013 @ 6:43 am

    Jayarava I agree with you, though I've heard (and said myself) "How about a pint?", where 'pint' has exactly the meaning "going to the pub to drink beer"!

  10. Ray Girvan said,

    November 20, 2013 @ 6:59 am

    @Jayarava: we don't have a word for … "going to the pub to drink beer"

    Around here at least, "pubbing" and "beering" cover that.

  11. andrew said,

    November 20, 2013 @ 7:46 am

    Platts gives zinā biʼl-jabr (probably what the first correspondent intended). Literally it means "fornication (zinā) by force (biʼl-jabr)." (Similar to Hindi balātkār, which was the word used in the Hindi news media for the Delhi rape.)

    I recall Steven Pinker has an interesting discussion about the historical semantics of "rape" in Better Angels of Our Nature—the upshot is that the primary meaning, until the 20th century, was its etymological meaning (taking, seizure, kidnapping).

  12. xyzzyva said,

    November 20, 2013 @ 8:23 am

    ABC's Lingual Franca podcast once covered the intricacies of testimony at the court investigating the Rwandan genocide. They claimed that the Rwandan language does not have a word for rape, and the terms used for the act include the same one used for "to marry".

    When the witnesses needed to be specific about what they'd seen/experienced, they'd use the French term viole. They implied that the concept itself was somewhat foreign to the Rwandans, though they clearly felt about the same horror as anyone else.

  13. Bill W said,

    November 20, 2013 @ 8:31 am

    The ambiguity of the word English word "rape", at least pre-20th century, is reflected in t the title of Pope's poem "The Rape of the Lock," a play on the two senses of "rape", i.e, "seizure" and "sexual violation." In the poem, it's only a lock of hair that is cut and "raped," but the title conjures up "The Rape of Lucrece", which involved sexual violation, and other classical allusions such as the rape of the Sabines, the rapes of Europa and Ganymede, etc. (Well, in Ganymede's case, we know he was seized to be the cup-bearer of the gods, but we can only suspect what other functions he served.)

  14. John said,

    November 20, 2013 @ 8:37 am

    @Thomas Widmann "I don't know Urdu, but surely there's a word that's used for expressing the concept of rape in that language. The real question is whether this word is also used for other concepts in the same context and in the same register.

    For instance, if Urdu used the same word for "rape" and for "commit adultery", with no obvious way to distinguish the two meanings, then The Economist's point might be valid."

    I think this is an excellent point. One could argue that a "direct translation" of the English word equates to "abduct", but given that nobody uses it that way nowadays, that's irrelevant. What matters is the semantics, how the word is actually used in everyday speech.

  15. Jayarava said,

    November 20, 2013 @ 8:44 am

    @Ricghardguru – still a phrase not a word. No cigar.

    @Ray Girvan – can't imagine you've got beyond the denominative present participle to a full set of conjugations. "He pubs, but only on the weekend"? "We beered before the film"? "Having pubbed, we dined on kebabs"? Nor have I ever heard such a usage around here. So it's more like local slang, even clique centred, rather than a word in the English language. And how long have there been pubs in England?

    But these are side points to the main issue about the lack of words being a basis for denying the concept exists in a language. In this case rape.

  16. Ben said,

    November 20, 2013 @ 8:57 am

    Hindi "balaatkaar" and German "Vergewaltigung" are cognates.

  17. Jeremy said,

    November 20, 2013 @ 8:59 am

    I studied Urdu for some years as a military linguist. I remember the thing that initially stood out to me as an America was that Urdu seemed to be awfully prudish. Anything to do with pregnancy or sex was handled with verbal kid gloves.

    That being said, the root word used to talk about sex, even homosexuality, is "jins". I'm not sure if that's from Arabic or Persian. The root used for rape is "zin", which by itself means "women" and is still used with that meaning in Urdu poetry today, and I think it's from Persian. I've always wondered about the connotations involved in that choice.

    So, Urdu speakers definitely use one root to talk about "normal" sex according to their cultural beliefs (and homosexuality… but let's not get into that), and they use a different root to talk about "wrong" sex like adultery and rape.

    I'd also argue that the Delhi and Mumbai cases, even if they knew Urdu, would not be able to understand the kind of high Urdu that uses so much Arabic and Persian.

  18. Erica said,

    November 20, 2013 @ 9:09 am

    Even if for some reason the word "rape" vanished from the English language tomorrow, we would have absolutely no difficulty expressing the concepts it encompasses. We could say "sexually violate, force to have sex, sexually assault, forcibly penetrate…" and of course even more explicit and specific descriptions could be used. (I won't belabor the point any further, lest I become nauseated.)

    I'm sure the history of terms for sexual violation in different cultures is very interesting, and the semantic range of them will certainly differ widely depending on each culture's views of sexual propriety. But it is always incorrect to claim that a given language can't talk about a concept because of the structure of its vocabulary. In every case, paraphrase is possible, and when there is no one word for a concept, that is precisely what is done.

  19. Ellen K. said,

    November 20, 2013 @ 10:01 am

    Thomas Widmann, it's not just about whether a language's word for rape means only rape. It's also how common different uses are, and how salient the different definitions are when used out of context. English doesn't have a word that exclusively means rape. Other uses still exist. And, yet, that one meaning of the word "rape" in English is salient enough that I can say "English doesn't have a word that exclusively means rape" and expect to be understood. No one thinks I'm talking about seizure, or overcharging (a usage I've seen) or pillaging or any such.

  20. Victor Mair said,

    November 20, 2013 @ 10:11 am

    From an anonymous Urdu specialist:

    =====

    This thing about Urdu having no word for rape is utter nonsense and the one little entry shown from Arabic script is incomplete.

    The commonest term used is to do "behurmati" to someone. That literally means to dishonor someone, but it's a little asinine when people get hung up on the etymology of terms. Then they need to look carefully about what the word "rape" implies about anglophone people's attitudes too.

    There are many other words, most of which are euphemistic and all of which refer to a crime against an individual (not against family honor or some other stereotypical b.s.). The legal term is "zina bi'l-jabr" (aggravated fornication), and everyone who speaks Urdu knows what it means.

    =====

  21. Ted said,

    November 20, 2013 @ 10:13 am

    To judge from statutes addressing the same, one might similarly conclude that English doesn't have a word for "buggery" and the only way to say it is with a phrase like "the crime against nature."

  22. Ralph Hickok said,

    November 20, 2013 @ 10:42 am

    I remember being shocked, at the age of 10 or so, when I came across "The Rape of the Sabine Women."

  23. J.W. Brewer said,

    November 20, 2013 @ 10:53 am

    The Indian legal system (and I believe also the Pakistani) still primarily runs in English. According to this http://www.indianexpress.com/news/ipc-goes-urdu/1095541/ the first (perhaps unofficial but reasonably authoritative) Urdu translation of the Indian Penal Code (still recognizably descended from that adopted under the Raj in 1860, with the by-then-deceased Macauley having been the principal draftsman) came out just this year. Someone with decent reading knowledge of Urdu could try to review sections 375 and 376 (those pertinent to rape, and reflecting various post-1860 amendments) of that translation and see to what extent the vocabulary used is comprehensible standard Urdu of an appropriate register versus some sort of weird calqued-from-English legalese. Pakistan's current Penal Code is likewise descended from the same ancestor and there seem to also be Urdu translations of that (same section #'s would be relevant) Out There on the web.

  24. julie lee said,

    November 20, 2013 @ 12:58 pm

    The Chinese word for "rape" is qiangjian 強姦 "forcible fornication" or "illicit fornication by force". The earliest appearance of this word qiangjian "rape" is in a text in the philosopher Mo Zi (4th cent. BC) , according to the Hanyu Da Cidian (the Chinese OED). The character jian 姦 "illicit fornication" is made up of three 女 nyu "woman" characters piled up. It's also written in ancient texts as jian 奸, with one "woman" character on the left as semantic classifier, and a character 干 gan on the right serving as the sound element because jian奸 was earlier pronounced gan. Sometimes jian 奸 is written in ancient texts with two "woman" 女 characters piled up on the left. Jian 姦 "illicit fornication" in ancient texts (e.g., Shu Jing "Classic of History", composed 11th to 4th century BC; Zo Zhuan, comp. at latest 4th cent. BC; Mo Zi, 4th cent. BC; Han Fei Zi, 3rd cent. BC ) also meant "infringe (trespass); violate; wickedness; malfeasance; evil; crime; violation (of law); to violate (a law, a decree); usurp, usurpation; malefactor; criminal; treachery; spying; spy". As they used to say in old China, "萬惡以淫為首" wan-e-yi-yin-wei-shou "Fornication(淫,姦淫) is the head of all evils". And woman, apparently, was the incarnation of that evil. I'd say the character jian 姦 "illicit fornication; wickedness; evil" is the Chinese version of the Adam-and-Eve-in-the-Garden-of-Eden story.

  25. Victor Mair said,

    November 20, 2013 @ 1:24 pm

    @julie lee

    Thank you for your illuminating and learned comment. Near the end, you mention yín 淫 and translate it as "fornication", but perhaps "licentiousness" or "lewdness" would be closer to conveying the significance of this character.

  26. Robert Thomas Hayes Link said,

    November 20, 2013 @ 1:30 pm

    As recently as the early 1970s a man could not, by and at law, rape his wife in California, as consent was implied. This kind of word magic is a blight, whenever, where-ever. YMMV | IANYL

  27. Robert Thomas Hayes Link said,

    November 20, 2013 @ 1:32 pm

    The myth then runs both ways?

    languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=3558

  28. TR said,

    November 20, 2013 @ 2:05 pm

    Hindi "balaatkaar" and German "Vergewaltigung" are cognates

    No they're not. Balaatkaar is a compound that goes back to two Proto-Indo-European roots, *bel- 'strength' and *kwer- 'cut; do', while Vergewaltigung is from *welH- 'be strong'.

  29. Coby Lubliner said,

    November 20, 2013 @ 2:09 pm

    Since rape is a universal human phenomenon, it follows that every language has a word (or possibly a phrase) that, in context, means 'rape'. What is interesting, and perhaps reflective of the culture, is the other meaning(s) that the word might have in other contexts; English seems to be rather unusual in that rape, at least the verb, has no other meanings in ordinary discourse.
    In Biblical Hebrew, the verb typically used is עִנׇּה (e.g. Genesis 34:2, where KJV has defile rather than rape), which also means 'torture' or 'cause pain'. In modern Hebrew, on the other hand, it is אׇנֵס, meaning 'force' or 'compel'. Interesting, huh?

  30. David Morris said,

    November 20, 2013 @ 2:34 pm

    When I was young I thought that 'carnal knowledge' had something to do with learnig how to drive a motor vehicle.

  31. David Morris said,

    November 20, 2013 @ 2:35 pm

    *learning*. It's 6.30 am local time.

  32. David Y. said,

    November 20, 2013 @ 3:47 pm

    Did you know English has no word for shampoo? I'm pretty sure that means English-speakers don't wash their hair.

  33. J. W. Brewer said,

    November 20, 2013 @ 3:59 pm

    Because the legal system in England was for a considerable time after 1066 conducted not in English but in a mix of French and Latin, it is not surprising that a loanword derived from the Latin legal term "raptus" (or "rapere" if you want to start with the verb) should have displaced preexisting indigenous vocabulary. But google books turns up a 2001 book by Corrine Saunders (of the University of Durham) titled "Rape and Ravishment in the Literature of Medieval England" which toward the beginning has a fairly extensive survey of pre-1066 secular legal texts, with block quotes which use various Old English technical terms (she seems to be pushing back against the view she imputes to other scholars that Anglo-Saxon law did not take rape particularly seriously). Someone with some knowledge of Old English and/or comparative Germanic could look at those technical terms and try to work out etymology/cognates/extended-metaphorical meanings/etc. for those words and then have an informed basis from which to engage in pop-Whorfian speculation about what all of that might mean.

    Wiktionary gives only "unrihthæmed" (= more or less "illicit intercourse") as an OE blanket term that is said to cover rape as well as adultery and fornication, but I take it from Saunders that there was also a more specific vocabulary applicable where the "unright" nature of the act involved the woman's lack of consent.

  34. richardelguru said,

    November 20, 2013 @ 4:12 pm

    @Jayarava
    Surely "How about going to the pub to drink beer?" == "How about a pint?"
    Or are you quibbling about the indefinite article?

  35. julie lee said,

    November 20, 2013 @ 4:17 pm

    @Victor Mair:
    Thanks for your comment that yin淫 is better translated "lasciviousness, lewdness" rather than "fornication".
    Because yin淫 has so many non-sexual meanings, I decided to look it up in the Hanyu Da-Cidian dictionary. 淫 is glossed in the following order:
    1. soak, immerse
    2. lubricate
    3) excessive; uncontrolled (in conduct)
    4) tremendous
    5) rainy for a long time
    6) extravagant
    7)unbridled (in conduct)
    8) infringe, trespass
    9) sunk in pleasure
    10) without proper measure and control in conduct
    11) usurp
    12) invade, trespass
    13) long-lasting
    14) lecherous(ness), lustful(ness), i.e., lasciviousness, lewdness.
    15) fornicate illicitly,illicit intercourse (tongjiao 通姦,姦淫 ). "男女不以禮交謂之淫,"
    (nan-nyu-bu-yi-li-jiao-wei-zhi-yin) which means "Sexual intercourse between man and woman not according to propriety is called yin淫", i.e., "Illicit intercourse between man and woman is called yin淫". So yin淫 also means "fornication" or what we'd call today "illicit sex".
    I've seen the Chinese proverb used judgmentally to mean "Sex淫 is the root of all evil," "sex" meaning both desire and the act.

  36. julie lee said,

    November 20, 2013 @ 4:20 pm

    p.s. The glosses for yin 淫 continue beyond 15 to 23.

  37. Greg Malivuk said,

    November 20, 2013 @ 8:05 pm

    @Jeremy "I studied Urdu for some years as a military linguist. I remember the thing that initially stood out to me as an America was that Urdu seemed to be awfully prudish. Anything to do with pregnancy or sex was handled with verbal kid gloves."

    Couldn't the same be said of English when you look at roots? Most of the words and expressions used to talk politely about sex have euphemistic origins, as do a lot of terms for pregnancy.

    In addition to the obvious euphemisms like "sleep with" and "know", we have
    copulate: to join; to make a couple
    fornicate: to make an arch
    have sex: to be male and female

    For pregnancy, we have obvious euphemisms like "in a family way" and "expecting" as alternatives to "pregnant" (pre-birth), which was taboo until relatively recently. And if someone didn't know that childbirth was implied by the root for "bear" all the way back to PIE, they might conclude from the more common meaning of "carry" that "childbearing", "born", and "birth" are all euphemisms as well.

  38. Brett said,

    November 20, 2013 @ 8:50 pm

    There is the oilseed plant known as 'rape' (from Latin rapum, rapa 'turnip').

    It does seem that this name made people so squeamish that they had to invent the name 'canola' instead.

  39. Jonathan Gress-Wright said,

    November 20, 2013 @ 11:17 pm

    Taboo and euphemism are pretty interesting and turn up repeatedly in historical linguistics. It's fascinating that there is a distinction between the "real" word for some concept, and then some euphemistic word denoting the very same concept. Since they refer to the same thing, it seems a little absurd that one word should be taboo and the other word permissible in ordinary discourse. Obviously there is a sense that the taboo word represents the concept more directly or authentically, and for that reason it is more dangerous to utter.

  40. julie lee said,

    November 20, 2013 @ 11:23 pm

    @ David Morris:
    The schools I went to in the Far East (East Asia) were Catholic, and the Bible was a big part of the curriculum. I only had a student dictionary and could never find out the meaning of words that kept popping up in the bible stories—"fornication" and "sins of the blood". I had a strong feeling they were something disreputable. I think my dictionary said that "fornication" was "sins of the blood". My parents didn't know English. I once asked a nun and she only smiled sheepishly. Only in graduate school in America did I find out what the words meant, I'm ashamed to say. Those days were different from now.

  41. Norman Smith said,

    November 21, 2013 @ 12:09 am

    @ Brett: "Canola" was also devised to distinguish a new cultivar (developed in Canada – hence "Can") from older ones. I am sure the name "rape" didn't have much appeal either, so from a marketing point of view "Canola" was good on two counts.

  42. Victor Mair said,

    November 21, 2013 @ 12:26 am

    From Philip Lutgendorf:

    As many respondents have pointed out, the assertion in the title line is absurd.

    There may be no English for "dharma," but there are plenty of Hindi-Urdu words for "rape." Alas, it is trans-cultural.

  43. dw said,

    November 21, 2013 @ 12:28 am

    @TR:

    Is it possible that *bel- 'strength' *welH- 'be strong' are themselves related? I know that some explain the surprising lack of PIE *b by theorizing that many 'b's became 'w's (or 'm's) shortly before the earliest reconstructable state of Proto-Indo-European.

  44. TR said,

    November 21, 2013 @ 1:04 am

    @dw: But the problem there (apart from the laryngeal) would be precisely that we *do* have a root *bel-; generally when there's a sound change, the old form doesn't stick around alongside the new one. There are various attempts to account for this unusual b, for example as resulting from some kind of fusion (e.g. from dbh, as Lubotsky suggests, connecting the root with Russian debelyj 'plump') or dissimilation (e.g. from m, which might connect the root with Latin melior). Or it could just be a later loanword from some unknown source.

  45. Thomas Widmann said,

    November 21, 2013 @ 4:25 am

    So does Hindi have any native words descended from *welH?

  46. Jeremy said,

    November 21, 2013 @ 8:15 am

    @Greg Malivuk. Absolutely it could. I left that bit out of my comment, but one of my more ethnocentric moments came out when I heard the polite Urdu term for pregnant, which was "she is wishing". And me, like a dummy, kept asking the poor guy, "Wishing WHAT?" I didn't realize that they actually considered it to be sort of bad luck to even talk about the unborn baby.

    Once someone finally pulled me off to the side and explained it to me, I started thinking Urdu was really prudish, until I remembered English has an almost identical phrase with "she is expecting".

    It's fun to look back at my language study times, since I've started studying linguistics after the fact. The term "linguist" means something completely different in military circles.

    Anyhow, I said I "initially" thought that, because of countless moments like those. I've recovered, thankfully.

  47. Brett said,

    November 21, 2013 @ 9:00 am

    @Brett (the other one): A while back, I suggested to an acquaintance in the business that there could be an interesting stand-up comedy bit based on discussing why we don't keep a product called "rape oil" in our kitchens.

  48. julie lee said,

    November 21, 2013 @ 9:23 am

    @Greg Malivuk:
    When I first came to America as a foreign student from Taiwan and Chinese culture, I thought the American language and people very refreshing because they were so direct, That's still my impression. In Chinese a common polite way of saying "pregnant," "expecting (a child)" is you-xi
    有喜 "has joy", and the polite term for "sexual intercourse (between a married couple)" is fang-shi 房事 "chamber affairs", "room matters". The older polite way of saying "sex" is se色"color", and "lascivious, lecherous" is hao-se 好色 "love color". The modern word for "sex" is xing 性"nature". (Mencius, 4th cent. BC, famously said: "Food and color [i.e., sex] are nature.") The American/English words "sex" and "have sex" seem so direct compared to Chinese. My upbringing at home was pre-Mao and Confucianist. Since Mao, things in China have changed towards more directness. "Direct" can also be understood, from a Confucianist standpoint, as a euphemism for "crude" or "unrefined". In a recent Vanity Fair article on Wendy Murdoch (wife of Rupert Murdoch), her high-flying friends described her as surprisingly "direct". I understood that as a euphemism. I was not surprised, given that she grew up in Maoist China. But perhaps she is even more direct than Americans, owing to Mao's rejection of tradition and the classical, polite, language.

  49. biagio said,

    November 21, 2013 @ 10:21 am

    In Italian we have "stupro" (rape) e "stuprare" (to rape). In legal terms a rape is called "violenza carnale".
    Depending on the context, a rape can be referred to as "violenza", without any other specification.

  50. biagio said,

    November 21, 2013 @ 10:23 am

    In Italian we have "stupro" AND "stuprare"…

  51. Victor Mair said,

    November 21, 2013 @ 11:21 am

    A reply to the "anonymous Urdu specialist" from a specialist on Persian, especially as it had an impact on South Asia:

    It is not worth getting into an argument with your correspondentt over this. But what he said (despite his interpretation) confirms that there is no word for rape–in Urdu, or so far as I can see in Persian, Arabic or Pashto. I can't be sure about Hindi or Turkish. He is right that people talk about rape, using a variety of expressions, including the ones he cites. But they are all euphemisms, and (unlike our word "rape," which of course has become specialised in meaning from an etymology with more general application) cover all forms of sexual impropriety, not just rape. I think there is a reason for this, which is that we consider rape to be a much worse transgression than any other sexual impropriety, and we therefore need a way to express it directly. But elsewhere, especially in that part of the Islamic world, sexual impropriety is much more broadly conceived.

    I have to say that in all the time that I have spent in Iran, the only rape I have come across or heard of has been in prisons. In South Asia, however, rape is not uncommon.

  52. TR said,

    November 21, 2013 @ 12:27 pm

    @Thomas Widmann: So does Hindi have any native words descended from *welH?

    According to the Lexikon der indogermanischen Verben this root only occurs in European branches (Italic, Germanic, Balto-Slavic and Celtic), so apparently not.

  53. J. W. Brewer said,

    November 21, 2013 @ 4:29 pm

    The current Iranian government from time to time imposes capital punishment both for rape and also for various sorts of consensual sexual acts considered improper by the regime (such as adultery and sodomy). I find it extremely improbable that Farsi is so euphemistic that one cannot be certain which of these things a particular person is being executed or otherwise punished for, however euphemistic the etymology of the sufficiently-clear-in-practice wording used may be. In fact, in legal systems which criminalize various sorts of consensual sex outside of marriage (as of course many Western legal systems did at least nominally until quite recently) it still remains functionally quite important to distinguish coerced from consensual acts regardless of your view of the relative gravity of the offenses, because whoever is doing the prosecuting and adjudicating will typically want and need to figure out whether to charge/punish both participants (if both participated voluntarily) or only one (if the other's participation was coerced).

    Whether a particular legal system succeeds in practice in correctly identifying which side of the distinction particular incidents fall on is a different issue from identifying the salience of the distinction and having some way, even if only in a specialized technical subset of the lexicon, from talking about the distinction. Separately, there might be a lot of cross-cultural variation in the extent to which distinctions that are relevant within the legal system are also made explicit in ordinary non-technical discourse. But saying "language A has no word/stock-phrase for X outside of the specialized subset of the lexicon primarily known and used by the such-and-such profession" is not as exciting a headline.

  54. Ken Brown said,

    November 21, 2013 @ 6:08 pm

    @Brett and Norman. British supermarkets really do sell "Organic Extra Virgin Rapeseed Oil". Its quite nice, if expensive.

  55. Alan said,

    November 22, 2013 @ 4:12 am

    I'd like to meet a rapist in a country that has no single word for "vicious kick to the groin".

  56. naddy said,

    November 22, 2013 @ 3:34 pm

    @Ken Brown: Yes, and this nicely demonstrates how "rape" has been replaced by "rapeseed" due to the other associations of the word.

    Unsurprisingly, Google finds numerous mentions of "rapeseed plant".

  57. Mark said,

    November 22, 2013 @ 11:10 pm

    No special knowledge of languages, but as a speaker of two, I wonder if there may be words for ugly actions and deeds that are not found in dictionaries or available to academics but are known to all in the streets and used in informal intercourse.

  58. David Morris said,

    November 23, 2013 @ 2:04 am

    Some years ago a newspaper in Australia included a snippet from a reader living in South Korea, who'd seen a sign for the '[city] Rape Festival' (flowers, that is, what did you think?). When I was living in SK, they'd changed then name, so I didn't attend.

  59. marie-lucie said,

    June 30, 2014 @ 6:01 pm

    In Canada too we used to have "rapeseed oil" before we had "canola oil". Similarly we have "sunflower seed oil", not "sunflower oil".

    From Latin rapere:

    The French word ravir does not (at least not in Modern French) have anything to do with sexual assault. It could (in a rather archaic context) means to steal as in 'to steal someone's heart', but most of the time it means to cause rapture, ecstasy, as when seeing/hearing/reading (etc) something particularly beautiful, awe-inspiring, and the like. The corresponding noun is le ravissement 'state of rapture, ecstasy, etc'. The corresponding adjective ravissant is not semantically as strong as the noun: it means 'extremely pretty, charming, etc' but not to the point of inspiring awe or ecstasy.

    The French word for rape (noun) in the sense of 'forcible sexual penetration' is le viol. For abduction (possibly but not necessarily for sexual motives) the word is enlèvement, as in l'enlèvement des Sabines, since the purpose of abducting the women was to provide wives for the Roman soldiers. The word can also be used in the context of an elopement.

  60. Joy said,

    July 1, 2014 @ 6:36 am

    The root used for rape is "zin", which by itself means "women" and is still used with that meaning in Urdu poetry today, and I think it's from Persian. I've always wondered about the connotations involved in that choice.

    Surely these words are derived from Arabic zina زِنَاء (fornication) and not Persian zan زَن (woman)?

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