Monday, October 09, 2006

Jou Ma se poes!

‘Jou Ma se poes!’

Spend a bit of time in Cape Town and you’re bound to hear that insult being let fly on the streets. Often it’s contracted to ‘Jou Ma se’ or, sometimes, a short, pithy ‘Jou Ma’.

While it sounds a bit clumsy in English, it works very well in ‘street Afrikaans’ and, despite being totally vulgar, falls into the classic genre of insults that heap dishonour on the recipient’s mother.

Vulgar or not, the shortened ‘jou Ma’ is often used tongue-in-cheek, almost affectionately. Which is a bit like saying ‘You silly cunt’ to an English person and not meaning it insultingly. The English, being a tad sensitive to the 'C-word', don’t readily appreciate being called a ‘silly cunt’, especially if they don’t know you too well. There's been many a night out when I’ve found myself ingratiatingly trying to explain that, being South African, my calling someone a cunt was not meant to be insulting. That’s when I tend to get told ‘You’re in England now, not South Africa!’

When I first moved to Cape Town in 1977, ‘jou Ma se poes’ was a phrase that I quickly learnt. Not that it ever became part of my vocabulary, I hasten to add. But, it took me a few years before I heard the extended version, a version that will turn the air blue in any surroundings.

My wife and I used to spend a lot of time browsing round good, second-hand clothing shops in a constant hunt for funky clothes. It was more a hobby of hers than mine but I went along for the ride, hoping to find good, second-hand books to keep me happy. A string of ‘Care Gift’ shops, a source of income for an age concern charity, stretched throughout the southern suburbs. Most of them could be relied on for some interesting stuff but the best one of all was in Kenilworth, a suburb we moved to from Observatory in 1980, and moved back to 10 years after leaving there in 1984. It was next to Super Meat, one of Cape Town’s best butcheries, and run by the very capable Mrs Jefferies, a small woman who never tired of talking about her son, Stephen Jefferies, the cricket player.

It was probably the combination of Mrs Jefferies’s management and sourcing skills, her staff of friendly old women, and the location, one of Cape Town’s more affluent suburbs, that made it the best of the Care Gift shops. Like many a charity shop that largely sells clothing donated by old people or the families of old people, the shop had a slight, but distinctive mustiness that can only be described as mothballs meet sweat and old perfume. But, to us, the place was an absolute treasure trove. We were there most Saturday mornings and even I, not one blessed with much patience when it comes to shopping, was happy to spend time browsing there.

A lot of the clothing was from the early seventies and sixties, not a trendy decade at the time, but lots of older clothes could also be found. Before long, my wife’s wardrobe was stuffed with beautiful and interesting clothes from the thirties, fifties and forties. I had a vast collection of beautiful collarless, cotton shirts and gorgeous silk ties that had been fashionable when my father was a young man. We even bought our wedding outfits there. Mine was a luxurious tuxedo from the fifties; hers a severe, but stunning forties outfit in soft, black, knitted fabric with interesting black velvet detail just below the collar bone.

One Saturday morning, during out customary browse, two bergies (*), a man and a woman, wandered into the shop. Kenilworth, despite the affluence of the area, has always had quite a large bergie population and one stretch of Main Road is sometimes referred to as ‘Prostitutes’ Mile’. I recognised the bergies as being part of a group who spent a lot of time outside the post office round the corner. No matter how drunk they were, which was all the time, they would always greet me with a toothless ‘Hello, Mus-ser’, sometimes, ‘Hello, Baas’. My wife would be greeted with ‘Hello, Mer-rem!’ More often than not, they’d ask for money.

The shop was quite quiet that morning. Mrs Jefferies was there, as were two of her assistants. There may have been one or two other shoppers apart from us. The two bergies started browsing amongst the clothes, permeating the shop’s mustiness with their pungent alcohol fumes. They were very unsteady on their feet, bumping into things while talking loudly to each other.

Mrs Jefferies asked them to leave.

She may not have been particularly rude to them but even drunks have a sense of injustice when their dignity is affronted by rudeness or a patronising attitude. They started to argue with her. As the altercation developed, they got louder and louder. The shop assistants huddled nervously in the corner, aghast at what was going on. Mrs Jefferies, as indomitable as ever, ordered them to go, threatening to call the police.

As they stumbled out, the woman turned round and spat out, ‘Jy is uit jou Ma se hol gebore, want haar poes was te besig!’ (**)

The insult hung like a heavy cloud. You could almost see the air turning a very dark blue. The shop assistants’ hands shot up, covering their faces in horror. Even Mrs Jefferies was stunned into silence. The shop assistants seemed to recover first, their faces flushed bright pink. ‘Oh, wasn’t that awful!’ ‘Did you hear what they said?’ ‘Well, I never!’

My wife and I looked at each other, nodded, then left the shop. We quickly got out of earshot and cracked up with laughter.

(*)Bergie (bêr*gee)
(Alcoholic hobo who hangs out on the streets of Cape Town) The word Bergie comes from the Afrikaans “Berg” (Mountain) of Table Mountain, where they used to live. Some still do, in bushes or caves. Many stay in the city these days. You seem them huddled in corners at night, wrapped in a blanket, wrapped around a bottle of booze. They are a colourful people, with their own mores and subculture. Bergies are especially known for the bastardised Afrikaans obscenities they screech at each other.

Wikipedia says that Bergie is a derogatory term used for a subsection of homeless people in Cape Town. However, I'd say that it is more of a neutral term than a derogatory one. You'll find many Capetonians regarding bergies with a degree of affection as they are relatively harmless (to others) people who have fallen through society's cracks.

(**) 'You were born out of your mother's arsehole because her cunt was too busy.' Rather crude and close to the bone, don't you think? It makes Yo Momma insults seem like compliments.

29 Comments:

Blogger Alan said...

Swearing and rudeness is very specific to which country you are in. As you say Cunt is very rude in the country but insulting a persons mother is the height of rudeness in places such as Spain, Italy and Greece.

12:49 pm  
Blogger Caroline said...

Do you still have any of those old clothes? And would you say that the smell of the charity shops in this country is the same as in South Africa?

1:01 pm  
Blogger Guyana-Gyal said...

There's one charity shop here that I know of, but most folks usually don't throw away, give away anything here.

Ohhh boy, hose cusses can have dreadful consequences here...a man cussed a fella for stealing his cutlass.

The fella [who'd denied stealing the cutlass] took the cutlass from where he'd hidden it and chopped the owner.

2:19 pm  
Blogger DougZAR said...

The spectacular and historically significant Woodstock Cave on Table Mountain has been both home and midden to 'bergies' for many years now. Which is a pity, because it was such a special place to visit. And it still is, if you don't mind the stench or the risk of being mugged.

2:32 pm  
Blogger andrea said...

That is one 'mother' of an insult. I'm still picking my eyebrows out of my hairdo.

And maybe I'm just an old prude but it seems to me that the c word is even more frowned upon here in colonial, provincial Canada. I can swear with the best of them when necessary but would never *dream* of using the c word. I can't even write it. :)

5:00 pm  
Blogger Kieran said...

Thank you, you're providing an important service.

9:57 pm  
Blogger ExAfrica said...

Oh dear yes, Jou Ma se poes was one of the first Afrikaans phrases I learned in Pretoria. In fact the use of such term in a bar by a Swedish friend almost got us both killed by two not so nice (and highly sensitive) Afrikaans boys

From there I went on to learn many other colorful phrases - some involving hyenas,even!

I can still here the taxi (ET) touts shouting "Cape Town-Mobray" in their tightly wound nasal crescendos.

2:31 am  
Anonymous Frog with a Blog said...

I''m going straight to work to use this very nice expression with my SA colleague. She'll love it and she so deserves it. Will update on her reaction.

7:24 am  
Blogger Dawn said...

When we lived on a houseboat in the center of Amsterdam, we made friends with an Afrikaans speaking Capetonian also living there. We used to sit on the deck of our houseboat and watch the tourists go by on the canal cruise tours. He would derive GREAT pleasure from waving at the obviously non speaking tourists going by and would find it IMPOSSIBLE not to shout, "Jou ma se puss" at them. He would delight in how dof the tourists were.
I hope your return visit to Cape Town and the time with your family was wonderful.

8:31 am  
Blogger Reluctant Nomad said...

Alan: Which probably explains why ‘son of a bitch’ is a very mild term in English but really bad in countries like Spain and Portugal.

Caroline: I certainly do although my son may have worn (and destroyed) a few of them while I’ve been away from Cape Town. My wife has a lot of them still, and a lot more that she got much more recently.


She and a colleague owned a vintage clothing shop for a while. Unlike a charity shop, it was very trendy and, almost, upmarket (if that can apply to second-hand clothing). Wherever possible, the clothes were cleaned before displayed in the shop so there was no charity shop smell about the place.

And, yes, the smell is the same here as there.

Guyana-Gyal: The charity shops depend on donations for most, if not all, of their stock. It can be a good source of income for the charities they serve. It’s a really big ‘industry’ here in the UK, far less so in S Africa.

Your cutlass story is the sort of thing that could easily have happened in S Africa.

DougZAR : I’ve never been to the cave – I should make a point at some stage. Great pity about the stench which, I assume, is all to do with ablutions?

andrea : Even in S Africa, the C word (should I spell it in capitals for you? *evil chuckle*) is one of the worst swear words but said within context and with an appropriate expression, it won’t result in pariah status which could easily happen in the UK

Kieran : An important service? Teaching the world how people swear in Cape Town? :-)

ExAfrica : The hyena ones sound interesting!!

Frog with a Blog : I’ll be very interested to hear how she reacts.

Dawn: I imagine that ‘jou Ma se…’ has been successfully exported all over the place what with so many S Africans living overseas these days.

Alas, I’ve not been back to Cape Town in many moons but am thinking of going in December or January.

1:43 pm  
Blogger Reluctant Nomad said...

Alan: Which probably explains why ‘son of a bitch’ is a very mild term in English but really bad in countries like Spain and Portugal.

Caroline: I certainly do although my son may have worn (and destroyed) a few of them while I’ve been away from Cape Town. My wife has a lot of them still, and a lot more that she got much more recently.


She and a colleague owned a vintage clothing shop for a while. Unlike a charity shop, it was very trendy and, almost, upmarket (if that can apply to second-hand clothing). Wherever possible, the clothes were cleaned before displayed in the shop so there was no charity shop smell about the place.

And, yes, the smell is the same here as there.

Guyana-Gyal: The charity shops depend on donations for most, if not all, of their stock. It can be a good source of income for the charities they serve. It’s a really big ‘industry’ here in the UK, far less so in S Africa.

Your cutlass story is the sort of thing that could easily have happened in S Africa.

DougZAR : I’ve never been to the cave – I should make a point at some stage. Great pity about the stench which, I assume, is all to do with ablutions?

andrea : Even in S Africa, the C word (should I spell it in capitals for you? *evil chuckle*) is one of the worst swear words but said within context and with an appropriate expression, it won’t result in pariah status which could easily happen in the UK

Kieran : An important service? Teaching the world how people swear in Cape Town? :-)

ExAfrica : The hyena ones sound interesting!!

Frog with a Blog : I’ll be very interested to hear how she reacts.

Dawn: I imagine that ‘jou Ma se…’ has been successfully exported all over the place what with so many S Africans living overseas these days.

Alas, I’ve not been back to Cape Town in many moons but am thinking of going in December or January.

1:43 pm  
Blogger Max said...

hi there ....
i like your expression and ayou have a diverse way of sharing what you here. im not originally from cape town and i used to use the word kak alot.... then i found out it is rude.... if you have time check out my blog i would love a critical view of it http://crimzen-cape.blogspot.com/

7:37 am  
Blogger Reluctant Nomad said...

max: Glad you like what you read. 'Kak' is no worse than 'Crap', a word you'll hear in all sorts of surroundings these days.

I'll have a look at your blog later.

12:26 pm  
Blogger Tammy said...

Loved that - I used to live corner Main Rd and LaFayette Street - above Dora's Video's in Sea Point, Friday Nights were the nights that the Poes word got thrown around with great abandon - lol - forgot that insult, probably the best one ever, lol! Thanks for the post brought back many a fun memory.

12:19 am  
Blogger whatalotoffun said...

Ja like they say you cant swear anybody as good as in afrikaans. I just hate the p word anybody that says it I just have a dislike in that person. In SA some peoples vocabulary only consist in the p fok jou, jou ma fokkit jou moer and there is so much more. In lots of other languages the p words means something else like in holland it means cat

8:05 pm  
Blogger Rob7534 said...

That definitly puts my yo mamma jokes to shame!

11:49 am  
Blogger Johnny Kessel said...

ahhahaha
Gammat and Gatipie, the scourge of Mitchell's Plain - I miss the
poetic "Jou drie-draadige, lang-haarige, snot-snaarige blou bles
bliksem" and the all the compliments like "Jy lyk soos die nageboorte
van 'n vark wat deur die hoenderkak gesleep was!" and how well he knew
my mother "Jou ma naai vir bus-geld en loop steeds" or "Jou ma se
uitgedopte platannapoes in 'n visblik"

2:11 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

whooohooo, had a huge giggle & remembered my days at Stellenbosch .... a guy with a load of prison tats strolled past and the newspaper vendor screamed out; "Hei, wie het vi jou met n nat agus geslaan" ... totally cracked me up .... after Cape Town lost the olympic bid there was a classic Zapiro of a downcast young coloured chap & a speech bubble "Athens se ma se &^%$" - nice work nomad ;)

11:22 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh how I miss my Cape Town! As a drunken teenager we made this one up: Jou ma se blou binne kerrie ingelegte bloed poes.... now that is VERY bad! Sometime I'll still say it here in USA when I'm very upset, knowing that I can get away with it!

2:14 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

mr pempi says that to really get the temperature rising is to say "jou ma se dubbelle genaaide hond,nagemaakte ,bloed poes!"
then run for your life

11:34 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

WELL son of a bitch is a mild term in english... but very bad in Italian because they say "figlio di puttana" and puttana means whore!!!

2:14 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi there, John from South Africa here.

Now " jou ma se poes" or your mothers cunt is a very strong insult.

I have been a couple of tiffs as this was said to me.

Of late I ofetn hear and use, "jou ma se nek" or your mothers neck. We you start with "jou ma se..... the people around look... like what are you going to say.. !! then you say your mothers neck. Turn out to cause much laughter

3:57 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

JOu ma se vet bloed poes man!

12:49 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, well well, how I enjoyed this. I have a friend who served as public prosecuter in Swellendam for a number of years and he had many theories about "jou ma se poes". He acktually are planning a book about his years as a prosecuter and the name will be JOU MA SE POES. He had many cases of assualt, homicide and murder where the reason was given as somebody swearing "onder my ma se rok" (swearing under my mothers skirt). He reken that one of the reasons the bergies and likes take it so serious an insult is the fact that the only sure thing he/she had in life was a mother.

9:53 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have read every ones comment of "Jou ma se Poes" It is an insult of an woman's private parts. Why is "Jou ma se Poes" da so n leka se ding? Try this one "Jou pa se pink pap PIEL"

1:45 pm  
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