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Cursing in Cantonese

App creator Lee Gancman holds his masterpiece. Photo: Sam Grant

Want to know how to curse somebody’s mother in Cantonese? Thanks to the efforts of two Dalhousie alumni, there’s now a smartphone app that can teach you.

It’s called Swearport. The app features over 1,400 swearwords from more than 50 different languages. Each swearword is accompanied by an English translation and an audio recording of the word said aloud by a native speaker.

The app was created by Lee Gancman, who graduated from Dalhousie with a BA in political science in 2009, and Mark Dennis, a computer science major.

Gancman came up with the idea for the app while living as a graduate student in London, England.

“I was planning on making an app just for travelling around, like a phrasebook app,” says Gancman. “But if you’re travelling around everyone wants to know the swearwords first, so I thought maybe only the swearwords would be more popular.”

To create the app, Gancman got in contact with Dennis, who currently works as a software developer in Ottawa. The two have been friends since meeting at Dal as undergrads.

“From the day it was conceived until the very end took about four months. Both of us were inexperienced at making apps so we had to figure out stuff along the way,” says Gancman.

While Dennis wrote the code, Gancman met with over 50 people who volunteered to swear in different languages while being recorded. Contributors to the Swearport include a Czech squatter who was living in an abandoned building and a group of Vietnamese choristers. “I get to meet all sorts of strange and interesting people,” says Gancman.

Swearport for the iPhone went on sale Aug. 4, 2011 and was the number one app on the Canadian iTunes entertainment chart from late October until Nov. 30, when it was banned by Apple for offensive content. Since the Apple ban took effect, Gancman and Dennis have developed a version of the app for Android phones. While sales of the Android app have been steady, they have not matched the earlier success of the iPhone version.

“It’s a bit of a tougher market… people are a lot more reluctant to purchase apps. A lot of people want free versions,” says Gancman.

While Gancman and Dennis have sought to have the Apple ban overturned, they continue to update the Android version of Swearport with additional swearwords from other languages.

“We’ve covered all the major languages, so now it’s getting into endangered or rare languages,” Gancman says.

The time spent working on the app has given Gancman new insight into the similarities and differences between curses across cultures.

“The vast majority include sexual references,” says Gancman. “Punjabi was surprisingly offensive. The Dutch are pretty good… they use sexual [slang] mixed with diseases. They’ll call you a ‘cancerwhore.’”

What’s next for Gancman and Dennis? In the coming weeks, they plan to release an app featuring curses and insults from Shakespeare’s plays. “You shake the phone and it will actually say the insults,” says Gancman. “It’s called Shakes-swear.”

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