Għala bieb żobbi: the subtle art of not giving a fuck, in Maltese

Three academics banded together to analyse the deeper meanings dormant behind that beloved term, għala bieb zobbi. Dive into this complex exploration of how this vulgar, but perennially tempting term, shows how the code of language reflects the social barriers we put up

'Frankly, my dear... no fucks are given'
'Frankly, my dear... no fucks are given'

Since publication, we have changed the spelling of 'ġhala bieb żobbi', as originally appearing in the academic paper, to its proper spelling 'għala bieb żobbi'

In a world that appears to be ready for conflict at every turn, it’s perhaps good to remember that some things still have the power to unite us, or at least melt away that initial awkwardness and antagonism when we come face-to-face with fellow humans from different countries and cultures. 

And bonding over swearwords is always a sure-fire way of welcoming someone into the fold.

It’s something of a common joke to claim that the first words one has learned in any given language are the vulgar ones: we’re always happy so smudge the newcomers with linguistic dirt (to see how they’ll handle it, perhaps?). 

'Linguistic hinges' like a la bieb zobbi, 'highlight the requirement for understanding the cultural worldviews that inform subjects' perspectives, if dialogue is to serve as a way to overcome semantic barriers

Maltese is certainly no exception, and among the rich panoply of the Island’s bad language lies that direct, handy gem: għala bieb żobbi. But unlike the more easily translatable swearwords in our repertoire, a foreigner may need a more tolerant guide to explain this multi-use term, which on the one hand simply expresses indifference, but on the other, does it in infinitely variable ways. 

Picking up on the term’s unique power to contain a myriad of meanings in its simple five-syllable utterance, academics Gordon Sammut, Marilyn Clark and Greta Darmanin Kissaun explored how the flexible ‘għala bieb żobbi’ can mean different things in different contexts.

In their paper, the trio endeavour to show how the term helps expose certain fault-lines in our social interactions.

“At certain times, the use of this vulgar term serves as a semantic barrier, impeding further dialogue. At other times, the term serves to shift conversation to more neutral and less threatening grounds,” they write. ABZ is to them a linguistic ‘hinge’, for the different ways in which it is understood by certain groups, and the way it is uttered, allows it to serve as a semantic barrier.

In other words, għala bieb żobbi is a telling example of how the linguistic term can both divide and separate its speakers. And while the myriad meanings of the vulgar term are likely to be intuitive to most native Maltese speakers, they will not be so evident to those who have just learned the language, to catch all the various nuances implied whenever someone yells out għala bieb żobbi. 

Fifty Shades of ABZ 

Going by their fieldwork alone, Sammut, Clark and Kissaun come across various uses for għala bieb żobbi.

The term could serve as an ‘identity marker’ – as in the case of a young child who doesn’t care to show too much affection towards a relative – and it can even be deployed to ‘neutralise effect’, as in the case of a young man dropping the term in conversation after being told he shouldn’t be drinking spirits so early during the day (to be fair, he had just ended a seven-year relationship...). 

The term can have positive connotations. In the case of a group of friends nostalgically reminiscing about an episode where they had dumped a girlfriend into a swimming pool during one of their pool parties – “kemm konna à la żobbna” – it helps to mark ongoing solidarity between the group.

And in the case of a father who is għala żobbu about whether or not his son carries on in the family business or works on an oil rig, the term denotes a kind of tolerance and understanding that pre-emptively cuts short any potential family tension. “An alternative course of action becomes feasible here due to the presence of the attitude attributed to the father,” the three academics write. “Without the attitude, only a single course of action would be feasible, that is, either staying in business because it matters so much, regardless of the son’s own preferences, or, alternatively, selling the family business because it matters too little anyway.”

The term could also be used to ‘resolve dissonance’, as in the case of a respondent who tells a friend that they, “Could be doing something very useful, like analysing the Iranian situation or the Syria situation, you know there’s a lot happening in the world right now and I could be doing something useful.” And when asked by their friend why they aren’t doing that, they rebut with, “Because I’m here man, at the beach, sunbathing and swimming and checking out girls, because it’s beautiful here and I relax, x’għala bieb żobbi,” which the friend acknowledges with, “That’s good as well”. 

A la bieb zobbi is a telling example of how the linguistic term can both divide and separate its speakers

Here the speaker declines the assumption of ‘responsibility’ associated with his choosing his current behaviour “over a more consequential or altruistic one,” the three academics write. “The respondent […] negotiates the worth, or social value, of different courses of action and proceeds to resolve the internal dilemma associated with the ‘prioritisation of social values’ through the ABZ stance.”

It’s more than just words

What the study ultimately shows is that għala bieb żobbi is not simply a vulgar term deployed in situations of frustration, or to express indifference.

Apart from being a linguistic utterance like any other, the fact that the same term can be used in so many varied ways, while remaining fully comprehensible to those ‘in the know’, shows that in some instances, successful communication is down to more than just understanding the vocabulary and syntax of any given language. 

In fact, ‘linguistic hinges’ like għala bieb żobbi, “highlight the requirement for understanding the cultural worldviews that inform subjects’ perspectives, if dialogue is to serve as a way to overcome semantic barriers”. 

This brings us back to our earlier point about language being able to break down barriers.

While Sammut, Clark and Kissaun do believe this is possible, what their research suggests is that you need to dig a little bit deeper to take in the full impact of what a term encompasses... especially one as loaded as għala bieb żobbi. 

Unless, you know, you’re just għala la bieb żobbok about the whole thing. 

Source: ‘Dialogue, linguistic hinges and semantic barriers: social psychological uses and functions of a vulgar term’ (Sammut, Clark, Kissaun, Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour) 

ABZ in popular culture

We’ve just seen how ġhala bieb żobbi has a dynamic role to play in everyday Maltese discourse. So it only stands to reason that it will be represented in our pop culture artefacts – be they aiming high or low. Here are our favourite examples of the term in print, song and online...

ABZ by Karl Consiglio

(Ede Books, 2013)

Though the poet’s efforts at positioning himself as the Maltese Charles Bukowski often fall way off the mark in a lot of these brief missives that aim for pithy ‘street’ verse, nobody can fault the economical power of Karl Consiglio’s choice of title for his debut collection, ‘ABZ’. Indeed, one would be hard pressed to pick a better – even iconic – title for such a publication, which aims to smash to the china shop of ‘proper’ literature to smithereens. (Favourite quote? ‘Il-Gothic/Fit-toilit naghmlu’ [‘Gothic/Is what I do/in the toilet’]). 

Fil-Gallinar Tas-Sultan

(Brikkuni, ‘Trabokk’, 2012)

One of the few truly fist-pumping anthems in Brikkuni’s quieter sophomore album ‘Trabokk’ (still a couple of notches more energetic than their latest, Rub Al Khali, mind), Fil-Gallinar Tas-Sultan’s lyrics are a quirky allegory centred around a purple chicken. But our trusty term comes in to really give the already crowd-pleasing ditty an extra boost. As the circus-like song builds to an eager crescendo, the crowd of eager listeners is further encouraged with a background refrain of ‘x’à la bieb zobbna, x’à la bieb zobbna...’

‘Dun Benit Parody’

(Daniel Dean Kingswell, 2015) 

Malta’s consistently brilliant YouTube parody artist Daniel Dean Kingswell, whose ‘proper’-sounding British name belies the gloriously explosive, profanity-laden videos, which oscillate between toilet-humour silliness and highly necessary satire, burst onto the scene with his video dubs of Dun Benit. Those with any affection for the original genteel sitcom about a beleaguered village priest may not appreciate seeing him turned into a potty-mouthed, racist pervert by means of Kingswell’s dark magic, but those less squeamish will find a lot to love here. Our favourite bit? The cycling Dun Benit speeding past the village during the opening credits and yelling ‘à la żobbiiii!’ to his eager flock.