Kurat – an Estonian language lesson

When non-Estonian friends and acquaintances ask me to teach them essential Estonian words, I typically start the lesson with either “õlu” or “kurat”. The former is the Estonian word for beer and therefore comes in quite handy in the circles I keep. The latter, directly translated, is the Estonian word for devil.

However, I do not teach the word as a synonym for Beelzebub or Lucifer. “Kurat” is so much more. It has transcended theology to take a special place in the Estonian American vocabulary; essentially, it has morphed into a rather fun and handy curse word.  Go ahead and give it a test spin – kurat.

Good. Linguistic introductions complete, let’s take a closer, more practical look.

There are ascending tiers for the base word “kurat”. To visualise this hierarchy in print, it can be capitalised (Kurat) to add a heightened level of severity. Include an exclamation point (Kurat!) and things are getting even more serious. All caps plus a user-defined amount of exclamation points (KURAT!!!!) indicates the penultimate and a situation most dire. Watch out.

In everyday ordinary speech, verbally releasing those two syllables is most therapeutic. With speech, the print versions described above correlate with the decibel level of the speaker’s voice and the redness of the speaker’s face. For example, maybe one has misspelled a word while typing (Kurat). Or, stubbed a toe (Kurat!). Or, was fired from a job (KURAT!!!!). Add a simultaneous fist pounding on the table, and you have a very serious “kurat” indeed (confronted with this situation, observers should stand at least two meters back from the cursing Estonian).

Grammatically, there are a number of great uses for kurat beyond a standalone curse word. In the genitive case, we could alter “kurat” slightly if we need to modify another noun in a troubling situation:

The kuradi bartender poured me the cheap stuff!  

or

I’m kuradi sick and tired of you leaving the toilet seat up!

In the partitive case, “kurat” can help when confronted with an awkward situation. For example, you discover your girlfriend and your best friend tangled-up on the bedspread:

What the kuradit is going on here?

But really, all you need to remember is that “kurat” can be used equally well on its own as described earlier, or as a perfect exclamation to intensify a longer statement.

Get, kurat, out of here. I’ve had enough of you, kurat.

If this is all new to you, by now, you are well on your way towards becoming an honorary Estonian.

Looking back, I’m wondering why this valuable linguistic lesson wasn’t taught when I was enrolled in Estonian language classes as a child in the United States. Sometimes, they really skip the kuradi important stuff in school.

For me, my first exposure to the word was within earshot of my parents’ more animated friends during my childhood. It may have been at the Estonian clubhouse or maybe in our home – I can’t really remember. And at that initial encounter of course, I didn’t know the exact meaning. But from the context I was drawn to the word and knew it was something special. It somehow emphasised an otherwise mundane statement and demanded my attention.

This childhood took place in the town of Lakewood, New Jersey, which boasts a rather large ethnic Estonian population (relatively speaking). For many, many years there was a yellow street sign along North Lake Drive defaced in green spray paint with the word “kurat”. I’ve heard differing theories as to the identity of the perpetrator. Heck, he or she might be reading this piece right now. Regardless of the comedian’s identity though, it’s been called a victimless crime. Maybe. Most driving by probably had no idea what the word meant. But me, I know I would giggle at each passing.

Although the direct curse word translation is closer to “damn”, native English speakers may be sensing a corollary here to a good old English curse word beginning with the letter f (and I’m not talking about fudge). Well, you would be correct. “Kurat” and the f-word are essentially connotative synonyms. They are translative siblings. So in English-speaking situations, when in the presence of little children or prim and proper guests, swap in “kurat” as necessary to avoid the inevitable scorn.

Whether stuck in traffic or fighting with your boss, the next time you encounter a situation that requires a well-placed curse word, yell “kurat!” at the top of your voice. I promise that you’ll feel much better. Non-Estonians within earshot may think you a bit odd and shoot you a puzzled look, but that just adds to the fun.

Kurat, sorry, dear readers, I have to run… I think someone’s knocking on the kuradi door…

Reading Comprehension Quiz

If you’d like to take a short quiz testing your comprehension of the above language lesson, here are five simple questions – should take you only a few minutes.  If you get them all correct, congratulations, you are well versed in the American Estonian dialect.  If you get any wrong, please start at the top again.

1.  What is kurat?

IA.  A Germanic cabbage delicacy

B.  An Australian rodent

C.  An extremely versatile Estonian curse word

2.  What Estonian word is the proper response to a situation where you just accidentally hit your thumb with a hammer?

A.  Porgandid

B.  Kiisu

C.  Kurat

3.  Kurat is to an Estonian language speaker in America as ____ is to a fish

A.  Lava

B.  Concrete

C.  Water

4.  Is it okay to use the word kurat in the presence of one’s grandmother?

A.  No, never

B.  Only in a hushed whisper

C.  If she is Estonian, by all means, fire away

5.  In conversation, the frequency of the word kurat is ______ proportional to the amount of vodka consumed.

A.  What, the kurat, is a proportion?

B.  Inversely

C.  Directly

Answer key:  “C” is the proper response to all five kuradi questions.

I

The cover image is illustrative (courtesy of VisitEstonia.)

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About the author: Andres Simonson

Andres is first generation American of Estonian descent. An enthusiastic estophile, he is an environmental consultant holding a bachelor's degree in environmental science and a master's in city and regional planning, concentrating in environmental planning. He resides in Red Bank, New Jersey, with his loving wife and three darling daughters.

  • peejay1954

    Back in 1977, I saw a Dodge Dart with a NJ vanity plate “kurat”
    I ALWAYS WONDERED WHO IT WAS BUT THERE WAS NO DOUBT IN MY MIND IT WAS A FELLOW “VALISEESTLANE” LIKE ME.
    Tervitades, Peeter Susi

    • Andres Simonson

      Thanks Peeter. I’m sure I saw that plate parked at Lakewoodi Eesti Maja a while back. Deja vu.

    • kaili

      There is one in Oregon as well. 🙂

  • Karen

    You left out one important one, my father was an expert in: roll the “r” in the middle of the word. It’s very effective when muttered under your breath. Try it: “kurrrrrat!”

    • Andres Simonson

      Thanks for the tip Karen. I like it. Feels right. Kurrrrat…

  • Alvar Soosaar

    Thanks Andres.
    Two personal anecdotes:
    1. In college and a few years afterward in Virginia, my pickup truck (of course) had vanity plates with KURAT. Always knew a fellow Esto on the highway.
    2. My parents’ best friend was (and is) Jaak Juhansoo, a man who has never been afraid of the word. There is a recording of me answering the door as a 3yo or 4yo, saying “Isa, Ema, Härra Kurat on siin!” (Dad, Mom, Mr. Kurat is here!)

    • Andres Simonson

      Thanks Alvar – great additions to the story. I figured there would be some good anecdotes in the comments section.

      • 1348jake

        As the years and “generations” pass the word loses its roots and becomes cute. e.g. – Maybe I’ll share this with the High School Kids -. I’m sure the F bomb doesn’t have the impact in Tallinn as it does here. Funny stuff Andres. Keep it up.

        • Andres Simonson

          Thanks. Just trying to do my part to keep the language going…

  • Silvi

    Another useful blog! Thank you Andres! Hmmm… maybe I should share this with the Toronto Esto highschool kids? 😀

    • Andres Simonson

      Thanks Silvi. Glad you enjoyed. And by all means, roll this article into the required reading for your lesson plan.

  • Andres

    Also, do not forget the ultimate curse when something is really pissing you off:”Kuraaddii kurat!”.

    • Andres Simonson

      Thanks Andres – you are obviously someone with a great name and a great command of Estonian vocabulary.

  • sofie

    Ha! I noticed a certain English (välis-Eesti:) influence in your use of this wonderful Estonian word: capitalizing. In Estonia we don’t capitalize much. Capitalizing kurat (Kurat) does not emphasize the word, it personalizes it (kurat = a kurat; Kurat = the kurat). Exclamation points, yes, as many as you want, block letters, yes, but no capitalizing;)

    • Andres Simonson

      Good catch Sofie. Looking back, seems I capitalized while explaining the word by itself, but left it in lower case in the use examples. Kurat! er, sorry, I mean kurat!

    • Arved Sandstrom

      Õigus küll, Sofie. Olen ise pagulane, vanemad on sündinud eestis, mina mitte. Aga tean et eestikeeles “upper case” ja “capitalization” on vähem kasutuses kui näiteks ingliskeeles või saksakeeles.

  • belzaah

    One more useful thing is that “kurat” can be amplified by repetition “kuradi kurat!” “Oh kuradi kuradi kurat, this hurt!”

    • Andres Simonson

      Good addition. Yes, growing up my neighbors were Estonian carpenters – great people. I think I heard some iteration of that repetition quite often.

  • Mari

    Actually, I use ‘kuradi perse’ which is not nice at all, but feels damn good. 🙂

    • Andres Simonson

      Proving over again the versatility of kurat…

    • Marianne Haller Krupka

      That’s my favorite, I’ve even taught it to my American husband.
      mk

  • tynis

    What is kurat without raisk? Just try to say them together: kurrrrradi rrrraisk! It really feels in the bones.

    • Andres Simonson

      Thank you – I learned something new today. I think I’ll use that one next time some sitapea cuts me off while driving.

  • üks kuradima eestlane

    Mida kuradit?!? = What the kuradit is going on here?.
    Kuradile! Mulle aitab!
    Kuradile kõik!!!! Minge te kuradile kõik!!
    Oh, kurat küll… 🙁 Oli siis seda nüüd vaja…
    Kurat sinuga! Olgu siis nii nagu sina tahad.
    Kuradi päralt see nii pidi minema?
    Kuradi(ma) põnev film oli 😀
    Oota! Kurat, sa jooksed kogu aeg eest ära.

    • Andres Simonson

      Suur aitäh – hea täiendus. These should be in a phrase book available at Tallinn airport.

  • Jüri

    When Christianity was brought to Estonia 800-900 years ago the monks sent so called curators (also in Latin: Curator) to every village to avoid old rituals. Those curators were so hated by locals and new Estonian word “kurat” was born. So this old word was originally against Christianity and church.

  • Liv VonLolhoffel

    Love the word, used it frequently, also kana perse. Kept folks thinking I was nice….

  • vivian

    My licence plate (Ontario) says kurat.

  • Wanemw Wobla

    krt

  • anni1951

    My father used this word a lot when I was growing up. 🙂

  • Hillar Pähn

    Üks huvitav lugu mis juhtus Lakewood`is.Ühel neegril oli auto kumm katki läinud ja vahetas ratast,aga oli raskusi rata vahetamisega.Ma jalutasin mööda ja kuulsin,et kurat ja kurat tuli ta suust.Tuli välja,et ta töötas abitöölisena ühe eesti müüritöö firma juures ja oli selle sõna ära õpinud.

  • Uku Meri

    My father would say when encountering bad drivers – “Kuradi muna joodik!”

    • Uku Meri

      Muna joodik = egg drinker.
      Eesti cure for a hangover is poking a hole into an uncooked egg, and drinking the contents. My father, although not a drinker, would do that occasionally. I tried it with him, as a teenager, just for kicks.
      In the context of Kuradi muna joodik – the driver ahead is so bad that he/she is likely drunk, and/or just is getting over a hangover.

  • e.

    Sattusin siia leheküljele kuidagi poolkogemata, kuid veetsin siin väga lõbusad 10 minutit. Tore lugemine! Jõudu kõigile seal lombi taga!

  • Maret

    I realize this is old but I am just seeing it. My father always used kuradi sitta raibe. I love the way it rolls off the tongue.

  • Kuradima hea artikel 😀

  • Andres L.

    Nice article 🙂

  • Kuu Shamanka

    Loe seda raamatut 🙂 Kõik kuradist
    https://www.raamatukoi.ee/cgi-bin/raamat?29720

  • Steven Bergeron

    I’ve been a follower of Estonian culture since 2006, after I took an interest in it. Being from northern Ontario, I can relate a lot to the countries of the Baltic Sea region, but Estonia has a sweet spot for me.

    Basically, I’ve followed everything from traditional, Internet and popular culture and am well versed on Estonia.

    In high school, I knew a teacher whose family was from Hiiumaa and she taught me bits and pieces of the language, and we regularly discussed everything from politics to culture to language. Well, besides learning from her, the Internet provided me all sorts of profanity, mostly from movies and shows like Tulnukas and Tujurikkuja, popular music, and other various videos on YouTube. And I also learned how to make full sentence insults in Estonian thanks to those movies.

    Basically, in a predominately English-speaking high school, I obviously couldn’t swear in English, so I would instead swear in Quebec French, Finnish, and Estonian, alternating between them. My favourite ones to use were “Kurat”, “perse” and “raisk”, and the really vulgar word that starts with V, ends with U, and means the same thing in Estonian that it does in Finnish. I also ended up learning the Estonian loanword for the Finnish “Jumalauta” (God, help!), which is “Jumalaita”, if I spelled it correctly. I could form some Estonian insulting sentences correctly, but most of them time mixed them in with English while knowing context.

    Reading this article brought some fond memories for me from the days where my school days would include regular use of Eesti keele and my internet sessions at night would include copious amounts of Estonian YouTube videos, whether it was spoofs of Savisaar’s controversial Keskerakond election ads from the 2007 election, railway videos (I’m a railfan) or pop culture.

    Tänan for the post, and the funny flashbacks.

  • Arved Sandstrom

    Väga naljakas. Olen ise Nova Scotia eestlane, sündinud New Yorgis, vanemad on Nõmmelt ja Pärispealt. Juhuslikult ema ja memm elasid ajaks Lakewood’is. Emakeel on ometigi eestikeel, kasutan ainult seda vanematega ja elus vanemate sugulastega. Minu naine, kes on “anglo”, teab seda sõna hästi. Kui temab kuuleb KUUURRRRATTT! siis ta teab et ma olen ennast kuidagi vigastanud. 🙂