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I've seen mention of this word a few time. In English it is clear how certain words became swear words; f..., sh.. and damn all have very strong meanings in their literal sense; the former two being vulgar references to bodily functions and the last having to do with Hell.

How in the world did "他妈的" become a swearing? "His mother's...!" doesn't seem like swearing to me.

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It reminds me of "yo momma so fat..." jokes :D –  Petruza Dec 21 '11 at 22:49
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This might clear up some of your questions: chinese.stackexchange.com/questions/150/… –  Krazer Dec 22 '11 at 0:54
    
Ah, yes, the answers by Krazer and Tom Au. –  Nate Glenn Dec 22 '11 at 1:05
    
Interestingly, there's the same swearing in French - "ta mère" ("your mother"), which means "f.. off". –  this.lau_ Dec 22 '11 at 14:30
    
There is a wiki page for this :- hudong.com/wiki/%E4%BB%96%E5%A6%88%E7%9A%84 –  ajreal Dec 27 '11 at 8:12
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4 Answers

One version is that: in the old times (about the Warring States Period), people said something like “你妈是贱人” ("your mom is a bitch") as a swear word. But this being a whole sentence made it difficult to insert into other sentences to express the emotion.

Thus, after a long time, "your" became "his" and "is a bitch" went missing, making it "他妈的". As a result, just as the word "f...", it's very convenient to put into another sentence like "你他妈的干啥?", which can be translated to "what the f... are you doing?".

You can check it out in this site if you can understand Chinese: “他妈的” 作为脏话的起源是什么?

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If "your mom is a b," then you're an sob. chinese.stackexchange.com/questions/150/… –  Tom Au Jan 5 '12 at 15:22
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Another version which I have heard (and many would have as well) and is line with many popular variations in dialects, is that it is simply a contraction of his mother's (private parts). Omission of the latter is done either out of laziness or an attempt to make it sound less rude.

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Another theory is: '他妈的' is the omission of 'a verb that meaning f**k' + '他妈的'.

I believe this is true, because sometimes you can still hear the full version (please forgive me): 操他妈的, 干他妈的, 日他妈的, etc.

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I've never seen the character 日 (sun) used to mean "sex". I guess this is worth a question of it's own? –  Matthew Rudy 马泰 Apr 16 '12 at 8:48
    
@MatthewRudy马泰 Is it possible that you have seen such usage of '日' without realizing it? :) The word is usually just an expletive and does not add any real meaning. –  Betty Apr 23 '12 at 9:29
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I believe the full version is fxck(肏、日、干、嬲,etc.)+他妈的+屄(cxnt).

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Hello hmm. Welcome to CL&U. What is fxck and cxnt? Can you expand on your answer? –  Alenanno Apr 29 '12 at 13:44
    
@Alenanno replace 'x' with 'u' and you'll get the original words. –  dusan Apr 29 '12 at 14:37
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