Swearing: a guide

But I say unto you, Swear not at all; neither by heaven; for it is God’s throne: Nor by the earth; for it is his footstool: neither by Jerusalem; for it is the city of the great King.  Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, because thou canst not make one hair white or black. But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.  King James Bible, Matthew 5:34-37:

…there is one word that is still beyond the pale. The concept it embodies is so revolting that the publication or broadcast of the word is utterly forbidden in all parts of the Galaxy except one, where they don’t know what it means. That word is Belgium. From The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Some guy hit my fender the other day, and I said unto him “be fruitful and multiply. But not in those words. Woody Allen

We all swear a lot during our lives — it’s almost from the cradle to the grave. According to research by psychologist Timothy Jay, we swear on average from 0.3% to 0.7% of the time we engage in speaking. This may not seem much but frequently used personal pronouns occur at approximately 1.0% rate in speech). Men do it more than women. People with Type A personalities (A temperament marked by excessive competitiveness and ambition, an obsession with accomplishing tasks quickly, little time for self-reflection, and a strong need to control situations.) Swearing is not just for the uneducated or people of a lower socio-economic class; it cuts through these divisions.

There is something fascinating about bad language. I can still remember when I was 13 and one of my classmates brought in a dictionary that specialised in naughty French words – it was the only time we took a serious interest in the subject. Swearing is a fundamental part of language. There is a theory known as the “poo-poo theory” which argues that speech arose through people making instinctive, automatic sounds in response to pain, hunger, danger, etc. there is something very basic about swearing. Science has shown that the brain processes swearing in the lower regions, along with emotion and instinct and brain-damaged patients who are incapable of articulate speech often retain the ability to curse like sailors.

In his book The Stuff of Thought Steven Pinker lists five functions of swearing:

Dysphemistic swearing – Exact opposite of euphemism. Forces listener to think about negative or provocative matter. Using the wrong euphemism has a dysphemistic effect. (Example: He fucks her!)

Abusive swearing – for abuse or intimidation or insulting of others (Example: You motherfucking son of a bitch! Fuck you asshole)

Idiomatic swearing – swearing without really referring to the matter.. just using the words to arouse interest, to show off, and express to peers that the setting is informal. (Example: Fuck, man.)

Emphatic swearing – to emphasize something with swearing. (Example: It was so fucking big!)

Cathartic swearing – when something bad happens like coffee spilling, people curse. One evolutionary theory asserts it is meant to tell the audience that you’re undergoing a negative emotion[citation needed]. (Example: Aww, fuck!, Damn this coffee)

He also lists these five sources of swearing:

The Supernatural – Evokes emotions of awe & fear. (Examples: damn, hell, Christ)

Bodily effluvia & organs – Evokes disgust, since effluvia are major disease vectors. (Examples: shit, piss, asshole)

Disease, Death, & Infirmity – Evokes dread, fear of death or disability. These are words which are normally avoided or treated euphemistically. (Examples: A pox on you!, A plague on both your houses!)

Sexuality – Evokes images of revulsion at depravity. Profanity of a sexual nature conjures images of illegitimate or exploitive sexuality, jealousy, etc. (Examples: fuck, cunt, prick)

Disfavoured people or groups – Evokes hatred and contempt. Such groups include infidels, the disabled, enemies, or subordinated groups. (Examples:, gimp, fatso, fag, kiner , kike, kafkar, nigger, cracker, coon, raghead, niglet, chink, golly, wog, gollywog)

Most languages have a hierarchy of swearing, some things are more offensive than others. It’s something we have to learn as we grow up. We need to know in what company we can say what word. These things are different depending on the time and place. In a more secular world something like Damn you! is pretty mild. But when the prospect of hell was more real it was much more powerful. Pinker provides a modern version of what it would have felt like to be damned with this contemporary equivalent:

I hope you are convicted of tax fraud and sentenced to twenty years in prison. I hope your cell is hot and humid and is crawling with roaches and reeks of urine and excrement. I hope you have three vicious cellmates who beat and sodomize you every night”:

Place is also important. For foreigners this can be tough. I remember Michael Swan in his Practical English Usage had a whole list of phrases and he would then put asterisks by them depending on their seriousness. Hell had one asterisk; cunt came in with five. This is very different to Spanish where coño is very mild. I know you hear those things like Japanese has no swearwords but I am a bit sceptical of this.

Swearing does have its uses. It can be very cathartic, allowing us to get rid of feelings of anger and frustration, and it is certainly better than resorting to physical violence. But we should not forget its ugly side because it can be a form of aggression. When it is used intelligently I am a big fan but too often it is used in a lazy way. There are some people who can only express themselves using expletives. I find it very off-putting. I am against censorship but we should be aware of the effect it can have on listeners. Language is a wonderful tool – we need to use all its possibilities.


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