What is swearing for?
Needless to say, this entire thing is filled to the brim with swears, and so are many of the links.
I love swearing. My favourite swearword is probably “fuck”, though I also have a fondness for inventive swearing of the sort heard in The Thick of It. Consequently, as I learned today, I would not be welcome in a Sam Smith pub.
“Tit off, Durdle Door”
How do some words become taboo? They’re just words, right?
Well, not exactly. We’re not brought up as though every word is the same. That’s why…
Swearing is culturally relative
While writing this blog I asked a few of my friends who speak languages other than English what the most offensive swearword in that language was. As a British English speaker, I’d say the most offensive English swearword is cunt (though perhaps not in Scotland, where you might affectionately call a friend ‘cunt’). Let’s do a brief tour of other languages….
Chrissi, a German speaker, said that the most offensive word she could think of was Fotze (cunt) – so far, so similar to English.
Menno told me that he thought the worst swearwords in Dutch are illness-related: kanker (cancer) and tyfuslijer (typhoid sufferer). Anke said that kankerzooi (cancermess) was particularly bad.
Zack said that there are no real swearwords in Irish, but you can say very rude things using context – so gabh trasna ort féin means “go fuck yourself sideways” but the word doing the job of “fuck” is gabh, which in other contexts just means “grab” or “seize”.
Hannah, who is fluent in Auslan (Australian sign language), told me that the middle finger handshape is used for lots of signs that aren’t rude, like holiday and available: it only becomes rude when gestured aggressively.
Lots of differences in what’s considered rude and how it’s communicated even in a small sample of languages, then. This cultural relativity also happens within languages. For example, in Britain, men say “fuck” a lot more than women, and people aged 15-24 say “fuck” a lot more than people aged 25-34 [i]. Another example is that words like “wanker” and “arsehole” are much more offensive to Brits than Americans, while words like “shit” and “damn” are much more offensive to Americans than Brits [ii]. This fits with my experience working in London – I’ve heard one or other of my colleagues say “shit” many a time, but I’ve never heard anyone say “wanker” at work.
So, before we go any further, please bear in mind that most of the research I could find was about Brits and Americans, and that swearing might be very different in other countries.
How do we learn what swearing is?
About 15 years ago, I met my cousin Luke for the first time. Luke was two, and was at the stage of learning to speak where sounds and meanings are not necessarily very firmly linked – you know, when every animal is called a dog even if it’s an okapi or a mongoose. There’s a lot of repeating what other people say at this stage, so of course when Luke heard the word fuck, he said it. Everyone laughed. He said it again. Everyone chuckled. He said it again. We all started looking at each other and realised that we probably shouldn’t keep laughing, because then he’d just say, “Fuck!” all the time. I’ve since witnessed other children go through much the same process.
This baby has a few choice words for you
How do we get from joyfully yelling, “Fuck!” to knowing that there are only limited circumstances in which we’re going to get away with it? Part of it is that the people who are bringing you up will probably punish you if you say rude things. Jay, King and Duncan [iii] asked American college students about their memories of swearing in childhood. Many people said that there were household rules about swearing, which if broken would often result in a verbal reprimand, or sometimes a physical punishment. However, this punishment can backfire, as children learn that swearing is a good way to upset others.
American children’s swearing also changes as they grow up. Jay and Jay [iv] had seven researchers record any offensive words and phrases, insults, name calling, and abusive expressions (like “I hate you”) they overheard from children as they were going about their daily lives for an entire year. I am not clear whether the researchers were paid for their time but I sure hope so, because that’s a lot of work. Unsurprisingly, children’s swearing changes as they age: 1-2 year olds are most likely to say “poopy”, while 3-4 year olds like to say “jerk”. By the time kids reach 11, they have a fairly adult swearing vocabulary, with “shit” and “fuck” being the most common expressions.
That’s how we learn to swear. How do we learn not to swear?
When not to say “shit”
While there is no evidence that conversational swearing (“Fucking amazing,” for instance) is harmful, there are situations in which swearing can do harm [v]. An obvious example is when we swear at people (“Fuck you!”) rather than in conversation with people (“Fuck that!”). Swearing might also be part of harassment or discrimination, which do palpable harm both as they’re happening and after the event. In other words, swear if you want, but don’t discriminate against someone while you’re doing it. In fact, don’t discriminate against someone even if you’re not swearing.
Racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, bigotry in general: no to that.
Now we’ve all agreed to not be arseholes to each other, let’s take a deeper look at conversational swearing, because it can do harm to the swearer. Say you’re in a big meeting at work and the CEO is there along with some clients. You drop your pen, and you say, “Oh shit!” as you bend to pick it up. You are embarrassed at having sworn in front of these people, and you can’t get to sleep that night because you keep replaying the incident. But if this had happened at after-work drinks, probably you would think nothing of it: no-one is going to be surprised that you swore in that situation. Same kind of thing with swearing in front of your grandmother versus swearing in front of your sister, or swearing in the classroom versus swearing at lunch.
Here’s where the harm comes in. The more surprised someone is about another person swearing, the less competent that person is perceived to be [vi]. Swear in front of your boss when they’re not expecting it and it might be goodbye, promotion.
Part of the problem is probably the perception that people swear because they have an otherwise limited vocabulary. I am a pretty good counter-example to this, as it happens. I like to swear, but I also know words like sinistral and prig. As we have learned before, though, it is not a good idea to draw conclusions from just one person.
There are, of course, times when swearing can be useful.
When to say “shit”
Stephens and Zile [viii] say that swearing is a way of communicating emotion. They asked Brits to play a video game, then measured how hostile their participants were feeling and how many swearwords they could think of in the space of a minute. The more hostile people felt, the more swearwords they could think of.
Swearing can also relieve pain. If you have your hand immersed in painfully cold water while repeating aloud swear words, chances are you’ll be able to keep your hand in the water longer than if you’re repeating neutral words [ix] – at least if you’re British, and probably more so if you’re a British woman than a British man, which might be because women typically swear less than men. Ration your swearing carefully, I guess.
Because we swear when we’re angry or in pain, it can also serve a useful social function of warning others about the kind of emotional state we are in. Swearing can also help us bond, though. According to Stone and Hazelton [x], swearing in many Indigenous Australian cultures is part of lighthearted banter and there are no taboos about swearing in front of certain people – parents, people in power, and so on. Unfortunately, this is not the case for white Australian culture, with the predictably awful result that Indigenous people are proportionally more likely to be prosecuted for offensive language than others even though they are not in fact being offensive by their own cultural standards. Ugh, colonialism.
Even in cultures where swearing does have taboos attached, it can still have a bonding function. Daly and colleagues [xi] asked a team of 20 production line workers in a New Zealand soap factory to record their conversations over a period of 35 hours, and then looked at the times they said the word fuck. People in the team said fuck to each other a lot, often in disagreements or complaints that seemed rude at surface level but in context showed a lot of affection. The overall picture the researchers built up was that fuck was used between team members as a signal of solidarity: it worked as a sign that team members knew and liked each other well enough to be rude. About a third of the team were Samoan, which might explain this: as in Indigenous Australian cultures, for Samoans, bantering with others is a very common form of social interaction. Within the team, the Samoan culture around swearing had become the norm, fostering happy working relationships. And that’s a pretty good reason to swear.
[ii] Dewaele, J. M. (2015). British ‘Bollocks’ versus American ‘Jerk’: Do native British English speakers swear more–or differently–compared to American English speakers? Applied Linguistics Review, 6(3), 309-339.