Swearing in English

In 1914, the use of the phrase "Not bloody likely" on an English stage caused a national sensation. Upon the utterance of 'The Word', it was reported that there was "a few seconds of stunned disbelieving silence, and then hysterical laughter for at least a minute and a quarter". Contemporary newspapers delivered headlines such as 'THREATS BY DECENCY LEAGUE' and 'THEATER TO BE BOYCOTTED', and the Bishop of Woolwich proclaimed that "The Word should be banned". Today, public attitudes have relaxed tremendously, yet there remain in English several words that are considered powerfully offensive by polite society. In this study I will look at why people swear, and try to decide whether or not such words make a valuable and valid contribution to the great diversity of our language.

The concept of a 'swear word' - one that is considered indecent and inappropriate in polite contexts - exists in most (although not all) languages and cultures. Linguistic taboos arise from social taboos; in English, these generally surround blasphemy (the defamation of Christianity) or obscenity (explicit references to sex and certain parts of the body). In the case of obscenity, the link between forbidden words and forbidden actions is illustrated by the fact that there is a surprisingly close correlation between the degree to which a word is deemed unacceptable, and the degree to which the action that it denotes is also considered publicly unacceptable. Thus, to burp or fart is considered only mildly offensive, and as a result these terms are not used as swear words. To shit or f**k in public, however, would generally be deemed highly inappropriate and this is reflected by the taboos surrounding these words.

Of course, even when the subject matter being described is highly obscene, some words are considered significantly more offensive than others. It has been said that there is no such thing as a true synonym in English, and this certainly appears to be the case where obscenity is concerned. Copulate and f**k may share the same denotative meaning, but their connotations are markedly different (the first is biological terminology, the second is crude and contemptuous), and it is this that differentiates the two words.

There is a widespread public association between swearing and social class, and many of those who criticise the habit most strongly do so because they believe it to be a 'common' and unrefined habit. It may be fair to say that many regular swearers come from anarchic or lower-class backgrounds, and that they swear primarily as a means of distancing themselves from mainstream society and affirming their position as a member of a particular social group. However, many famous swearers do not come from such backgrounds, and even English monarchs and American Presidents have been known to participate in the habit.

The taboos surrounding blasphemous words have been in decline throughout the past century, in conjunction with a decline in strict Christian beliefs. Bloody, damn, and hell are now considered mild, and most of the blasphemies used by Shakespeare - exclamations such as Zounds! (God's wounds) and marry! (By the Virgin Mary) - passed out of common usage some time ago.

The more recent liberation of sexual attitudes has also been accompanied by a more relaxed attitude to the accompanying swear words, although this liberation has not yet proceeded as far as with blasphemies. The uncensored publication in Britain of D H Lawrence's sexually explicit novel Lady Chatterley's Lover, in 1960 (three decades after it was first written), was a landmark in sexual freedom and in the liberation of the associated swear words. The book contains repeated examples of both f**k and c**t (considered by many to be the two most offensive words in the English language), yet the resulting obscenity trial returned a not guilty verdict. Nonetheless, the first utterance of f**k on the BBC five years later (in an interview with Kenneth Tynan) provoked a public outcry similar to the one surrounding the theatrical use of bloody in 1914.

Although much of the public angst surrounding swear words concerns their explicit meanings, a personal survey involving a wide variety of spoken sources revealed that only 7% of the swear words used were intended literally (and most of these literal examples were relatively mild words such as arse). Indeed, some swear words have become so dissociated from their meanings that they can be easily misunderstood. (As far back as 1848, Robert Browning used twat in his classic poem Pippa Passes, mistakenly believing the word to refer to an item of nun's clothing!) The relative insignificance of literal swearing may simply be due to the astonishing profusion of non-literal forms, or it may reflect the fact that some of the more severe swear words carry a level of emotion that is inappropriate for many situations.

One common non-literal use of swear words is as a way of venting anger or resentment, either in the form of a general interjection (F***ing hell!) or a personal insult. Many swear words are rich in fricative and plosive consonants that help to create a harsh and emotive sound. Often these insults accuse the subject of something deemed socially unacceptable: masturbation (wanker), incest (motherf***er), an illegitimate family background (bastard), or sexual deviance (bugger). These terms are rarely intended to be taken literally, but their unpleasant connotations may help to preserve their emotive nature. Alternatively, the subject may be likened to something offensive (arsehole, twat). Some insults are completely nonsensical; the writer Bill Bryson (amongst others) has commented on the irony that a frustrated individual may incite a hated person to commit the very act that would give him the most pleasure.

By far the most common function of swearing is a descriptive one, a role filled mainly by two words: bloody and f***ing (the latter is undoubtedly the more severe). Most sources classify such words as adjectives or adverbs depending on their grammatical context, yet these words often refer ambiguously to an entire phrase or sentence rather than to a specific item within it. Because of this generality, the positioning of such words within a sentence is often arbitrary, and although their natural position is preceding a noun or verb, a speaker may subconsciously reposition them to create emphasis or rhythm in a sentence. Occasionally this involves splitting a clause in two, or even inserting the swear word as an infix within another word (as in absof***inglutely). Swear words may be deliberately positioned in such a way as to create alliteration or assonance.

Descriptive swearing usually conveys one or both of two impressions: emphasis or contempt. In their emphatic capacity, these words have sometimes been regarded as straightforward synonyms of very, but there are important differences (besides in acceptability). A profane epithet relies on connotation rather than denotation to express a feeling, with the result that, unlike the word very, it serves to strengthen the impact of a particular statement regardless of the grammatical context in which the word is used. To see what I mean, consider how the meaning of the phrase that I quoted at the start of this study - "Not bloody likely" - would be altered if bloody was replaced with very.

The epithet can sometimes be dispensed with completely, and the effect created instead by the substitution of a self-evident noun with a swear word (as in "I hate this shit"). The fact that such speech can still be understood perhaps illustrates how many of the things that we say are in fact redundant. Some speakers, unfortunately, may use descriptive swear words so regularly that they become largely meaningless, except as a means of creating general tone, or (worse) as a crude and clumsy way of maintaining the rhythm of a sentence.

In addition to these major uses, all of the most obscene words have spawned a wide variety of bizarre idiom. They can be used by an experienced swearer to add emphasis or contempt to the expression of almost any feeling or situation. The use of such words seems non-sensical, yet they follow strange and arbitrary rules. For instance, we would not say "arse off" or "piss you", yet f**k can be used in both of these contexts.

With blasphemy no longer highly unacceptable and the impact of obscenity deteriorating fast, what will give rise to the linguistic taboos of the 21st century? One likely source is the language of racism. In 1994 one prominent professor told the US News of the World that 'if she used f**k in class, no one would bat an eye, but she would never dare to use any racial epithet in that context'. Other prejudices are similarly frowned upon, and the persistent ability of c**t to cause great offense despite the word's recent overuse may stem partly from its sexist connotations.

As a means of expressing extreme emotion, swear words undoubtedly have great power, and they can sometimes achieve effects that are hard to create in more legitimate ways. Swearing may also be beneficial as a means of relieving pent-up anger, and studies have indicated that those who swear regularly suffer less from stress than those who do not. When used in moderation, I therefore believe that swearing is a valuable part of our language. However, excessive overuse of swear words is less commendable, not only because it is tedious, but because it gradually diminishes the impact of the words involved.

As for the offense that may result from the explicit or blasphemous denotations of many swear words, this is a question of individual morals.

References include:

  • Geoffrey Hughes, Swearing: A Social History of Foul Language, Oaths, and Profanity in English
  • Jesse Sheidlower, The F Word
  • Bill Bryson, Mother Tongue
  • Cassell's Dictionary of Historical Slang


This was originally written as a high school English essay

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© Andrew Gray, 2000