Category Archives: Sociolinguistics

Making Sense of Names

This is our first guest post (because Hannah and Kate are apparently useless at updating this much-loved blog and we need help), brought to you by linguistic clever-clogs and punster supreme, James Chetwood.

One of my favourite episodes of Brooklyn Nine-Nine is the one with the Jimmy Jab Games – a multi-event workplace procrastination competition, featuring challenges such as the Monster Mouth Bagel Toss.

The Jimmy Jabs were invented by Jake Peralta and are named after the President of Iran, Armen Jimmy Jab:

Or, as Rosa points out, Ahmadinejad:

But it doesn’t matter, because the most important thing is that they’re going to play the Jimmy Jabs, and they’re all psyched!

So Jake got the name wrong. But the fact the Jimmy Jabs are still called the Jimmy Jabs, even though the person they’re named after isn’t called Jimmy Jab, doesn’t matter, because names don’t really have any meaning, do they? Well, actually, I think they might – at least in some ways.

I’m doing a PhD in History, and for the last two-and-a-bit years I’ve been looking at names: finding, listing, counting and (in theory) analysing names. About 15,000 of them.[1] Linguists generally think that names have no meaning, or no ‘sense’, because they don’t explain anything about the people who bear them. But, the more I look at names, the more it seems to me that names do have meaning.

Unlike other nouns, names only refer to one person or thing, and nothing else. With normal nouns, I can talk about a particular dog, cat or boat, but I can also talk about the class of things that are dogs, cats and boats, because there’s something about all dogs, cats and boats that make them dog-like, cat-like and boat-like. I take part in this kind of exchange every day:

Other person: Fucking hell mate, control your fucking dog will you?
Me: Sorry mate. But that’s what dogs are like. He’s just trying to play. Chill out.

But this doesn’t work for names, because there’s nothing about a James, a Hannah or a Kate that makes them more or less like any other James, Hannah or Kate. Each James is unique, as is each Hannah and each Kate.

So names are just labels we use to refer to specific people and can’t be used in any general sense. At least that’s the theory. But then there’s When Harry Met Sally:

Harry: With whom?
Sally: What?
Harry: With whom did you have this great sex?
Sally: I’m not gonna tell you that!
Harry: Fine, don’t tell me
Sally:…Shel Gordon
Harry: Shel? Sheldon? No. No, you did not have great sex with Sheldon.
Sally: I did too!
Harry: No you didn’t. A Sheldon can do your income taxes. If you need a root canal, Sheldon’s your man. But humpin’ and pumpin’ is not Sheldon’s strong suit. It’s the name: ‘Do it to me Sheldon! You’re an animal, Sheldon! Ride me big…Sheldon’. It doesn’t work.

Like it or not, names have meaning (sorry Sheldon). In this case it’s associative meaning.[2] We know from prior experience what sort of person we expect a Sheldon to be. We associate people called Sheldon with certain attributes. Whether we’re right or wrong is another matter, but we do this all the time. And we’re often right, because names can tell us a lot about the people who bear them.

The accuracy with which someone’s name can determine their proficiency at humpin’ and pumpin’ is, admittedly, fairly low. But names are usually pretty good at telling us other things, including where someone is from, how old they are, who their family is and whether they’re a man or a woman.

This episode from Flight of the Conchords is funny (I think) because of the games it plays with Keitha’s name. It wouldn’t be funny if we didn’t know that Keith was a popular name in Australia, that people often name their children after their parents, or that female names in English often end in ‘A’.[3]

Because we know what type of people are called Keith, what type of people aren’t, and how names work in general, we’re able to make jokes about them. If names were completely meaningless, we wouldn’t be able to do this.

If Professor Richard Coates read what I’ve just written (he won’t, he’s basically the biggest name in, well, names, and has much better things to do), he’d probably say:

It’s amazing that arguments of this type persist, and they can only persist because we equivocate what counts as meaning. If these ‘mean’, they do not do so in a logically secure way. If I call my daughter Archibald, it’s hard luck on her, but I have committed no sin against logic or semantics, and it will be her name.[4]

Firstly, if ‘meaning’ something relies on doing so in a logically secure way, I’ve probably never said anything of any meaning in my life. Secondly, we actually do use words all the time that have meaning beyond pure semantic content. The way we say things – the specific words we use and the tone we say them in – all add nuance to, or even completely change the meaning of, what we are saying. The meaning of all language, at the end of the day, is about more more than semantic content.[5]

But I’d also question the idea that we have a free choice about what we name our children. This isn’t true – not really anyway. Our choices are dictated, or at least restricted, by the customs and fashions of the communities and societies we live in. This is one of the reasons names are actually really quite bad at doing what we assume they’re for: distinguishing people from one another. If that was what names were supposed to do, why would so many people have the same name?

Theoretically, we could use any random collection of speech sounds to create unique names. But we don’t. Usually we select them from a list of pre-existing names, most of which are used by thousands of other people. This list of names is an onomasticon (a mental dictionary of names), which is the name equivalent of a lexicon (a mental dictionary of words).

Like a lexicon, the names that appear in a person’s onomasticon depend on a number of things, including the language they speak and the experiences they’ve had in their lives. Every onomasticon is different, varying from place to place, community to community and generation to generation (as well as person to person). And, just like a lexicon, there might be hundreds, even thousands, of names that we’re aware of, but have never come across in our everyday lives, nor would ever consider giving to our own child.

The main determining factor of the names in someone’s onomasticon is where they’re from – the family, community and society in which they live. Each community has a set of names that are known and deemed acceptable by the other people within it. Depending on the place and period they live in, and the type and size of community, the number of acceptable names will vary, as will the degree to which people can deviate from the norm without being thought badly of.

Sometimes people want to make sure their child fits in, so may choose safe, traditional names. Some people want their child (and perhaps them by proxy) to stand out more than others – for example, the kind of people who would choose to call their child Saint.


Today, people often want to balance the need for their child to have a name that is both individual and traditional. They want a name that makes their child stand out and fit in at the same time. This is why we see so many ‘old fashioned’ names re-popularising. Perversely, in trying to strike this balance, people often alight on the same name for no apparent reason, causing previously unpopular names become popular. (Here’s looking at you, Amelia.)

And, while the ‘naming communities’ we are a part of today are larger, both in terms of the number of people and the number of names, than was the case a few hundred years ago, we are still occasionally flummoxed by unfamiliar names.

Jake doesn’t recognise the name Ahmadinejad because it’s not in his onomasticon – it’s not a name that’s present in his naming community. It isn’t that the sounds in the name, or even the spelling of it, are particularly difficult. It’s just that he doesn’t know it, so it’s difficult to recognise and remember. That’s why he transforms it in his mind into something that makes more sense to him.[6]

Richard Coates can call his daughter Archibald if he wants, and he might not be breaking any rules of logic or semantics by doing it. But the very act of doing so would be an overt flouting of the naming customs within his naming community. He may not care – but his daughter might not thank him when she’s older.[7]

So, even if it’s true that names don’t have logical semantic meaning, they do mean things to people, and they do contain meaning of some kind. Not all Richards will have exactly the same attributes. But there’s a pretty good chance that 20 people called Richard are going to have more in common with each other than they are with 20 people called Abdul or 20 people called Stéphanie. And, ultimately, whether he likes it or not, if you need a root canal, Sheldon’s your man.


James Chetwood is a PhD student in the Sheffield University History Department. His research is into naming patterns in medieval England. He spends too much of his time thinking about what makes a name a name, and why it’s OK to call a dog Molly but not Gary.

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What’s the big deal about mocking someone’s accent?

As a society, we’re getting better at not being dicks to each other. It’s a slow progression, but some hurdles have been royally leapt: women can vote, homosexual couples can adopt, and ethnic minorities legally have access to the same goods and services as everybody else. Of course, we still deal with individual douche-canoes mouthing off at people because of their sexuality, gender identity, race, ability, age, body shape or a million other things; institutionalised prejudice hasn’t been eradicated; and prejudice is still enacted on a micro-level, often not from a malicious footing, but as the product of a society still breaking free of intolerant belief systems (that blasted patriarchy!). I’ve painted a cheery picture there, haven’t I? … but in general, while things are by no stretch of the imagination fixed, in most ways they’re getting better, and we’re a lot sounder to each other than we used to be.

Not, I would argue, when it comes to class. Class is something of a dirty word these days – we’re either too embarrassed to talk about it (“How gauche! To talk about money and social positions!”), or we believe we’ve superseded it (“We’re all middle class now”, came the cry from the New Labour camp upon election in 1997). I’m afraid that’s bollocks. While we still have caricatures of ‘chavs’ on television; while the richest 1% of people in the UK have as much wealth as 60% of the rest of the population combined[1]; while we still have benefit recipients universally derided as ‘scroungers’ in the mainstream press (and in opinion polls), we still have a class system in place, whether we’re talking about it or not. While I don’t think there should be a class system in place, ignoring that we have one isn’t going to make it go away.

There are many ways in which class judgements can be articulated, the majority of which I am not in any way well versed enough to write on[2] – but one of the ones I might be is language policing. That chavs don’t talk proper, innit. As with the majority of my blog posts, this one comes complete with OPINIONS and FEELINGS – you’ve been warned.

I reckon language and accent mockery and judgement is one of the last bastions of acceptable, overt prejudice. People mock each other’s accents all the time, in conversation, on television, and in print. Comments about people’s accents are often just a euphemism for class-based prejudices it would be improper to state more bluntly. “That woman sounds like she’s poor and ill-educated” – no. “She’s got a common, chav accent/Scouse is a horrible accent/she’s not even speaking English” – these are the kind of things you hear quite frequently. Mocking someone’s language is a helpful euphemism – a linguistic fig leaf, if you will – allowing shitty judgements and belief systems to go relatively unchallenged.

However, highlighting someone’s linguistic prejudice is often greeted with accusations of being oversensitive, and talk of “accent prejudice” followed by scoffs and eyerolls.  I can understand it – it doesn’t seem as severe as other douchebaggery, and in a real sense it’s probably not. But it does matter.

I hear the same excuses over and over:

1. “But it’s only an accent!” Accents are far, FAR more important than you might think when it comes to Getting On. Yes, we live in an age where BBC newsreaders aren’t restricted to a certain type of accent, and public figures like Professor Brian Cox, Paddy McGuiness and John Bishop (sporters of Mancunian, Lancashire and Liverpudlian accents respectively) are frequently featured on primetime. But if we’re more accepting of regional and multicultural accents, why are elocution lessons still on the rise? Although many carry a positive connotation (hence the choice to house many call-centres in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, the accent being widely considered to be a friendly and approachable one), non-standard accents still carry an awful lot of stigma.

A damaging amount, actually. Even the most recent of studies – which led to ITV dedicating a Tonight programme to the issue – show that people still judge regional accents, with 28% of respondents feeling discriminated against because of their accent, and 80% of employers surveyed admitting to discriminating on the grounds of accent[3]. Previous studies have seen a person considered to be “significantly more guilty” of a crime having given evidence in a Brummie accent, compared to giving the same evidence with a Southern accent [4]. Likewise in the States, one researcher placed calls to landlords in white, African American and Latin American English accents, finding the latter two invited far more discrimination in finding housing[5]. This isn’t fiddle-faddle – people honestly think, in a simulated court of law, that a person is more likely to have committed a crime if they speak in a Birmingham accent – not based on the content of their speech, but how it’s pronounced. That’s not only bonkers, it’s a bit scary. Accent judgement has a real, tangible effect on people’s lives.

2. “But it’s just my opinion!” Yes, it’s your opinion, but it sucks. Other prejudices can’t be absolved by people just adding “…in my opinion” to the end. When some terrible homophobic member of congress says that gay couples shouldn’t be allowed to marry because they are a threat to children and it will result in homosexuality being taught in schools (before drunkenly crashing his boat into a bunch of kids [6]), he’s stating his opinion. And he’s also being horrible. How do you think it makes someone feel when you express disgust about the way they speak, something they can’t easily change, are born into, and are often proud of, it being an emblem of their upbringing? Yes, it’s your opinion, but it’s also mean. And perpetuating negative stereotypes about people based on their accent leads to more general poor treatment, as seen above.

3. “But they’re not talking properly!” What is “talking properly”? Most people would agree, including the people who write dictionaries, that the right way of pronouncing a word in British English generally matches the way a South-East English speaker would[7]. The standard accent is something akin to Received Pronunciation – though modernised – whose speakers are thought of as saying things correctly. An accent like Patrick Stewart or Ian McKellen’s, for example. Everything else is deviant.

But who do you think invented this idea of a “standard” way of speaking (and writing)? DING DING DING, that’s right – a very small group of rich, powerful, Southern white dudes! It’s a common adage that history is written by the winners, and the same is true of linguistic history. Upon the arrival of the printing press in England in 1476, it was soon decided that the wildly disparate English spelling system needed reining in, and decades of grammar books, dictionaries and pronunciation guides followed. The people who wrote these tended to be the most powerful, in positions of higher education, often males (but not exclusively), who lived in the South. As such, they wrote down their own way of speaking as the “right” way, thus abandoning all others to the realm of non-standard. Their version wasn’t inherently better at communicating or more correct, it was just in the right place at the right time, and was therefore eternally considered to be so. People in the north, for example, haven’t been speaking “incorrectly” for centuries, it was just decided at an arbitrary point that they were Doing Talking Wrong.

4. “But I can’t understand them!” Ooh, this one riles me up. To put it briefly: if you can correct them, you can understand them. Consider the following exchange:

#1 – “I’m goin’ shop”
#2 – “You mean you’re going to the shop – I can’t understand what you mean if you say that!”

The whole response is entirely paradoxical; how can you ‘correct’ someone’s grammar, inserting words they’ve omitted, and follow that by saying that you didn’t understand what they meant? I put it to you, either you’re not trying hard enough, or you’re just saying that to belittle someone. “In many cases…breakdown of communication is due not so much to accent as it is to negative social evaluation of the accent in question, and a rejection of the communicative burden” – Rosina Lippi-Green[8]. Which leads me on to my next point…

One of the things that gets my goat is when people do this:

kelly 2  kelly 3(Image source and a video link of the scene, with more examples here)

This is Kelly, from the TV show Misfits. She’s portrayed as a working class delinquent, completing a community service order, with a potty-mouth and a violent streak. As you’ve probably noticed, Kelly’s accent is written out phonetically in the transcripts above. But why? She’s saying the same words as you and I are, but hers are spelt out orthographically in a non-standard way. Robert Sheehan – the guy with the curly hair in the right gif – speaks with an Irish English accent, but his isn’t spelt out any differently. In fact, by this measure, all accents should be spelt out phonetically, as they’re all giving particular pronunciations of words.

But they’re not. Only certain accents are chosen to be spelt out like this – more often than not, accents like Kelly’s. This suggests that Kelly is not talking properly, that she’s somehow incorrect. By doing so, the way Kelly speaks (incidentally, with a broad urban Derbyshire accent) is portrayed as abnormal.

socha tweet 1
Lauren Socha – the actress who plays Kelly – responds.

The idea that non-standard varieties of English are inarticulate is long-standing.  Tony Crowley, in his book Standard English and Politics of Language, discusses early 20th Century division of people into ‘the articulate and the barbarians’[9], the latter being incomprehensible to the former. Non-standard speakers’ contributions are reduced from language to mere noise, and are therefore to be ignored; this allowed people to discredit the content of their speech based on its structure, considering it not worthy of time or consideration. When non-standard accents like Kelly’s are ‘translated’ to and from English, it reinforces this idea that their speech is defective, and therefore, if the speaker can’t even articulate themselves correctly, they can’t possibly have anything to contribute that’s worth listening to.

Some have said to me that it’s done from a place of affection, of celebration, and this could be true of things like dialect books and dictionaries, where local pronunciations are written out phonetically. But it’s tied up in and contributes to a bigger picture, one where regional and international accents of English are mocked and derided; one where speakers can be less likely to get certain jobs because of their accent (regardless of their intelligence or suitability); one where people with these accents feel the need to change them, and have internalised the stigma about their own accents to the point where they hate the way they speak. And that sucks.

Yes, having a standard is often useful, and allows for relatively easy communication on a global scale. However, variation shouldn’t be belittled, patronised and wiped out. You’ve probably seen the recent news stories about schools in Middlesborough and South London, whose teachers decided that they were going to try and quash regional pronunciation and vocabulary items; or stylised dictionaries of ‘chavspeak’ which have a dig at the kind of multicultural Englishes we see popping up in London and Manchester[10].

Non-standard accent and dialect features are interesting, valid, and often have a long regional history, not to mention being incredibly important to the speakers using them – and nobody should be made to feel bad for the way they speak. Someone’s accent is an integral part of who they are, and criticising it is kind of a dick move, wrapped up in long-standing classism. So don’t! Judge people on what they say, not how they say it.

[1] From a helpful and informative video here:
[2] If you’re interested, I’d start with Owen Jones or Danny Dorling if I were you.
[4] Dixon, John, Mahoney, Berenice & Cocks Roger (2002) Accents of guilt? Effects of regional accent, ‘race’ and crime type on attributions of guilt. Journal of Language and Social Psychology 21:2, pp. 162-168.
[5] Purnell, Thomas, Idsardi, William & Baugh, John (1999) Perceptual and phonetic experiments on American English dialect identification. Journal of Language and Social Psychology 18:1, pp. 10-30.
[6] Yeah, that happened.
[7] Though, of course, there are those who fervently state that a localised version is the “correct” way! [EDIT: This originally read “South-West” because Hannah is a numpty]
[8] If you get a chance to read any of English With an Accent, Lippi-Green’s book, PLEASE do. It’s ace, and covers with more knowledge than I am able discrimination of people with non-native English accents, which is incredibly important.
[9] Crowley, Tony. (1989) Standard English and the Politics of Language. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, p. 180.
[10] See the work of Paul Kerswill and Rob Drummond for details.

Why do people on the Internet write so ‘poorly’?

It’s been a year since I wrote one of these blog posts, which I know is appalling behaviour. But darling Kate recently posted some super interesting stuff about Old English, and that spurred/guilt-tripped me into writing something of my own.  Unsurprisingly, I don’t know anything about Old English, but do you know what I do know about? THE INTERNET.

Being a person who is On The Internet*, I’m amazingly fortunate to see language evolve before my eyes on a near-daily basis. When so much Internet communication is written/typed, it’s not surprising that different corners of the internet play with vocabulary, grammar and typology in order to carve out identities. Often, linguistic constraints caused by the technological corseting of computer programmes — like character limits, punctuation restrictions and the lack of intonation and other paralinguistic features that aid communication face-to-face — result in online communities developing linguistic quirks that go on to identify them as users of a particular game/forum etc. But it’s bigger and more exciting than that – those quirks are warped and developed into a whole new system of language use that singles out a person as a member of a gang, a clique, and that allows people to instantly relate.

The first instance I remember hearing of this was during an A Level English class, where we learnt about leet speak, or L337. Originating on message boards and online gaming communities in the 1980s and 90s, leet speak is a form of language which sees alphanumerical characters used to graphologically recreate written language – so Hannah, in an extreme case, might be spelt as I-I /-\ I\I I\I /-\ I-I. Phrases like l33t (from elite), n00b (from newbie) and pwned (from a frequent mistyping of owned) which are now used across the internet (and in spoken language) originated from hackers’ and gamers’ frequent communication, and evolved from their desire to conceal information, gain and show esteem and skill, and mock outsiders. L33t was one of the first stylised online dialects to become whole and recognisable – it developed coherent syntactical structures, reams of new vocabulary, and it was learnable for new users. How cool is that? Just the same way that people who speak to each other in person on a daily basis pick up phrases and quirks of accent from each other, the same thing happened with written language on the Internet.

Of course, this is nothing new. This post is also nothing new. There has been tonnes of commentary on the glories of Internet speech and the new and brilliant linguistic quirks that come from online activity. What I want to talk about is the snobbery that has bounced back from this internet speak, and why I completely disagree with it.

Tumblr is a newish social networking/microblogging site which was set up in 2007, and in recent years has been a hotbed of fandom action – some of which I observe and participate in. Tumblr is a primarily visual medium, with talented users photoshopping graphics for their favourite bands/shows/films/games/people, but it is also frequently used as a platform for lengthy discussion of social justice issues. Readers who partake in Tumblr will most likely be familiar with the language variety that has sprung up on the site, acknowledged as ‘tumblrspeak’. It’s hard to quantify every feature, as it develops and evolves every day, and I’m bound to have missed many here, but some of the most common ones include:

– a lack of capital letters at the start of sentences, and frequent omission of punctuation such as full stops and commas

– but: a very frequent use of capital letters to express shouting/excitement, and excessive use of exclamation marks and other punctuation

– long, run on sentences

– frequent use of abbreviations and acronyms (totes, amaze, lbr, kms)

– stylised, non-standard turns of phrase, often hyperbolic in nature: i want this because of reasons, i can’t hold all these feels, LET ME DIE, i am cry

– use of angry, offensive sentences actually meant with love/lust: shut up with your face, fuck you for existing in the first place, go away and stop ruining my life

– sentence fragments used to express emotion: i just, i can’t, i cannot even


Original comic, by Ryan Pequin, here. [Source corrected Feb 2014]

Found scouting around tumblr, here are a few examples of posts which use some of these features – 1 2 3 4**. A lot of the time this kind of language play is used in the tags of picture posts rather than in the content itself, so look out for that.

One of the most interesting things I see (and do) on tumblr is innovative use of graphology and the shape of words to mimic the pronunciation and intonation that is used in spoken communication to express sarcasm, etc. Frequently, people will staRT USING CAPS IN THE MIDDLE OF A WORD!!! to express a kind of aroused shoutiness/lack of control over one’s keypresses that makes perfect sense if you’re involved in fandom, but it kind of hard to explain to outsiders. Or, they’ll space words differently in a way that symbolically tells the person who is the focus of the post to s t o p.

It’s fascinating how the constraints of a written medium are circumvented and linguistic trickery is employed to make up for the lack of verbal cues. And, as with other mediums, tumblr’s rules and software quirks have resulted in a good many of these linguistic quirks: the tagging system, for example, doesn’t permit comma use, and so develops the tendency for run-on sentences.

But again, it goes beyond necessity. Tumblrspeak is a badge of belonging, of being in a place where EXTREME ENTHUSIASM isn’t frowned upon, and screaming about a TV show is a great way to make friends. And it’s absolutely brilliant. So much of tumblrspeak uses non-standard grammar, spelling and punctuation, but it’s not out of laziness. It’s a conscious decision: as this simple post puts it, not using punctuation is a way of using punctuation. Tumblr users are likely to be perfectly familiar with standard grammatical rules of English, but they’ve said ‘fuck it’ and put emotions first, twisting and moulding their own language variety that is by the medium, for the medium.

Just because language is non-standard, doesn’t mean it’s bad, or that communication is hampered. In fact, tumblrspeak is an incredibly effective and efficient method of communication. In tumblrspeak ‘I am really attracted to this person’ is translated to ‘FUCK U’, ‘I am having a lot of strong emotions about X’ is translated to ‘HALP’, and ‘I agree wholeheartedly with whatever opinion is being expressed here’ is translated to ‘THIS’. That’s pretty efficient!

People use language differently depending on the company they’re in – my furious potty mouth is toned down in front of my grandmother, but utilised in full force on my Twitter feed. Using language in a standard way, adhering to rules prescribed by teachers and centuries of grammar books, is just one way to use language. Flouting those rules allows for inventiveness, companionship and, far from being a sign of poor intelligence, is actually pretty damn smart.

Final point: a frequent feature of Internet/fandom-related language is the keysmash, or a stylised ‘askjdhfgjakhsd’ used to express feelings of the most extreme nature. A tumblr user suggested this should be referred to as typerventilating. Typerventilating. T Y P E R V E N T I L A T I N G. And I’ll be damned if that’s not the smartest, most brilliant thing I’ve ever heard.

*different to being ‘on the internet’ – the capitals suggest that I conduct a good deal of my life and friendships through online platforms, and have for years.

** NB. One or more of these posts may contain One Direction.

Is Swearing Really So Bad?

As is fairly obvious from the title, this post contains strong language. If you’re not keen on that, feel free to run away, but I would suggest you read on – perhaps it might change your opinons a little!

I fucking love swearing. It’s excellent fun, and really quite cathartic. Nothing like a good old cry of ‘shitting tossing arse buckets of wank!’ to soothe the soul.[1]

However, I may well be shooting myself in the foot in choosing it as a topic for my first blog post. Thing is, swearing may be about words, but it is far from being a matter of purely linguistic interest – to fully understand swearing and taboo language as a concept, we must delve into history, sociology, neurology, psychology and cultural studies. Each sheds a new light on swearing, and to leave any out is to ignore an important aspect of the topic.

However, I am but one person, and this is but one blog post – one I would like to keep under the length of War and Peace, preferably. I can’t explain everything; I’m not an expert in any of these disciplines. But I do have OPINIONS, and the ability to read lots of things and attempt to summarise them in an interesting and informed manner, therefore I am going to tackle the topic anyway. Fuck it, why not?

I wonder if the last sentence of the preceding paragraph jarred with you. For many, that was likely the case (though for those more familiar with me and my vocabulary, it wouldn’t have come as much of a shock). Many of us stumble on swear words almost instinctively – they grate, they startle, they stand out, and that is precisely what they are designed for. Swear words, as a group, don’t have an all-encompassing feature that makes them phonologically or grammatically unique (they DO have aspects of interest there, but shh, I’ll get to that in a minute), nor do they have a single collective meaning. What brings them together is the effect they have on people, how they make us feel, their pragmatic impact. Swearing is one aspect of taboo language – in basic terms, things you feel you shouldn’t say, or restrict yourself form saying in certain contexts.

But what interests me is – why? Swear words are just arbitrary jumbles of letters. When uttered with a particular illocutionary force, yes, I can completely understand why they would be considered reprehensible: if someone called me a rancid little fucker, I would be duly offended. But I would also be offended if someone called me a loathsome stuck-up try-hard, yet if I uttered any of those words in isolation, I doubt many would bat an eyelid. Swear words have this inimitable quality that sets them apart from all other vocabulary, and I find that FASCINATING.

Swearing and linguistics
Swear words, like any other, have their own etymology, grammatical idiosyncrasies and dialectal variation. The exact origins of fuck, for example, are a little bit fuzzy (unsurprisingly, many early dictionary-writers were reluctant to include it in their tomes), but it most likely developed from a proto-Germanic root *pug, meaning to strike – a root which produced cognates such as the Dutch fokken (to breed/strike/beget) and the Norwegian fukka (to copulate).[2] This ties in nicely with the way we use the word in constructions like fuck this! – in these instances, strike this! is much closer to the user’s intended meaning than copulate with this! (Unless the fuck this! was being issued as a command, of course, though I dread to think in what situation that might occur).

I have pondered, in the past, whether the phonetic makeup of swear words triggers distaste in our minds in some way. After all, the most abhorred of English words (and a firm favourite of mine) – cunt – is made up of two hard, plosive sounds and a short, back-of-the-mouth vowel, and is one of those words that is capable of being spat rather than said. Of course, the variation in syllabic makeup of swear words means that this theory is easily rebuffed – but there is some linguistic merit in investigating the shape of taboo words.

Timothy Jay (1992) gave 49 students a list of 120 words that could be considered taboo, and asked the subjects to rank them on a scale of ‘offensiveness’. He found that shorter words of Anglo-Saxon origin (fuck, hump, screw) were considered more offensive than longer, Latinate words (copulation, coitus, intercourse).[3] Naturally, many of us wouldn’t consider the Latinate examples to be swear words at all; perhaps it was the short, blunt sounds of the Anglo-Saxon words that encouraged their adoption as taboo variants in the first place. This is an interesting thought, and one which might go some way to explaining why my mother hates it when we use the word twat, because she ‘just doesn’t like the sound of it’. (Additionally, the Romance languages – Latin and French – were used in the courts and by the gentry, while Old English was used by us peasants, again perhaps contributing to the former’s prestige and the latter’s lack thereof.)

Swearing and neurology
Language is considered a ‘higher’ neurological function, and is processed in the cerebral cortex, while emotion and instinct – ‘lower’ functions – take place in the deep, dark crevices of the brain. However, studies suggest that, rather than being processed as a string of phonemes which combine to make an utterance, swear words are stored as whole chunks, and the act of using them is closer to a motor function, processed by the same part of the brain which deals with emotion, bypassing the language centre.[4] This suggests that swearing is far more instinctive and reactionary, and that the use of swear words may have little to do with one’s spectrum of vocabulary. Which leads me neatly on to…

Swearing and people
People judge swearing. They judge it a LOT. And it is on this judgement that my aforementioned OPINIONS come into play. To those who say that swearing is a sign of a limited vocabulary, I refer them to one Malcolm Tucker, and kindly ask them to knob off. Just because someone chooses to use a swear word, doesn’t mean they can’t think of anything less shocking to say; the force of a swear word, the taste of it on your tongue, that unquantifiable effect it has above all other word choices – those are all reasons to use it. As Nancy Banks-Smith simply and eloquently puts it, ‘Trust me, Larkin did not swear because his vocabulary was limited. He swore because he was angry’.[5]

But regardless of my opinions, one of the most fascinating aspects of swearing and sociolinguistics is why people react to these words so violently. As David Mitchell has previously mused[6], why are we so offended by wanker, but not banker (ah, so many potential jokes, so little blog space)? As Christopher M. Fairman explores in his fantastic paper on the interaction between fuck and constitutional law[7], what is it about the arrangement of these four letters that could potentially land you in jail?

It’s odd, even when a swear word is used in a context that is completely devoid of potentially offensive meaning, many people still complain. For example, when James Naughtie tripped on his words when introducing ‘Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt’, he was forced to apologise to the Radio 4 listeners who complained. Naughtie’s mistake was a slip of the tongue – a hilarious and unfortunate one, but a slip of the tongue all the same. The mind boggles as to how this could be deemed offensive just because it took the shape of a taboo word.

The curious thing is, swearing wasn’t always frowned upon. In Anglo-Saxon and Norse culture, it was commonplace to undertake in flyting: the act of hurling long and elaborate insults at your peers. Studies suggest this was a form of social bonding, not meant to offend, but to let off steam and entertain. In fact, scholars of swearing, such as Tony McEnery, suggest that current attitudes towards swearing weren’t formed until the late 1600s – when the issue of social class came into play.

Swearing and class
In 1690, certain English citizens decided that society was slipping into sin, and this was bloody well not top drawer. The Society for the Reformation of Manners (SRM) was born, and made it their crusade to clean up Britain. While laws against swearing did exist at the time, they were rarely called into action, until the SRM lobbied for new and better ones (ones which saw the accuser receive a cut of the accused’s fine, just saying). The SRM were middle class, and saw their reformation as a way of regulating the working classes, therefore entrenching the belief that swearing is associated with commoners (and, by extension, poor morals and a lack of education). Interestingly, there was no attempt to prosecute the gentry and upper classes for their lewd tongues.

While, of course, these laws did not persist, the attitude did, becoming ingrained in society and being echoed in Mary Whitehouse’s efforts in the 1960s to Clean Up TV. Both campaigns play to Moral Panic Theory, in which ‘a condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests’[8] – and swearing remains a moral panic that rears its ugly head with some frequency, often in the right-wing press. Thus, the concept of swearing and a lack of vocabulary, education and moral standard are so tangled together that it would take a hugely concerted effort to extricate them.

But, when it comes to swearing, a hugely concerted effort is really what’s needed, and that might not even be enough. One of the most fascinating things about the concept of swearing is that it is a self-perpetuating taboo. ‘Obscenity lies not in words or things, but in attitudes that people have about words and things’ says Alan Walker Read – and he could not be more right. A good deal of swear words are merely used as phatic talk, expressing social relationships, or as emphatic talk, to add oomph to an utterance – yet these instances still fall under the umbrella of swearing, and thus of vulgarity. There’s a reason for this: the taboo of swearing persists because to use a word brings with it a thrill of breaking the rules, and to refrain from using it cements its taboo status. Basically, we’re fucked either way!

It’s hard to see a way out of this vicious circle of swearing-as-taboo, and on some level swear words losing their edginess defeats the object of adding that fizzle of shock into a vanilla sentence. But one thing linguists can do, at least, is to debunk a few swearing myths and stereotypes, and celebrate a much maligned aspect of language for the joyous, productive and and complex bastard it is.

[1] #things I have said more than once:!/curlybeach/status/8832081375264768
[2] It did not, as the urban myth states, develop as an acronym of ‘Fornicating Under the Consent of the King’; in the Middle Ages when the Black Death was rife, the story goes that villagers had to watch how many kids they popped out, and we made to seek express permission from the monarchy to get their freak on. And while we’re here, shit didn’t develop as an acronym of ‘Store High In Transit’, either. Take THAT, commonly-held misconceptions.
[3] Jay, T (1992) Cursing in America. Philadelphia, John Benjamin.
[8] Cohen, S (2002) Folk Devils and Moral Panics. Oxford, Routledge.

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