Tag Archives: neurolinguistics

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: http://twitter.com/#!/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.
[4] http://people.howstuffworks.com/swearing4.htm
[5] http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2003/jul/07/television.artsfeatures?INTCMP=SRCH
[6] http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/jun/28/david-mitchell-swearing-television?INTCMP=SRCH
[7] http://www.cosmopolitanuniversity.ac/library/Fuck.pdf
[8] Cohen, S (2002) Folk Devils and Moral Panics. Oxford, Routledge.

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