Home » People & Culture » Swearing


The first thing anyone wants to know when they learn a language is usually the bad words.  It is important if you want to understand people at their worst.  For example, the refs for the World Cup match between England and the USofA did their part to brush up on how the players would be taunting each other.  But as practical as learning the swear words has become, we still have our limits as to when we can use them.  It’s just that those limits are fading fast.

One of my favorite swear words is declaring that something “sucks”.  I like this word because the use of it was one of the few times that my Mom ever yelled at me.  The lecture has stuck pretty hard.  Despite my wincing, this particular word is used very commonly these days, both in person and on broadcast shows.  We have yet to cross the line to the slightly coarser “blows” as a standard, however, but this is far from the only example of a swear word making it to common use.

There is billboard visible from I-94 just about the line between Minneapolis and Saint Paul declaring that someone has been “pissing off the competition” for some period of time.  It wasn’t that long ago that you would never see this in print looming over an interstate.  But there it is.  Should we take all this as a sign of a seriously degrading culture that is going straight to Aitch-Eee-double-hockey-sticks?

I’ve never understood why some words are off limits, but being off limits has a particular enticement that makes them very plump and useful.  Kurt Vonnegut taught that obscenities should be used as a kind of punctuation, a way to highlight phrases that you wanted to stick in someone’s head.  That’s a useful tool, when done right.  If we really have to have words that are used sparingly we can at least put them to good use.

Yet more and more, these words have lost their effectiveness through daily use.  The one place that quaintly refuses certain words is in broadcasting, a standard I’ve decided I should use for this particular blog.  It’s why I had to resort to the word (CowPuckey) recently.  This keeps the harsh language in reserve and allows me to keep a very general audience without offending anyone.  Besides, (CowPuckey) is funny.  But aren’t there people, as a director of the BBC once said, one should like to offend?

I think the answer is that, no, it’s probably best to keep language as free of these words as possible.  They have their uses and I think it’s best to keep them in reserve for maximum effect.  I can accept the increasing use of “sucks” as a mild kind of swear word, a word for more daily use, because it reserves the harsher ones for when you really mean it.  The English famously have a broad range of swear words in different grades, starting from “bloody” and going to “sod” and into a few words I’d rather not say.  American English appears to be developing a rich vocabulary of these words, and it’s probably all for the best.

It might make things a bit harder for the foreigners who have to brush up on our latest ways of offending each other, but that’s OK.  We don’t want to let them in on all of our secrets, do we?

8 thoughts on “Swearing

  1. It’s good to reserve the really bad words for when you really desire the effect… for instance, when I say the “F” word, people close to me know that I’m REALLY pissed off. 😉

    By contrast, many of the teens I know use it as every-other-word, and it not only loses meaning then, but I also tend to lose respect for those who depend on those words and can’t seem to come up with any original way to say what they want to say. It takes very little effort to swear, but it takes real thought to come up with ways not to, and it’s a lot classier.

  2. A little pepper goes a long way is how my mom always said it. She would swear on rare occasions but each time tell me that you have to use the words carefully. Somehow I got that this was the “ladylike” way to swear, but I don’t think she actually said it.

    I agree, Molly, that this is way classier and far more effective.

    The idea that they are a kind of punctuation is a funny one. I’ll have to think about it. But I agree that we have a lot more sort-of swear words around than we used to and those are more interesting in a way. I’ll have to think about that.

  3. Interesting direction for the comments!

    There are a lot of class and gender issues tied up in this, aren’t there? I guess I didn’t tackle them because they aren’t as strong as they used to be – everyone swears a lot more than they used to. But those of us who are solid Gen-X at least were taught better, so I think we have the decency to feel guilty about using these words. 🙂

    No, seriously, brevity is the soul of wit and discretion is the better part of valor and I don’t know where I was going with this but I think it was going to be prfound. 🙂

  4. I agree with Molly. I don’t swear that often and when I do it’s because I’ve been pushed – someone or something has crossed that line. I remember as kid being soundly slapped round the side of my head after I had said “gor blimey”. I’d just heard people saying this as a response to something which was a surprise or shock. After having being slapped soundly, it was then explained to me that it meant, may God blind me. From that day on I certainly minded my Ps and Qs. I never ever swore at home, I never swore in front of family members – I still don’t.

  5. I’ve always thought that bleeping things out on broadcasts was really stupid. It’s not like people don’t know what was said.

    I guess guys use these words all the time without worrying about it, but I guess it is different for women. I always think it’s funny when someone says “F-ingheimer” out loud, like their talking to kids or something. If your going to swear just swear I say.

  6. I think folks need some more information on language use through time before jumping to any conclusions about how it has changed. For instance, I’d bet brazen use of culture specific profanity has been rampant among kids in Western cultures for centuries, it just took modern technology to really bring it to the fore. Does everyone here really forget how much they swore as children playing baseball or kickball at the local park? Were me and my 25 friends the only ones who did it? Isn’t the exclamation of a swear word by a kid in the presence of an adult a sort of declaration of maturity (or at least a cry for being dealt with on some level as an adult)?

    I think this is an interesting conversation, but I also think the premise of “contextual limits for swearing are fading fast” is completely off the mark. Instead, the same thing is happening now that has always happened since the dawn of language – words and their contexts are under the process of renegotiation. That being a most natural thing, it shouldn’t worry or offend anyone.

    Finally, I agree that words ought to be used with precision, because clumsy use of language brings about clumsy thought (or exchange of thoughts). Perhaps why some people get nervous about swear words changing contexts is because they’re worried about losing their ability to use them with precision – being outmoded linguistically by the younger generation, and God forbid!

  7. Thanks, Skelly. It really is a matter of how such “reserved” words are used in an “unreserved” moment that counts, in my opinion.

    I’m not sure we use them more or even less in speech over time. I’m pretty sure that we were more careful about putting them into print before, however. That may not be a large change.

    I am impressed that we are developing that range of swearing, from words that are usable in general company to the “really bad words”. I think that denotes a lot of flavor which really makes such words more meaningful. That’s what I care about – the poetry of it. 🙂

  8. Skelly makes some good points, but I just saw an article yesterday on how children in movies are swearing a lot/a lot more/a lot worse, and this is recent.

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