You say CONtroversy, I say conTROversy. JANA STAMMBERGER explores pronunciation prescriptions and descriptions

We can learn fixed rules in the field of science, which, if applied in the way we are taught, necessarily lead us to the correct result. Can the same circumstances be said about language?

Here, we are already at the core of a major debate.  The dominant view in the field of linguistics says that language is not an absolute set of rules. The conventions of language use are man-made rather than laid down by the laws of nature, and therefore keep changing –  and always have done (Curzan, 2014, p. 1). This view is also the “basis for dictionaries, which record changes in vocabulary and usage” (Battistella, 2007, p. 5). The declared aim of the Oxford English Dictionary is “to provide a brief, scientific account of the history and usage of all the words of the English language, wherever and whenever they were spoken”, and is therefore a record of the English language rather than an instruction on how to use it (OED online, 2018). Judgements about ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ and ‘good’ as opposed to ‘bad’ language are usually frowned upon by descriptivists.

In contrast, in his book Strictly English, Simon Heffer claims that the question if English can be good “is not rhetorical” (Heffer, 2010, p. xv). Prescriptivists like him make attempts to pin down one point in time where the language was allegedly “pure”, that is, correct. This they regard as the ‘standard’ that they make efforts to maintain or to get back to. However, this is not merely their own opinion. Heffer claims that “whether the linguistics experts like it or not, there remains an idea of “standard English” as it is spoken in Britain […], set by an educated class” (Heffer, 2010, p. xv).

Who belongs to this educated class? Bernard Lamb may be one of those people. Educated he is – given his large range of achievements, including BSc, PhD, DSc, FSB, CBiol and FRSM. This alone, of course, does not imply that he is a potential prescriptivist. Nor does his age (he is now in his late 70s) – although a prescriptive tendency often increases proportionally to age. This might be accounted for by the – in some respects quite rapid – change of language use, which is seen as a process of decay or “fall in standards”, to use Lamb’s very own words. But for more than 10 years he has been President of the Queen’s English Society which was “formed in 1972 by a small group of people who loved the English language and were concerned at the widespread deterioration in standards” (Queen’s English Society). The Society is leading campaigns to spread the teaching and use of what they call ‘proper English’.

There are different levels on which people criticise language. While the Queen’s English Society explicitly focuses on “written and spoken English”, both have to be looked at separately (Queen’s English Society, 2018, Standards). The English spelling system, for instance, has been fairly fixed for a couple of centuries, since during the 18th century efforts were made to “enshrin[e] English spelling to prevent further corruption” (Horobin, 2013, p. 144). The focus was on orthography as “this is the aspect of the language that is most easily regulated” (Horobin, 2013, p. 144). Pronunciation is a different matter, as it is much harder to standardise, which does not mean, of course, that the attempt has not been made. Would you pronounce the term ‘controversy’ with emphasis on the first or on the second syllable?  According to the OED, ” early editions of D. Jones Eng. Pronouncing Dict. give only first-syllable stress; later editions of Jones give second-syllable stress as a variant from at least ed. 8 (1947). J. C. Wells Longman Pronunc. Dict. (1990) noted that while among RP speakers the first-syllable stress probably still predominated, a majority of British speakers now favoured second-syllable stress” (OED Online, 2018). Obviously, both options have co-existed for at least decades, and the dominant or preferred use has changed over time.

So who determines how we should pronounce words? We do, said the BBC shortly after their foundation in the 1920s. Arthur Lloyd James, then member of the BBC Advisory Committee of Spoken English, condemned “the slurring of sounds, the missing of sounds, the untidy articulation of sounds” (Mugglestone, 2008, p. 212). The BBC was promoting an RP accent as the standard pronunciation, which is why it is still commonly referred to as BBC English. Yet, there has been a shift within the BBC, away from prescriptivism. Daniel Jones, also member of the Advisory Committee, wrote in the preface to the 1956 edition of the English Pronouncing Dictionary that  “no attempt was made to decide how people ought to pronounce”, and RP meant “merely widely understood pronunciation” and he did “not hold it up as a standard which everyone [was] recommended to adopt” (Wotschke, 2008, p. 97). These days the BBC are much more liberal when it comes to varieties of English. On the radio and on television, regional dialects are no exception among presenters.

This has led to sharp criticism and complaints by readers and institutions about “falling standards” and a “drop in quality” (Creighton, 2014). Whether they actively support it or not, a strong idea of a standard set to be kept by authorities remains to be present in people’s minds.

JANA STAMMBERGER, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Battistella, E.L. (2005). Bad language. Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford UP.

Creighton, S. (2014, October 30). BBC stars who can’t say ‘aitch’: Corporation accused of falling standards after viewers highlight way number of presenters say the letter ‘H’. Daily Mail.

Curzan, A. (2014). Fixing English: Prescriptivism and language history.  Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

Heffer, S. (2010). Strictly English. The correct way to write and why it matters. London, United Kingdom: Windmill Books.

Horobin, S. (2013). Does spelling matter?. Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

Jones, D. (1967). The Pronunciation of English (4th ed.). Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge UP.

Mugglestone, L. (2008). Spoken English and the BBC: In the Beginning.  Arbeiten aus Anglistik und Amerikanistik 33(2), 197-215.

OED online. (2018).  The OED and innovation. 

Queen’s English Society. (2018). Standards. Policy Document.

Queen’s English Society. (2018). Campaign. 

Wotschke, I. (2008). How educated English speak English. Lewiston NY, United States: The Edwin Mellen Press.


Does ‘loo’ have the same meaning as ‘shithouse’? NICOLE STALLDECKER investigates struggles with taboo language in everyday life

Two words, but the same meaning. The only difference is the context in which both words are used. ‘Loo’ is a ‘clean’ word that is used in formal situations, whereas ‘shithouse’ is regarded as a ‘dirty’ taboo word. But why is ‘shithouse’ considered as more shocking and offensive if it is a synonym for ‘loo’?

In daily life, speakers struggle with the correct use of vocabulary for specific contexts. They have to decide whether they use euphemisms, dysphemism or orthophemism to avoid offence. Euphemisms are words or phrases that are an alternative for the taboo word. The speaker’s aim is to maintain his and the recipient’s face in the conversation. ‘Loo’ would be a euphemism for the dysphemism ‘shithouse’ which has negative connotations and an offensive meaning. The third option is an orthophemism, which is the direct expression and it is “not sweet-sounding, evasive or overly polite, nor harsh, blunt or offensive” (Allan and Burridge, 2006). ‘Loo’ and ‘shithouse’ are cross-varietal synonyms that have the same meaning, but they are used in different contexts.

There is another view that deals with swearing, but the focus is on the biological aspect. According to Soanes (2002), swearing or taboo language “can increase tolerance for pain”. There are several studies that show that if a speaker repeats a swear word constantly and they hold their hand in ice-cold water at the same time, the people who swear can tolerate the pain longer than people who do not swear. Researchers found out that “swearing increases a speaker’s emotional arousal leading to a stress-induced analgesia as a part of the […] fight response” (Stephens and Zile, 2017). It shows that swearing is linked to the emotion centre of the brain. The reactions can be positive or negative. The athlete Bryony Shaw swore on TV spontaneously when he tried to express his happiness about his Bronze medal at the Olympics. His response was: “I’m so fucking happy” (The Telegraph 2008). Was it meant to offend the audience or just a spontaneous reaction of his emotional centre and therefore a biological reflex?

In the following studies, they examine the relationship between emotional arousal and swearing fluency.

The participants play an FPS video game and their emotions are manipulated. They play two different video games. The first game is a Medal of Honor Frontline FPS video game, whereas the second game is a golf video game. The participants are 60 undergraduate and postgraduate students from Keele University, 33 women and 27 men, aged 18-43 years old. All participants play the two games and the results show that the FPS video game increases the emotional arousal which caused an increased tendency for the production of swear words. The results imply that swearing is a natural reaction to emotional arousal. That means that people do not always want to offend people in their environment when they swear. It can be a physical reaction to the emotional state.

According to Allan and Burridge (2006), “swearing and cussing is […] a function of the right hemisphere of the brain for a majority of the population, whereas normal language functions are carried out in the left hemisphere”. The right hemisphere deals with emotions, whereas the “left part controls the impulses for searing”. Swearing is carried out in the left hemisphere and prefrontal areas, which explains certain behaviors. “When [the left part is] damaged, control over inappropriate cursing is lost” (Allan, Burridge, 2006).

One of the most popular taboo words in English speaking countries is ‘fuck’. In the past, it was a word that was forbidden to use in social contexts and it was regarded as highly offensive. Nowadays, it is present in everyone’s daily life and in many imaginative written texts (McEnery and Xiao, 2004). It can be used as a verb, noun, adjective, and interjection and it is present in many fields like music, film and television.  They pushed the boundaries and used it constantly which had the consequence that it is regarded as a standard word (Murphy, 2009). It has also a different development in Irish English. Instead of ‘fucking’ they use ‘fecking’, which is a euphemistic taboo word that occurs 104 times per million words in the corpus.  It developed in the mid-to late 1990s in Ireland and its meaning can be explained as “to keep a look out” (Murphy, 2009). If you go even further back, you see that the word ‘feck’ is present in Old English ‘feccan’, which means ‘to fetch’, and in German ‘fegen’, which means ‘to plunder’. ‘Feck’ is used as “an euphemistic form whose meaning has been layered on top of a much older expression” (Murphy, 2009).

But ‘fuck’ is not the only word that experienced that development. There are many taboo words that “constantly evolve” and they “[become] increasingly acceptable in mainstream language use” (Murphy, 2009). Nevertheless, there are certain groups that use ‘fuck’ more often than other groups. The group that uses that taboo word mostly are young men in their twenties which implies that the word is “a marker of young adulthood [and] it indicates that it is a marker of maleness” (Murphy, 2009). It is interesting that the literal meaning of ‘fuck’, which means ‘to have sex’, is not often used in daily conversations. The original meaning disappeared in the background and nowadays ‘fuck’ is mostly used to emphasize positive or negative feelings (Murphy, 2009).

According to Jay (1999), who invented the Neuro-Psycho-Social (NPS) theory of speech, it is important to include taboo words and swearing because they give you information about a “speaker’s knowledge of pragmatics, politeness […] figurative language”. Taboo language is crucial in order to understand the real “emotional intensity” of utterances which influences the message (Murphy, 2009). It is understandable that taboo words offend people in specific situations, but it would be wrong to ban them at all because they are part of our daily conversations and speech and they are clearly connected to our emotions. Why is it bad to express the intense and real message by using taboo words only because our society wants us to behave differently? Is it not our right to speak freely as long as we know that we have to use other lexis when we are in another social environment?

NICOLE STALLDECKER, English Language visiting student, University of Chester, UK


Allan, K. & Burridge, K. (2006). Forbidden Words: Taboo and the Censoring of Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

McEnery, T. & Xiao, R. (2006). Corpus-based language studies: an advanced resource book. New York: Routledge.

Murphy, B. (2009). ’She’s a fucking ticket’: the pragmatics in Irish English – an age and gender perspective. Volume 4, Edingburgh University Press.

Stephens, R. & Zile, A. (2017). Does Emotional Arousal Influence Swearing Fluency? Volume 46, Journal of Psycholinguistic Research.


Why the f*** are some words more offensive than others? HANNAH BURY swears that context and content are crucial

I think we can all agree with Hazlitt (1821) that “[t]he English are a rather foul-mouthed nation”. Yet, it is more difficult to determine exactly how or why swear words have the impact they do. Should we allocate the blame to the way a word sounds, or the inherent meaning behind it? Perhaps this is just the tip of the ice-berg: maybe we can tolerate certain words in everyday conversation, apart from when they are spoken in ‘inappropriate’ situations?

Context is extremely important when exploring what we consider to be ‘taboo’ language. Terms like ‘swearing’ and ‘bad language’ are encompassed by this larger umbrella concept, but they don’t really mean the same thing. According to Stapleton (2010), “[s]wearing is a linguistic practice based on taboo, or that which is forbidden”, whereas McEnery (2006) claims that bad language constitutes “any word or phrase which, when used in what one might call polite conversation, is likely to cause offence”. Profanity is a form of taboo language which strays even further than these definitions, as it’s specifically associated with “religious cursing” (Battistella, 2005) or blasphemy. ‘Taboo’ language serves many different functions in society; it may be acceptable to swear freely with your friends, but we would probably refrain from such language around our nan!

Swearing, when spoken in any context, has the potential to be derogatory. Unsurprisingly, “[t]aboo words occupy a unique place in language because once learned, their use is heavily context driven” (Jay & Janschewitz, 2012). We may label someone we dislike as a ‘motherfucker’ or a ‘prick’ in order to purposely offend them, but we could also use swear words as intensifiers or a way of being affectionate to someone we love (McKervey, 2013).

Anyone familiar with the phrase “I fucking love you”? Because “the more ‘informal’ swearing becomes, the more the language becomes elastic, malleable and flexible” (Hughes, 1998). Therefore, each one of us is probably guilty of doing it at some point in any form; swearing eventually becomes second nature if you do it enough!

Contrastingly, the content of swear words might be more important than the context they are spoken in. Many swear words are figurative; their denotation is not often intended to mean something literal (Hughes, 1998). So if you called someone a ‘shit’ or a ‘cretin’ it might affect your popularity, but it’s unlikely to cause any lasting offence. However, swear words associated with stigmatised societal taboos are extremely powerful and damaging (Hughes, 1998). If you called somebody a ‘rapist’ or a ‘child molester’, these labels would have a much stronger impact: this suggests that the content of words is paramount, regardless of the context in which they are spoken.

Either way, let’s forget the taboo of swearing for a moment: dare we say it might actually be good for us?

According to Wen (2016) “[t]he most obvious advantage of swearing is to communicate effectively […] It also allows us to express anger, disgust or pain, or indicate to someone that they need to back off, without having to resort to physical violence”. Much research into this area supports how the benefits of swearing work in practice. For example, one experiment encouraged participants to articulate specific swear words freely. They found that individuals had a positively heightened physical response to this, especially those who were punished for swearing as children; they were able to repeat these words freely as adults (Tomash & Reed, 2013). Surely this shows that swearing can be a great way for people to express themselves; sometimes ‘generic’ words just don’t cut it. Most people would probably agree that they’d rather tell someone to ‘fuck off’ instead of starting a fight they may not win!

As Hughes (1998) asserts, “[v]irtually all societies, even the most modern, retain some taboos against swearing”, so it is likely that taboo language will always offend people. Ultimately, however, we can’t say that swear words are only ‘taboo’ because of their linguistic content or the manner or the context in which they are spoken. Instead, it is much more fulfilling to accept both views. The content of swear words like ‘crap’ signifies a specific taboo subject of “defecation” (Alan & Burridge, 2006). However, ‘crap’ has a mostly figurative meaning in context; both content and context are combined in order for swearing to ‘work’ effectively. What do you think? To swear or not to swear? It’s a personal choice, but pick your context and audience wisely!

HANNAH BURY, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Allan, K. & Burridge, K. (2006). Forbidden Words: Taboo and the Censoring of Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Battistella, E.L. (2005). Bad Language: Are some words better than others? New York: Oxford University Press.

Christie, C. (2013). The relevance of taboo language: an analysis of the indexical values of swearwords. Journal of Pragmatics, 58, pp.152-169.

Hughes, G. (1998). Swearing: a social history of foul language, oaths and profanity in English. London: Penguin.

Jay, T. and Janschewitz, K. (2008). The pragmatics of swearing. Journal of Politeness Research, 4, pp. 267-288.

McEnery, T. (2006). Swearing in English: Bad language, purity and power from 1586 to the present. London and New York: Routledge.

Tomash, J. & Reed, P. (2013, July). The Relationship Between Punishment History and Skin Conductance Elicited During Swearing. Research Gate.

Wen, T. (2016, March 3). The surprising benefits of swearing. BBC Future.

Apostrolypse now? HOLLY GREGG discusses whether a misplaced punctuation mark or new words and meanings really is the end of the world

Is a misplaced apostrophe really the end of the world? Well for many people ‘mistakes’ in punctuation and grammar can be irritating, infuriating and quite possibly catastrophic. This is no secret. I’m sure that at some point someone has corrected your speech or writing, or maybe you have even been the one to correct others. Mistakes in language can be harshly critiqued, from the confusion between ‘your’ and ‘you’re’ to more complex errors such as the distinction between ‘less’ and ‘fewer’, the latter being used to refer to items that can be individually counted. With guides to the correct English grammar such as Gywnne’s Grammar (2013) reaching the top of the mainstream book charts, and Eats, Shoots, and Leaves (2009) selling over 13 million copies worldwide, it is clear to see that this issue really does rub people up the wrong way.

The linguistic term for this practise is ‘prescriptivism’. A prescriptivist is described by Bauer, Holmes & Warren (2006, p. 254) as a person who “[b]elieves that there is an external measure of what is good in English, a standard to which appeal can be made”. Prescriptivists condemn the use of language that does not comply with the standard form, regarding it as ‘incorrect’, ‘poor’ or simply just ridiculous. However, there is an issue that rises from this belief. How do we define a clear form of Standard English to which reference can be made, when English is a global language that is evolving and adapting to a world that is constantly changing? New words and word uses are introduced into dictionaries every year. The current March 2018 update of the Oxford English Dictionary saw the addition of 700 new words/phrases, senses and sub-entries such as ‘hippotherapy’, ‘microplastic’ and changing uses of ‘even’ (OED online, 2018). Evidently, as a language evolves, words change in meaning. Therefore, a standard form becomes increasingly difficult to define.

However, there are some people who believe that this is a change for the worse. Many grammarians such as Gwynne (2013, p.xviii), suggest that we have a duty to protect the language that has been gifted to us from our ancestors, ensuring it is not vandalized without resistance. It is on this premise that books have been published, with the intentions of fixing language use. An example of this is Simon Heffer’s Simply English: An A-Z of Avoidable Errors (2014). Heffer aims to set the standard by documenting examples of the ‘correct’ forms of language use in terms of spelling, grammar and punctuation. An example from the book is the correct use of the noun ‘amount’. Heffer (2014, p. 39) states that “there is an amount of one commodity. When there is a multiplicity, there is a number”. Use of the phrase ‘a large amount of people’ is described by Heffer as a solecism, due to the fact that people refers to more than one commodity. In comparison with ‘a large amount of water’ for example, which refers to a singular commodity and is therefore technically correct. However, it could be argued that if the meaning of the utterance is understood, does it really matter?

The opposing position within the debate is descriptivism. A descriptivist is described by Hitchings (2011, p. 23) as someone who “avoids passing judgements and provides explanation and analysis”. Linguists are encouraged to adopt this view, which involves describing and observing language, rather than harshly critiquing it. This perspective allows linguists to investigate the different ways language is currently being used, and some challenging arguments have been put forward against prescriptivism. Horobin (2013) questions why we are trying so hard to uphold linguistic standards that are arbitrary and constantly changing. Some prescriptive rules are still upheld today from over 200 years ago, and many have no rational explanation as to why one form is preferable over another. As time and language moves on should we let go of outdated criticisms too? It is also suggested that the practise of prescriptivism can intimidate people. Harsh comments and judgements about our language use that many of us have experienced could be unproductive to the flow of language. This can knock confidence in some people’s ability to communicate and let language flow (Ashton, 2016).

Personally, I stand with Cameron (1996, p. ix), who takes a perspective from “a position that is to some extent critical of both camps”. The process of maintaining a standard form has been important in the development of spoken and particularly written English, as it allows us to communicate efficiently and clearly. To some extent these standards need to be maintained for this to continue. However, language has and will continue to grow, and I do believe that we should embrace the creative potential with which we have been privileged.

HOLLY GREGG, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Ashton, R. (2016, May 26). Grammar pedants: you’re helping less than you think. Emphasis

Bauer, L., Holmes, J., & Warren, P. (2006). Language matters. Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Cameron, D. (1995). Verbal hygiene. Abingdon: Routledge.

Gwynne, N. M. (2013). Gwynne’s grammar: The ultimate introduction to grammar and the writing of good English. London: Ebury.

Heffer, S. (2014). Simply English: An A-Z of avoidable errors. London: Windmill Books.

Hitchings, H. (2011). The language wars: A history of proper English. London: John Murray.

Horobin, S. (2013). Does spelling matter? Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Truss, L. (2009). Eats, shoots & leaves: The zero tolerance approach to punctuation. London: Fourth Estate.

The great British ‘scone-off’! GEMMA EVANS gets ensconced in the ‘descriptivism’ v ‘prescriptivism’ debate

Picture the scene. You are out enjoying some afternoon tea with your relatives. You hear fellow guests ordering scones. Would it frustrate you if you heard one guest pronounce ‘scone’ as in ‘cone’? Or, would it irritate you if you heard a guest pronounce scone as in ‘gone’? The debate of how to pronounce ‘scone’ is one that is quite popular and can often cause heated discussions. The major difference between the two pronunciations is that of the vowel represented by the letter ‘o’ – either a long vowel (/əʊ/) or short (/ɒ/). (Another debate in the scone world is jam or clotted cream first. However, that is a debate for another time).

Baked goods aside, a wider debate in the world of linguistics is ‘prescriptivism’ vs ‘descriptivism’. One linguist who discusses the difference between these two terms is Curzan (2014) who asserts that “[p]rescriptive commentators and scholars react to language change, typically with a desire to ‘fix’ the language” and “[d]escriptive linguists study language change as a natural and inevitable part of any living language” (p. 1). I agree that language change is “natural and inevitable” as although we may dislike different pronunciations and spellings of words, language is always going to change.

Deborah Cameron (1995) coined the concept of ‘verbal hygiene’ to describe the “urge to improve or ‘clean up’ language” (p. 1). However, she states that “‘verbal hygiene’ is not intended as a synonym for ‘prescriptivism’” and  argues that “[t]he term ‘prescriptivism’ has a particular value attached to it, a negative connotation” (1995, p. 3).

When considering prescriptivism, orthography (which refers to spelling) is one area of controversy. According to Horobin (2013), “[i]n the eighteenth century the focus was on enshrining English spelling” (p. 144). I think many people might support a prescriptive view of spelling because it is something that is concrete. Dictionaries provide us with physical proof of words. We use this proof as a foundation for how to spell a word. Due to the influence of modern technology, we have new variations on the spelling of certain words. As Horobin (2013) states “[t]he major factor affecting English spelling today, which may have implications for the future of our spelling system, is the influence of electronic modes of communication”. For example, text messaging has introduced numbers that replace words, such as ‘2moro’ and ‘gr8’ (p. 212). Personally, I would choose not to use these variations within my text messages. Does this make me a prescriptivist? I am very much on the side of descriptivism and fully support language changing. Naturally, I think there will be occasions where you may disagree with the way someone pronounces something or the way someone spells a word.

Horobin (2013) discusses John Humphrys’ view on this argument. He states that “John Humphrys accused the texting generation of wrecking the English language, describing them as ‘vandals who are doing to our language what Genghis Khan did to his neighbours eight hundred years ago’” (p.213). Furthermore, Horobin explains that “Humphrys was responding to the Oxford English Dictionary’s decision to remove the hyphen in some 16,000 words for the publication of the sixth edition” (p. 213). This could be considered as evidence for the OED being descriptive. In removing the hyphen, the OED is responding to language change. For example, the words ‘bumblebee’ and ‘ice cream’ have had their hyphens removed (sounds like a medical procedure!). Originally, they were hyphenated (’bumble-bee’, ‘ice-cream’). As Battistella (2007) states, “[d]escriptive grammar is the basis for dictionaries, which record changes in vocabulary and usage” (p.5).

The ‘prescriptivism vs descriptivism’ debate is likely to rumble on. Scone as in ‘gone’ or scone as in ‘cone’? It does not matter. As long as there are lashings of jam and cream then all is good!

GEMMA EVANS, English language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Battistella, E. L. (2005). Bad Language. Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

Cameron, D. (1995). Verbal hygiene. London, United Kingdom: Routledge.

Curzan, A. (2014). Fixing English: Prescriptivism and language history. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

Horobin, S. (2013). Does spelling matter?. Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.



How do you flavour your speech? Are you a Gordon Ramsey or a Nigella Lawson? JAKE PARRY discusses when ‘fuck’ is an acceptable menu item

Why is it that many of us are so ready to use the word ‘fuck’ in times of merriment with friends, but not in many formal social environments with unfamiliar faces? Hoeksema and Napoli (2008) argue that swearing “flavors our speech, it shows great variation among social groups and especially social settings, and it changes all the time” (p. 347). So perhaps this is the root of the matter, that different social settings favour different flavours of language. You wouldn’t go to a job interview and explain how “fucking brilliant” you are at stacking shelves, but you might if you were at the pub with friends, explaining how good you are at your new job.

Kapoor (2016) reports that Beers-Fägersten differentiated between two categories of swearing: “(a) annoyance swearing, associated with greater transgression, where the swearer is stressed; and (b) social swearing, associated with social context, where the swearer is relaxed” (pp. 259-260). The example given prior (the job interview vs. the pub) definitely falls into category B, where swearing for intensified meaning is social and the individual is relaxed. Kapoor also suggests that social swearing “promotes social bonding, enabling the formation of coalitions” (2016, p. 260) but this is quite obviously ineffective in the context of a job interview, even if the interviewee’s goal is to form a coalition with the interviewer for the express purpose of being hired. Using ‘fuck’ in an interview would issue the quite appropriate response that the interviewee may not be able to act in a professional manner with clientele, as they have already ignored quite a stable social norm.

Perhaps it is a matter of politeness, as Isaacs (2014) argues: “Swear words are words not in general polite usage” (p. 1). It simply wouldn’t be polite to assume enough social intimacy to use vulgar words (words of an unrefined nature, like ‘fuck’) in unfamiliar company. Allan and Burridge (2006) argue that “[w]hat counts as courteous behaviour varies between human groups; and, because the smallest group consists of just two people, the variation is boundless” (p. 29). Lexical self-censorship, or politeness in this case, between human groups is “sensitive to social standing” (Allan & Burridge, 2006, p. 30). In the context of an interview, the social standing is clear; the interviewee is asking something of the interviewer (i.e. to be considered for the job), and so with that request, the interviewer is given a certain power over the interviewee. This power demands a certain respect for the social standing of the particular “context, place and time. That which is polite is at least inoffensive and at best pleasing to an audience” (Allan & Burridge, 2006, p. 29). As the goal is established, to be hired, the interviewee must be sure to please the interviewer to accomplish it.

This obviously is not the case in the context of talking to friends over a pint. The concept of politeness does not necessarily apply in the same way here. Allan and Burridge (2006) state that “good manners” depends on a number of factors, including: “the relationship between speakers, their audience, and anyone within earshot; the subject matter; the situation (setting); and whether a spoken or written medium is used” (p. 29). This brings us back to what Kapoor (2016) said about swearing promoting “social bonding [and coalition]” (p. 260). The familiarity level is much higher here, the relationship between speakers is more intimate and, as such, the expected standard of politeness differs to that of an interview setting. It is socially acceptable to ‘flavour’ your speech in the company of friends as there are no stakes involved, unlike in an interview.

While swearing does flavour our speech and promote social comradery, it is entirely dependent on the context in which it is used, as previously discussed. Using ‘fucking’ as a lexical intensifier may be quite innocuous in an everyday social setting, but in an interview, it would surely flag up as an ignored social norm of expected politeness, and decrease one’s chances of being hired. As this is not the intended outcome of an interview, we all have to censor our flavourful speech unless, of course, you’ve applied to work in Gordon Ramsay’s kitchen.

JAKE PARRY, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Allan, K., & Burridge, K. (2006). Forbidden Words. New York, United States of America, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hoeksema, J., & Napoli, D. J. (2008). Just for the hell of it: A comparison of two taboo-term constructions. Journal of Linguistics, 44, 347-378.

Isaacs, D. (2014). Swearing. Journal of Paediatrics and Child Health, 50, 1-2.

Kapoor, H. (2016). Swears in Context: The Difference Between Casual and Abusive Swearing. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research, 45(2), 259-274.

Caring Unattached Nice Type. Why so serious? RACHAEL BARRY explores the offensiveness of ‘cunt’


The notorious swear word of English. But what makes this four letter word so shocking? Is it the sound? Is it phonologically offensive? Is it the way in which it is said? Has it always been this outrageously offensive word?

The noun ‘cunt’ is derived from the Old Germanic “kunte”, meaning cliff or valley that “bears flowers every four weeks and fruit every nine months” (Wajnryb, 2004). Similarly, in Scandinavian, “kunta” now “kant” carries almost the same meaning, used in modern Norwegian to refer to a mountains edge. So has the English meaning taken such a sharp descent into taboo?

In 1230, the street name “Gropecunt Lane” was common around the UK, most notably in London’s ‘red light’ district. In 1275, records show a place named “Shavecuntwelle” in Kent, aptly describing the nearby valley with a small wooded area. There were no negative connotations associated with the use of ‘cunt’ at this time. The Middle ages provided many literary works containing the word ‘cunt’. Chaucer used “queynte” throughout The Canterbury Tales, which was defined as “an elegant pleasing thing” in Middle English (MED, 2018). In those times it was used to refer to the vagina without any suggestion of vulgarity. Rather, it was used as a utilitarian reference for female genitalia. When did these attitudes change?

In Victorian times, the idea of polite society shunned the use of everything taboo. They shied away from talking about sex and vulgar things. This saw the use of ‘cunt’ as improper and undignified, a concept challenged by D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928). The book was subject to a watershed obscenity trial (1960) due to the content of obscene and sexual terms, where ‘cunt’ appeared 14 times. This was a major public event that tested the new Obscene Publication Act (1959), which allowed publishers to escape conviction if they could show the works were of literary merit. The verdict delivered on 2nd November, 1960, was ‘not guilty’ (Robertson, 2010). This trial challenged the old Victorian view on censorship, allowing these ‘forbidden’ taboo words to be published. This in turn began a revival in modern English. The 1970s saw a feminist movement to reclaim the word, with the view that they owned the ‘cunts of the world’, and so they should have control over its use, battling the inherent misogyny of the word (Braier, 2016).

Today, ‘cunt’ is used colloquially all over the country. It can be used as an insult but also as a term of endearment. In my work’s group chat, titled ‘cunts’, each member is given a ‘cuntname’. An example of this is ‘fat cunt’, referring to a rotund work colleague. These ‘cuntnames’ are used as a term of endearment between friends, with no offensive connotations.

On another note, could the underlying factor to the word’s offensive nature be rooted in how it sounds? Wajnryb (2005) states that plosives are a common phonological feature among swear words. Plosive sounds occur when pressure is built up behind closed lips, which is released when the lips separate. There are six plosives in English; [t], [k], [p] (voiceless) and [d], [g], [b] (voiced). These give a harsh, emotive quality to a word.  ‘Cunt’ is made up of the two plosives, [k] and [t], a vowel [ʌ], and a nasal [n]. Comparing this to another ‘less offensive’ derogatory term for women; ‘bint’, which has similar phonological features with the two plosives [b] and [t], the vowel [ɪ] and a nasal [n],  shouldn’t both words be in the same category of offensiveness, as they have similar features?

Is it therefore the meaning behind the word that retains its crown of obscenity? The offensiveness of ‘cunt’ seems to be underpinned by meaning. Allan and Burridge (2006) state that sex is a taboo topic in society, today as well as in Victorian times. Although deriving from picturesque imagery in Old Germanic, ‘cunt’ is associated with a woman’s genitals, and to describe an unpleasant or stupid person (OED online, 2018). However, it is also used today as a greeting which implies no offence is being taken from its use. This in turn implies that the word is context related.

It is undeniable that there is an “anxiety of using the C-bomb” (Braier, 2016), but also a satisfaction derived from using a taboo term.  Having done this research, there seems to be no definitive answer as to why it is such an offensive word, considering the degree of semantic change from its origin to current day, as it is subjective to the hearer of the aforementioned c-bomb.

RACHAEL BARRY, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Allan, K., Burridge, K. (2006). Forbidden words: taboo and the censoring of language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Braier, R. (2016, July 9). In praise of the C-word. The Guardian.

MED Online, (2018). Middle English Dictionary.

OED Online, (2018). Oxford University Press.

Robertson, G. (2010, Oct 22). The trial of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. The Guardian.

Wajnryb, R. (2004). Language Most Foul. Crows Nest, Allen & Unwin.

Wajnryb, R. (2005). Expletive deleted: A good look at bad language. Simon and Schuster.

Why is the ‘c-word’ considered one of the most offensive in English? JOSHUA WOLSTENHOLME explores the origins and versatility of the four-letter offender

Swearing has become quite common in spoken and written English. Most swear words and uses of taboo language refer to religion or to bodily functions such as, sweat, organs, disease, sex acts, faeces and killing (Allan & Burridge, 2006, pp. 1-2). These words can be used to intensify strong feelings and give offence in a manner that non-taboo words cannot achieve (Jay, 1992, p. 68). Although the original meanings of these words are not inherently offensive, why and how have they become some of the most offensive words in the English language?

Believed to originate from the Old Norse ‘kunta’ and the Proto-Germanic ‘kunto’, ‘cunt’ is currently one of the most offensive swear words in the English Language (Brown, 2016). Its roots can be traced back to around 1230 when it was used in the name of a London street called ‘Gropecunt Lane’. Initially, ‘cunt’ was just a noun used to describe female genitalia in dictionaries and medical journals and was not considered offensive. Later, ‘cunt’ was used by famous writers such as Geoffrey Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales, and Shakespeare in Hamlet (Dent, 2017).  So why have the attitudes towards this word become so negative?

One explanation could be due to the sound of the word. ‘Cunt’, alongside swear words such as ‘fuck’ and ‘dick’, include plosive sounds. These occur when the airway is blocked resulting in pressure building up and being released explosively. It could be argued that this makes words with plosives sound more aggressive and therefore more offensive. However, not all words that have plosives can be considered swearing. The only phonetic difference between ‘can’t’ and ‘cunt’ is the vowel sound.  If the degree of offensiveness was based on just sounds, then ‘can’t’ would also be taboo. Therefore, the meaning behind the words must also contribute towards them being classified as taboo language.

It could be argued that the meaning behind the word has contributed towards its notoriety. Allan & Burridge suggest that swear words relating to sex or sexual organs are severely taboo when used in public (2006, p. 144). As a result, ‘cunt’ could have developed to become offensive and therefore taboo. Using this explanation, the other words in the English Language that refer to our genitals should also be taboo. However, ‘penis’ and ‘vagina’ are both considered not offensive even though they are used to refer to someone’s genitals. This shows that the meaning of a word is not the only criteria for a word to become taboo.

Battistella (2005) suggests that “the notion of offensive language is a variable one”. So the offensiveness of a word is related to the context in which it is used. Would you use the word ‘cunt’ at work? Or would you be more likely to use it at home? The use of ‘cunt’ has become more versatile. It can be used to describe a person, help relieve pain and even as a term of endearment when greeting friends. Braier (2016) explains that her friends occasionally use it, in formulations such as “alright, you little cunt”. This swear word has become so popular that the different variations such as, ‘cuntish’, ‘cunted’ and ‘cunting’ have been added to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED Online, 2018).

However, despite its recent growing popularity, most TV channels and films rarely allow ‘cunt’ to be broadcast before or after the watershed. The Federal Communications Commission, who regulate offensive words and phrases on American TV have even included it in their ‘seven dirty words’ list that should never appear on any TV show (Kaye & Sapolsky, 2009). This shows us that the degree of offensiveness is subjective and therefore based on our own opinions of what is offensive and what is appropriate in certain situations.

So then, why is ‘cunt’ considered the most offensive word in the English Language? Is the Federal Communications Commission right to add it to their list of ‘seven dirty words’? Alternatively, are swear words becoming less taboo? Can they become so commonly used that they are no longer ‘forbidden’?

JOSHUA WOLSTENHOLME, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Allan, K. & Burridge, K. (2006). Forbidden Words: Taboo and the Censoring of Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Battistella, E. (2005). Bad language: are some words better than others? Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Braier, R. (2016, July 9). ‘In praise of the c-word’. The Guardian.

Brown, J. (2016). Every British swear word has been officially ranked in order of offensiveness. The Independent.

Dent, S. (2017) Susie Dent’s guide to swearing. Channel 4.

Kaye, B. and Sapolsy, B. (2009). Taboo or not taboo? That is the question: Offensive language on primetime broadcast and cable programming. Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, 53(1). pp.1- 16.