The dreaded swear word, considered as ‘dangerous’ and ‘immoral’ by many (Battistella 2005: 78). The fears surrounding this kind of language are widespread and not by any means new. A well-known example of a word that was considered ‘taboo’ causing outrage is Eliza Doolittle’s famous line in George Bernard Shaw’s ‘Pygmalion’ in 1914; ‘Not bloody likely!’ (Battistella 2005: 72). But why is it that certain words cause shock and offence? Why is it that a select few words are deemed wrong or bad?
It seems that many words that are considered ‘taboo’ stem from topics that are considered uncomfortable or hard to talk about. This is highlighted by Allan and Burridge, who explain that “sexual activity us tabooed as a topic for public display and severely constrained as a topic for discussion’ (2006: 144). Other topics that are commonly censored within society are disease, death and killing. Misfortune, even today, is considered as taboo, giving way to euphemistic phrases to avoid ‘bad’ language (Allan and Burridge 2005).
Mohr, however, argues that during the 21st century, so called ‘sexual swearing’ has become less of a taboo, due to people becoming more used to seeing and discussing the human body, in movies, magazines and on TV (2013: 231). Perhaps this is a positive thing; due to the decrease in censorship of certain topics and words, it has allowed a more relaxed attitude when it comes to swearing, leading to the possibility of research into the field of swearing. Today, a range of professionals, from brain scientists to sociologists research into the science of swearing. One result of this is that it has allowed proper research into Tourette’s syndrome, as when it was discovered in the 19th century, doctors had to rely on using euphemisms and work against public perception that understanding swearing was not an acceptable field of study (Mohr 2013).
It’s not surprising that there are several arguments against the use of swearing and taboo language, but there are possibly just as many arguments for the tolerance of swearing. One of the central themes of these arguments is that swear words are only words, like any other word, and it’s the concept underlying the word that needs to be discussed and understood. Another is the freedom of speech of those who choose to use these words. Also, many argue that the use of swear words is essential in some respects in the media such as film and TV, in order to reflect how people actually speak and create realism within the arts (Battistella 2005: 78).
So should we be treating swear words any differently? Despite the increasingly more relaxed attitude towards swearing in the 21st century, it’s fair to say that it is not socially acceptable to use swear words in all contexts, times and places. In some situations, it is fair to say, swear words are not appropriate. According to Allan and Burridge (2005: 30), “whether or not language behaviour counts as good manners will depend on a number of factors. These include: the relationship between speakers, their audience, and anyone within earshot; the subject matter; the situation (setting)”.
Although there are plenty of arguments for and against the use of swearing, it seems to me that when and if to swear is a personal choice – which relies mostly on the common sense of the speaker – generally most people wouldn’t have a problem using swear words around their friends, or on Facebook, but would presumably avoid using any offensive language if speaking to their parents, teachers, or in any academic writing.
JESSICA LAWRENCE, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK