Should we ever call women ‘girls’? CASSANDRA-RAE JONES explores whether this is respect or political correctness gone mad

When discussing the modern-day phenomena of PC-culture it is important to first look at the foundations this concept is built upon. Hughes (2010) traces its emergence to the communist doctrine and how the Communist Party focused on “doing the right thing” and “thinking the right thoughts”. He uses quotes from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung when demonstrating the initial meaning of ‘Political Correctness’. For example, the title of Mao’s 1929 edict “On Correcting Mistaken Ideas in The Party”, the verb phrase ‘Correcting Mistaken Ideas’ plainly claims that there are right and wrong opinions and the wrong opinions need ‘correcting’. This elucidates the context of Political Correctness and that its emergence is linked with controlling the Communist Party line, Hughes (2010).

Political Correctness is, as defined by Hughes (2010), a “sense of obligation or conformity in areas which should be (or are) matters of choice. Nevertheless, it has had a major influence on what is regarded as ‘acceptable’ or ‘appropriate’ in language, ideas, behavioural norms and values”. As well as this, Hughes notes the relationship Political Correctness has with offensive language when he states that “[m]ost people would frame answers along the lines of ‘It means not using words like n*gger, q*eer or c*ipple,’ or ‘It means showing respect to all,’ or ‘It means accepting and promoting diversity’”. However due to its controversial nature, definitions vary from author to author. As an example, Browne (2006) describes political correctness as a “system of beliefs and pattern of thoughts that permeates many aspects of modern life, holding a vice-like grip over public debate, deciding what can be debated and what the terms of debate are, and which government policies are acceptable and which aren’t”. These contrasting definitions and opinions show how polarising the concept of PC is.

Now that we have seen some definitions of Political Correctness, we can look at the connection between language and thought and how PC culture may or may not affect the two. Edna Andrews (1996) discusses a theory relating to language and thought, the well-known Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. She describes this theory as a “linguistic theory that claims each language creates a grid of reality that impresses some restrictions on the speaker’s perception of external (…) reality. The restrictions in perception by the speaker are defined by those linguistic categories that are nondistinctive in the speaker’s language”.

This theory suggests that language and thought are connected and that modifying language directly affects the way in which we think. Andrews (1996) uses an example to demonstrate this, claiming that if a male co-worker refers to a female co-worker by the noun ‘girl’ he is less likely to view her as equal to him. This is because the connotations associated with this noun implies that the male co-worker views her more like a young child than an adult. However if he is forced to replace ‘girl’ with the noun ‘woman’ he is more likely to view her as equal because of the use of his linguistic counterpart ‘woman’, which suggests he views her as an adult and hence his equal. She adds to this by saying that this change in language could be passed on to the younger generation and that “[t]he strong connection between language and thought is absolutely central to this line of reasoning, which holds that changing linguistic behaviour will lead to reducing social inequality”. Andrews highlights this as a positive way in which Political Correctness can be utilised. Alternatively, Browne (2006) claims that PC culture could lead to accusing people with differing opinions of “hidden and malign motives avoids the often intellectually and emotionally difficult task of engaging with their actual arguments”.

After researching this topic and reading a wide range of source material I would agree that altering someone’s language with ‘Politically Correct’ terms can alter the way in which people think about certain subjects. However, when looking at the history of PC culture I can understand the worry and concern about Political Correctness muting opinions and debate.

CASSANDRA-RAE JONES, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK

References

Andrews, E. (1996). Cultural Sensitivity and Political Correctness: The Linguistic Problem of Naming. American Speech, vol. 71 (no. 4), pp. 389-404.

Berman, Paul (ed.). (1992). Debating PC: The Controversy Over Political Correctness on College Campuses. New York: Laurel Press.

Browne, A. (2006). The Retreat of Reason: Political Correctness and the corruption of public debate in modern Britain (2nd edition). London: Civitas.

Hughes, G. (2010).  Political CorrectnessA History of Semantics and Culture. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

Oppressive thought control or controlling oppressive thoughts? EMMA ALDINGTON debates the pros and cons of political correctness

It’s no secret that people today are increasingly concerned about the rise of political correctness, fuelled particularly by newspapers and posts on social media. We hear that political correctness is ‘thought control’ or disregarding the ‘free speech’ that we so often take for granted in this country. There is a mass of polarised views when it comes to academics and PC. Michael Barnard describes the issue as “a new strain of ideological virus”, but Chomsky calls it “a healthy expansion of moral concern” (Allan & Burridge, 2006, p. 90). It can be understood why those who have researched the history of political correctness might be troubled by the obsession the UK has with being ‘PC’. Its roots are embedded in Chinese communism and the dictatorship of it former leader Mao Tse-tung, but it’s important to remember that the term has since been revived by slightly different groups such as the American New Left and the feminist movement (Hughes, 2010, p. 60-69).

A study by Pearson (2005) investigated students gaining their PGCE qualification to work in secondary schools, and their attitudes towards terms such as ‘special educational needs’ and ‘disability’, and their subsequent language use when presented with the terms (p. 18). Pearson (2005) found that “inclusion was rarely mentioned […] and some of the responses were exclusionary and offensive” (p. 21), and suggested that the results raised “concerns about the adequacy of current provision” (p. 17). Of course, using inclusive terms for people with disabilities is just one small part of the political correctness debate, but this study highlights that there are issues in the way people are educated on the topic.

Cardiff Metropolitan University very recently published a ‘check-list’ of words and phrases that they wanted their student body to avoid, to ultimately avoid offending oppressed or minority groups such as people with disabilities and women. Their aim in this, as reported by Gray (2017), was to “make everyone on campus feel valued”, but there has been a backlash against this and some “accused [the university] of attacking free speech”.

This really raises the question alluded to in the title of this blog. Are the ‘PC brigade’ trying to control the population’s thoughts? There are two ways of answering that question, depending on who you are and what your general beliefs are. The first is that, yes, Cardiff Metropolitan and anyone else enforcing rules on others’ language are somewhat ‘controlling’ the way we speak, and ultimately the way we think. However, it also begs the question, why should we have a problem with avoiding terms that potentially cause distress or exclusion to others? Is it oppressive ‘thought-control’, or is it controlling oppressive thoughts? Both of these justified points are often thrown up in debates on the topic, which is why it is seen as so difficult to come to a definitive answer.

There’s the age-old expression, “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” that often gets brought up by the defence when talking about being PC. Whilst this can remain true in some instances, it is vital to look at real-life scenarios where being politically incorrect and using offensive terms can turn into a scenario which is physical and violent. The Intelligence Report from the Southern Poverty Law Center is an American periodical which monitors activity of far-right groups across the US. They published statistics that since Donald Trump (known for his offensive language and politically incorrect phrases) announced he was running for president in 2015, there was a 14% rise in “extremist groups” (Alexandersen, 2017). That comes as no surprise. If we want to get specific, “the FBI reported that anti-Muslim hate crimes went up by 67% in 2015” (Potok, 2017). Not everyone will wish to extrapolate that data to Trump’s campaign and anti-Muslim rhetoric, but it is certainly food for thought.

This is an ongoing debate that we may never get an answer to, but it is important to remember that while sticks and stones may break your bones, words can hurt too.

EMMA ALDINGTON, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK

 

References

Alexandersen, C. (2017). Hate, extremists groups rose 3 percent in U.S. during divisive 2016: report. Pennlive.com.

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

Gray, J. (2017). Cardiff Metropolitan University accused of censorship over ‘gender neutral’ language policy. Huff Post Young Voices

Hughes, G. (2010). Political correctness: a history of semantics and culture. Chichester, United Kingdom:Wiley-Blackwell.

Pearson, S. (2005). ‘SEN – a politically correct phrase to replace terms such as disabled?’ A study of the views of students entering a secondary PGCE course’. Support for Learning, 20(1), 17-21.

 

Has political correctness actually gone mad? KATE GREEN explores the relationship between PC and race

So, what is ‘political correctness’? Linguist and political activist Noam Chomsky labels it as a “healthy expansion of moral concern”, while Michael Barnard calls it an “ideological virus” (Allan & Burridge, 2006, p.90). The Urban Dictionary even defines it as “an inverted fascist philosophy that absolutely no-one should conform to unless they are an ignorant, bleeding-heart liberal idiot” (Urban Dictionary, 2004), so it’s already clear that there’s a lot of debate around the subject.

One of the most pertinent issues surrounding the minefield of political correctness is that of race. Allan and Burridge suggest that moving forward with our language in a way which mirrors our progressive social change is to “[call] groups by the names they prefer” (2006, p.96). They provide the example of members of the black community wishing to be called “African Americans […] to emphasise not genetics or colour, but [their] historical roots” (Allan & Burridge, 2006, p.97). This development perhaps helps to embrace and create the identities of minority groups, rather than focusing merely on physical differences which set them apart. Surely moves such as these should be seen as a positive thing, rather than a “fascist philosophy”, as it’s designed to create a more inclusive and welcoming society? It has also been suggested that “political correctness doesn’t hinder free speech – it expands it. But for marginalised groups, rather than the status quo” (West, 2015). Calling minority groups by the names they prefer may be a step in the right direction – it gives them a voice and seeks to even out the inequalities they face in today’s society.

Trevor Phillips, broadcaster and former politician, recently wrote and produced a documentary for Channel 4 entitled ‘Has political correctness gone mad’? As a member of the black community himself, Phillips discusses his attitudes towards the word ‘n*****’, reminiscing about how his grandmother used it throughout his childhood simply as a way to refer to other black people. Phillips then debates whether or not anyone should be allowed to use the word at all nowadays, given the derogatory connotations it has taken on. On the view that white people should never use it, but that black people can, Phillips has this to say: “that’s one rule for white people and another for black people, and there’s a word for that beginning with R”. Perhaps he’s right. People have already lived through years of racial segregation with certain words used as terms of abuse and as a way to oppress minorities. Allowing certain groups to continue utilising these words in their everyday speech, while prohibiting others from doing the same, does not exactly send out a message of equality.

This brings us to the point: is it politically incorrect to sing the children’s choosing rhyme ‘Eeny Meeny Miny Moe’? Although it is perhaps not common knowledge, the rhyme originally contained the line “catch a n***** by his toe” (Opie & Opie, 1951, pp.156-158). In more recent versions, ‘piggy’ or ‘tiger’ commonly replace the racial term, and it’s these animal-related versions which appear in popular culture today (Boult, A., 2017). An example of this is the television show, The Walking Dead, in which a character sings the “eeny meeny” rhyme featuring the word ‘tiger’ before murdering two other characters. This graphic scene has become iconic among fans of The Walking Dead, so much so that fashion retailer Primark created a t-shirt featuring the words “eeny meeny miny moe” alongside a picture of the murder weapon. For members of the public who were not aware of the garment’s association with the television show, the t-shirt was seen as “fantastically offensive”, and even as a “direct [reference] to the practice of assaulting black people in America” (Boult, 2017). These accusations stem from the fact that the rhyme once had racist connotations and, while the offending word has been replaced today, its history hasn’t been forgotten. This raises the question of how much the past should influence the type of language we use today. Are idioms and rhymes, such as “eeny meeny”, still considered offensive and politically incorrect if the history behind them isn’t common knowledge anymore?

“The path to real progress may be learning to live with offence” is the line with which Trevor Phillips chose to end his Channel 4 documentary. But it’s important to remember that perhaps one’s linguistic choices can have a greater impact on minority groups than realised, and that a bit of “moral concern” can contribute to a more inclusive, “politically correct” society.

KATE GREEN, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK

References

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

Boult, A. (2017). Is this Walking Dead t-shirt racist? Primark pulls item following complaint. The Telegraph Online. 

Opie, I., & Opie, P. (1951). The Oxford dictionary of nursery rhymes. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Phillips, T. (2017). Has political correctness gone mad? For Channel 4, originally aired on 22/02/2017. 

Urban Dictionary. (2004). Political correctness definition.

West, L. (2015). Political correctness doesn’t hinder free speech – it expands it. The Guardian Online.

What is, and how desirable is political correctness? VICKI TOON gets out her red pen…..

In recent years, political correctness (PC) has seen a massive rise in popularity, (if I am even allowed to call it that!) For those of you who are unfamiliar with the term, the OED online defines it as the “advocacy of or conformity to politically correct views; politically correct language or behaviour” (2017). This seems a rather simplistic view, however, as the modern meaning of the term covers a whole range of connotations.

For many, PC has acted as an uplifting source of equality and relieves those who have fallen victim to insults because of race, gender, physical ability etc. For example, O’Neill (2011) points out that some years ago, ‘handicapped’ used to be the PC term to describe people with disabilities. This grew to have negative connotations and was replaced by a more modern PC term, ‘disabled’. ‘Disabled’ at present, causes less offence than ‘handicapped’ and most people see this as a good thing. But don’t use ‘disabled’ as the collective term, as in ‘the disabled’. It should be used as a description, not a label, as the Government website (Gov.uk) kindly points out for us. There is however, growing frustration around the word ‘disabled’, with some speculation that it is being replaced with new terms such as ‘differently abled’.

Supporters of PC are quick to point out that it has “a civilizing influence on society, that it discourages the use of words that have negative or offensive connotations and thereby grants respect to people who are the victims of unfair stereotypes” (O’Neill, 2011, p. 279). Naturally, it is in most people’s best interests to not purposefully offend someone or to cause them harm, but unfortunately in the past, some words have gained negative connotations and have become subject to O’Neill’s (2011) ‘euphemism treadmill’. This is a rather undeserved fate, and some words such as ‘spastic’, which was originally used in the medical sense to refer to someone with cerebral palsy, gradually grew to be used as an insult and is now seen as being politically incorrect.

You might be wondering, “a euphemism treadmill? Is this all just an elaborate metaphor?” Well the simple answer is ‘no’! O’Neill’s (2011) euphemism treadmill refers to the idea that, for example, ‘toilet’ used to be the PC term but was quickly replaced by other euphemisms such as ‘loo’, ‘W.C.’ and ‘lavatory’. O’Neill claims that we are constantly participating in this cycle of replacing words which is entirely pointless. Words themselves never have an inherently ‘good’ or ‘bad’ meaning. A word’s meaning often changes over time through use. So, for example, it is inappropriate to refer to someone with dwarfism as being a ‘midget’ or even a ‘dwarf’ (according to Gov.uk anyway!) The PC phrase would be to describe someone with dwarfism as someone “with restricted growth”, did you know that? No, neither did I.

It’s all very well explaining how words move from being PC to becoming politically incorrect, but where do we draw the line? When is it acceptable for us to be told what we can and can’t say, do and even think? Many sources have tried to prescribe what they think should and shouldn’t be used with varying degrees of success. With this, there are those who strongly oppose PC equating it with thought control. Browne (2006) points out that p.c. has managed to creep its way into several areas including hospitals, local as well as central Government and schools. My own recent experience within a primary school revealed that it is now seen as inappropriate to use red pen to mark a child’s piece of work because the colour red has negative connotations. Instead, a purple pen should be used. This to me, does seem to be PC gone mad because only a relatively short time ago, I was of primary school age and never thought of the colour red as having such connotations.

So, what does this mean for people? Ordinary people, who aren’t familiar with euphemism treadmills and constantly changing Government guidelines. Is it that bad? Well, ultimately it means that English speakers are discouraged to use language which is deemed offensive and insensitive to others, which can only be a positive thing to most rational minded people. Vague, I know. But this only reflects current definitions of those who are ‘experts’ in the field, and until someone comes up with a better, more concrete answer, then this is what we have to live by.

VICKI TOON, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK

References

Browne, A. (2006). The retreat of reason: Political Correctness and the corruption of public debate in modern Britain (2nd Ed.). London, United Kingdom: The Institute for the Study of Civil Society.

Department for Work & Pensions & Department for Disability Issues. (2014). Inclusive language: Words to use and avoid when writing about disability. Gov.uk. 

OED Online. (2017). Oxford University Press. 

O’Neill, B. (2011). A Critique of Politically Correct Language. The Independent Review, 16(2), 279–291.

 

Is it meaning, context or pronunciation that makes words offensive? JORDZHAH-LOU ROWLEY explores some colourful English lexis.

What is it that makes one specific word more offensive than another? What is it about the simple grouping together of letters and sounds in a certain way that can make a person feel attacked?

The word ‘shit’ is classed as a moderately offensive word, but when we change the last letter to make it, ‘ship’ it loses all of its aggressiveness as it takes on a new meaning. So is it is all about meaning?  Batistella (2005) suggests that there are three main categories of swear words that all centre around their meanings. Epithets play on a person’s insecurities about what makes them different, for example ‘faggot’ or ‘wog.’ Profanity relates to religious swearing, for example ‘God’ or ‘Jesus Christ.’ Vulgarity and obscenity refer to sex or bodily functions, for example ‘shit’ or ‘bloody.’ It is suggested that if the words relate to any of these subjects they can be interpreted as offensive because the meanings behind the words are taboo, and therefore shouldn’t be spoken in public.

The idea that we should not speak of such topics in public implies that behind closed doors, these words are perfectly acceptable to use. If you were to swear when you were alone in your house, and you scolded your arm, is that offensive? Or does it just become a normal word? It is then evident that the key to offensiveness is context, where you are and who you are with. Ofcom (2016) state on their website that they take in to account “context, such as the tone, delivery and time of broadcast, when assessing whether offensive language is acceptable.” This implies that even the most offensive word can be used in a fitting context and still be broadcast. However, that is not necessarily the case.

So, what is the most offensive word? And why? Research suggests that the majority of UK citizens deem the word ‘cunt’ to be the worst swear word in the English language. But what about the word ‘fuck’? Wajnryb (2005) suggests that as a nation we in the UK have become desensitized to swearing, especially to the word ‘fuck’. She suggests that this is due to the overuse of the word ‘fuck’ to illustrate a point. She claims “[i]t would seem that words jump into new classes and become increasingly common place, moving from the taboo category to the slang category.” She implies that this is because of the way we now use the word in, for example, ‘I fucking love you,’ which is being used as a term of endearment and not offence. This is because when using the word as an adjective rather than a verb it takes on a new role in the sentence and in society, as it shifts from a term of offence to an intensifier to emphasise a point, to show enthusiasm or excitement.

However, some of the  most offensive words in society appear to be largely female based. Ofcom’s published list of swear words for instance consist of 61.9% of words describing the female anatomy. So what is so offensive about a vagina? Wajnryb (2005) suggests that the vagina was a symbol of deceit and adultery which dated back to the Middle Ages because the reproductive organs are ‘hidden’ inside of the body. This outdated definition may suggest that women should try to reclaim these ‘vulgar’ words back for themselves. They should begin to use the word ‘cunt’ freely. However this is not necessarily a popular view, as some suggest that if we overuse the word there will be no more offensive language left. I could not agree less. It is evident that ‘swear words’ are disappearing due to overuse. But as long as there is someone that gets offended, there will always be offensive language.

JORDZHAH-LOU ROWLEY, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK

References

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

Ofcom. (2016, September 30). ‘Ofcom explores latest attitudes to offensive language’.

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

Four sounds, four letters. But what makes ‘c-u-n-t’ one of the most offensive words in English? VICTORIA TAMS gropes around for an answer.

See you next Tuesday. The word that makes many people’s spines shiver, muscles clench and hearts skip. ‘Cunt’ undoubtedly is a taboo word. This word stimulates much deliberation over why and how it has become one of the most offensive words in the English Language. Is it the combination of the four letters? Is it the combination of the four sounds? Is it the origins of the word? Is it the tone in which you say it? Let’s find out.

Usage of the word can be traced back to the 13th century in a street name in London called ‘Gropecuntelane’ where prostitutes were often found (OED online, 2017). Did it have negative connotations from the word go?

With regards to the sound, it has often been found that for a word to be offensive it needs to include plosive sounds to give it that sharp edge. Plosive sounds occur when the mouth passage is completely blocked, the pressure can build up behind the blockage and is released when the lips are separated. The basic plosives in English are [t], [k], and [p] (voiceless) and [d], [g], [b] (voiced) (Wajnryb, 2005, p.207). ‘Cunt’ contains two plosives – [k] and [t] – found in-between a vowel [ʌ] and nasal [n]. Could the phonetic structure of the word be the answer to why it holds the title as one of the most offensive words in the English Language?

Potentially, however, if it is just down to the phonemes then why isn’t ‘git’ seen to be as offensive? In OfCom’s 2016 list of offensive words, ‘git’ was only classified as a mildly offensive word compared to ‘cunt’ which was placed in the strongest category. Surely if it is down to the phonemes then ‘git’ would be placed in a stronger category as that too has the plosives [g] and [t] with vowel [ɪ]? This suggests that it may actually be down to more than just the sounds. However, Stephens (2015) does suggest that there could be a “plosiveness theory of swearing” which focuses on the specific combination of vowels and consonants, such as making a hard sound, contributes to the offensiveness of the word.

What about the combination of letters? How really is it possible for three consonants and a vowel to cause such offensive to hearers? If you look at the contraction of ‘cannot’, ‘can’t’ is just the same construction as ‘cunt’ but yet would be unlikely to have the potential to cause any sort of offence.

This leads us to consider that it must it be to do with the meaning behind the word. Although ‘cunt’ can be traced back to street name, it now is a term to refer to a woman’s genitals. This idea is supported by Allan and Burridge who also suggest that “sexual activity is tabooed as a topic for public display and severely constrained as a topic for discussion” (2006, p. 144). However, although this word refers to a woman’s genitals, so does ‘fanny’ (in the UK) or ‘vagina’ and neither of them have the same effect that ‘cunt’ does. ‘Cunt’ is on another level and somehow has the power to make people feel uncomfortable when they hear it.

Well that leads us to the tone in which you say the word, and whether ‘cunt’ can really ever be used as a term of endearment? Braier (2016) says that she loves the sound of the word when she says it, specifically that she loves the monosyllabic weight of it with the harsh consonants. She also says how her friends use it occasionally as a greeting “alright, you little cunt”. Does this suggest it could be considered as an acceptable word should it be a friend who says it? I’m sure my mother would completely disagree.

So maybe, after all then, ‘cunt’ is seen to be the most offensive word in the English Language due to the meanings and connotations it has occurred over the past years. It can also be said that maybe people are using it due to the pure satisfaction of knowing they have used one of the most offensive words. However, you can’t deny people are using it as a greeting term and get some sort of relief out of dropping that c-bomb.

VICTORIA TAMS, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK

References

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

Braier, R. (2016, August 11). ‘In praise of the c-word’. The Guardian

OED Online. (2017). Oxford University Press.

Ofcom. (2016, September 30). Ofcom explores latest attitudes to offensive language.

Stephens, R. (2015). Black Sheep: The Hidden Benefits of Being Bad. John Murray.

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

Should there be a ‘swear-police’ or should we not give a shit? HENRY COOPER goes on the offensive.

Swearing as we know it is defined in the OED as “the uttering of a profane oath; the use of profane language”. Many people have problems with the use of offensive words despite these words being entirely arbitrary. Unlike with most linguistic debates, there are not two clearly defined groups with opposing attitudes to swearing. Generally, people do not care for swearing, arguing that it is impolite, that language should be suitable for all listeners, and that “offensive language is improper and daring” (Battistella, 2005, pp. 76-77).

Typically, words that are considered offensive revolve around taboo subjects. Allan & Burridge (2006, p. 1) outline what is considered taboo: bodies, effluvia (sweat, faeces, blood, etc.), organs, sex acts, defecation, naming, addressing, and viewing persons. During earlier periods of religious repression in history, such topics were thought of as blasphemous and sacrilegious, meaning that many did not publically speak of such things and were shunned if they did. Religion was undeniably the most significant factor in the stigmatisation of swearing, as supported by Hughes (1991). We no longer live in a time where taboo subjects are thought of with such disdain. More people are expressing themselves through tattoos and piercings; more people are openly discussing the private sex-life; and more people are swearing in casual discourse.

One word that is frequently considered the most offensive of all actually dates back to the 13th century and was not actually offensive at all. ‘Cunt’ according to the OED “does not seem to have been considered inherently obscene or offensive in the medieval period” and has undergone significant semantic shifts over the past 800 years. It is during this shift where it became offensive and the subsequent stigma has only perpetuated this. If you ask people why this word offends them, many will say something along the lines of ‘it just is’. There is very little about the actual words that are considered swear words which makes them offensive. Being offended by offensive words with arbitrarily assigned meanings is, fundamentally, the same as being offended by the word ‘tree’. There is nothing inherently tree-like in the structure of this word nor is there anything inherently sex-like in the word ‘fuck’. Using these words to directly insult an individual is obviously going to offend them. The use of swearing only exacerbates the level of offense due to the stigma of swearing. Referring to someone as ‘you bitch’ is more offensive than saying ‘you scruffy-looking-nerf-herder’ as a result of the stigma, not the word itself.

There is some sense to why people do not like them and that is in part due to the phonology (english.stackexchange.com). A number of swear words such as ‘fuck’ and ‘cunt’ include velar sounds which are harsher and therefore associated more with aggression leading to a more negative perception. The presence of plosives in swear words such as ‘bitch’ and ‘dick’ is also important because they create a build-up of energy during the hold-phase which results in an explosive release with emotive force and power. Such phonetic features do add a greater level of aggression, and therefore unpleasantness, to the words but there are many other words with similar phonetic structures which are not considered offensive. For instance, the word ‘dock’ has the harsh velar plosive /k/ in word-final position and the alveolar plosive /d/ in word initial position allowing for a large build-up of energy but this word is not considered offensive due to the lack of arbitrary meaning behind it.

Regardless of the arbitrary nature of swear words, many in society still find them offensive. Swearing should not be prohibited but should not be used without the appropriate context. Swearing is best suited for casual and colloquial discourse and may be seen as rude in formal occasions or unprofessional in the workplace environment. It seems to be that swearing is gradually becoming more accepted with it being used more and more in film and television. Censorship boards can adequately control the use of swearing on television but controlling an individual’s use of swearing is impractical.

How could this realistically be done? Would governments need to implement Swear-Police as if we were in some kind of Orwellian nightmare? Directly insulting someone using offensive words is undoubtedly wrong but what harm is there in dropping the occasional F-Bomb? Those who are deeply offended by the use of swear words may wish to consider why it is that they find this language offensive and should realise that there are far more important things to be offended by than the occasional non-aggressive use of swearing.

HENRY COOPER, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK

References

Allan, K., & Burridge, K. (2006). Forbidden words: Taboo and the censoring of language. London, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

Battistella, E. (2005). Bad language: are some words better than others? New York, United States of America: Oxford University Press.

English Stack Exchange. (2011). What makes a word offensive?

Hughes, G. (1991). Swearing: A social history of foul language, oaths and profanity in English. London, United Kingdom: Penguin

OED Online. (2017). Oxford University Press.