Should we say ‘boo’ to taboo words? GEORGE NETHERCOTT swears that context is crucial.

Offensive language has existed for hundreds of years. Throughout history there have been numerous words, phrases, and topics that many people consider foul, shocking, and offensive. They are taboo. But what is it that makes these simple words so bad? Why are they not treated in the same way as other words? How do these words have more power?

It appears that the ‘offensive’ factor comes down to semantics. It is the meaning of these words which create the stigma or taboo. Taboos, in particular, involve bodily functions, sweat, faeces, organs, sex acts, diseases, death, killing, objects, and viewing persons (Allan & Burridge, 2006, pp.1-2). All of the above are what most people would consider sensitive topics. Taboos are, therefore, forbidden from use and arise from social constraints. As a result, society collectively decides that these words are immoral, foul, and offensive (Battistella, 2005, pp.76-78).

An example of this ‘prohibition of words’ can be seen in the media. We encounter bad words on a variety of TV shows and movies. In many instances these words are ‘bleeped out’ or censored (Mohr, 2013, p246). However, there are cases where swearing is less constricted. Mohr (2013) suggests that the advances in media and technology create more exposure to language – and in particular bad words. People see more movies, TV, graphic magazines, and music. The threshold for swearing is increased. People can handle more bad words and are less shocked by them.

That being said there are still plenty of reasons to resist offensive language. Many people argue that language should be suitable for all listeners. Can we imagine the negative impact on young people and children who are exposed to bad language? This language is impolite, immoral, and daring. Some suggest that children will grow up to be less developed and unpleasant people (Battistella, 2005). Does bad language dilute our language?

In other cases, people argue that offensive language has a place in society. Offensive language actually has a purpose in our lexicon. Bad words can be used creatively and innovatively. This idea even goes back to Shakespeare and Chaucer who often used taboo words in their poems and plays. Would these plays be different without taboo words? Personally I believe that if they were removed from either Shakespeare, a comedy sketch, or a song, something would be missing. A poetic feature is gone. The uniqueness and creativeness would be almost non-existent. Furthermore, in some cases, swearing has been proven to relieve pain, anger, and frustration. We have all stumped our toes at least once in our lives, and most of us have screamed the ‘F-bomb’ multiple times. There is a relief and satisfaction in this. There is no coming back from it. Can anyone stop us from these instinctual outbursts? I believe no one can control what language a person may use. Imagine a world where there was a police department for ‘bad language’ – it’s ridiculous!

To conclude, offensive language has a time and place. Context is crucial. Different social situations may require a particular vernacular. Personally, I would find it inappropriate to swear at funeral or in a classroom and so would refrain from using such words. That being said, if I was in the pub with friends, swearing would be far more accepted. Different social situations influence one’s usage. As society moves forward, we may find that some words become less offensive and more appropriate to say. On the other hand, there may be new stigmas created which make other words more offensive. Society, in this regard, is very significant. Could it be possible that one day no particular word offends anyone?

GEORGE NETHERCOTT, English language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


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.

Mohr, M. (2013) Holy sh*t: A brief history of swearing. New York, United States of         America: Oxford University Press.



3 thoughts on “Should we say ‘boo’ to taboo words? GEORGE NETHERCOTT swears that context is crucial.

  1. Luke says:

    This is an effective opinion piece that delivers well thought out explanations as to how and why offensive language holds a place in our culture. Combined with thought provoking questions and instances of humour, this blog was an interesting read.

  2. Joshua Wolstenholme says:

    Hi George,
    I think that you have made some very good points in this blog. I agree that context is very crucial in the use of taboo language. It is obviously more acceptable to use taboo language in a pub when compared to a classroom. Just a quick question. Do you think certain swear words are more acceptable than others? For example would “cunt” be more shocking than “shit” when used in an inappropriate context?

  3. Lewis Turner says:

    Hi George,

    Great work on the blog! I found it to be a particularly well-rounded and fascinating overview of such a controversial topic.

    I particularly agreed with the argument you made that while an increase of exposure in the media has generally expanded people’s threshold for taboo language, there are still many who whole-heartedly oppose to these taboos. Just last week I read an article on The Guardian that Haringey Council has banned swearing at next year’s Wireless Festival. This suggests to me that not only does this opposition to taboo language still exist, it is still a prevailing opinion amongst many. You also suggested that no one can control what language somebody else uses so it is interesting to see there are still people who are trying to do so. The article discusses the difficulty of enforcing this ban which I think perhaps proves your point. I shall provide the link to the article.

    You mentioned that swearing has been proven to reduce pain and anger. Have you thought about developing this argument further by considering if this may actually be the key reason for why we use such language? Jay and Janschewitz (2008) have suggested that the main objective of swearing is “expressing the speaker’s emotional state” (p. 268). To use your example, I think the fact that it is more acceptable to show emotion when in a social context with friends may play a role in determining why swearing is appropriate in this context but not during a lesson in a classroom.

    I found your concluding question about whether a future where no particular word offends anyone could actually exist to be especially intriguing. Personally I do not think this will ever happen. I believe that political correctness is becoming a larger issue in the press and there appears to be a new story about a word now being considered offensive every day. This past Friday, The Daily Express reported that the European Parliament had released a handbook banning their staff from using ‘offensive’ words such as “stewardess” and “wise men”. There are growing concerns about not wanting to offend people which I think will lead to more and more words becoming deemed offensive.

    Busby, M. (2018, October 25). Wireless festival to return to Finsbury Park – if it bans swearing. The Guardian, Retrieved from

    Hall, M. (2018, November 2). Wise men now officially banned from EU as political correctness gets even crazier, The Daily Express, Retrieved from:

    Jay, T., & Janschewitz, K. (2008). The pragmatics of swearing. Journal of Politeness Research. Language, Behaviour, Culture, 4(2), 267-288.

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