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