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. 

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

  1. Emily Paterson says:

    This is a great blog post Henry! It would seem that you have to take into account several different factors when considering what make swear words offensive- you can’t just narrow it down to one factor such as the meaning of a word. Would you agree? I find it interesting how you mention the etymology of swear words which can often lead us to realise that there isn’t anything inherently offensive about the words themselves. If this is the case, then it isn’t surprising that we are left wondering why there is so much stigma attached to swear words. Personally, I think context has a big part to play but as you point out the pronunciation of a word can make it sound harsher. It’s an interesting point you make that there is more swearing in film and television today- why do you think this is?

  2. HOLLY WILLIAMS says:

    Great blog post, Henry! Very innovative and eye-opening to modern perceptions of swearing and the use of language in general. I find Allan & Burridge’s idea that language associated with bodies, sex acts, defecation etc are the words we call taboo, as some people may have no issue with discussing these topics themselves openly, especially today. It’s also very interesting to note that the word ‘cunt’ has only had a negative stigma attached to it in recent years. It seems as if there are more offensive words now than ever which is hard to believe considering the progress made with acceptance and approval in recent years. Looking at the phonetics behind taboo language is also very fascinating. I have heard it mentioned on more than one occasion that it is the way the word sounds that offends people and not the stigma attached to it. However, your point about the word ‘dock’ shows that this can’t necessarily be valid. You never hear of someone being offended by the word ‘dock’ even though it has a very similar structure to that of ‘fuck’ or ‘dick’ etc. Having said this, I do think that people need to examine their audience when expressing themselves through language. It would not be impossible to consider using other words that are less likely to offend just in case. I find this debate very intriguing and engaging!

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