How do you flavour your speech? Are you a Gordon Ramsey or a Nigella Lawson? JAKE PARRY discusses when ‘fuck’ is an acceptable menu item

Why is it that many of us are so ready to use the word ‘fuck’ in times of merriment with friends, but not in many formal social environments with unfamiliar faces? Hoeksema and Napoli (2008) argue that swearing “flavors our speech, it shows great variation among social groups and especially social settings, and it changes all the time” (p. 347). So perhaps this is the root of the matter, that different social settings favour different flavours of language. You wouldn’t go to a job interview and explain how “fucking brilliant” you are at stacking shelves, but you might if you were at the pub with friends, explaining how good you are at your new job.

Kapoor (2016) reports that Beers-Fägersten differentiated between two categories of swearing: “(a) annoyance swearing, associated with greater transgression, where the swearer is stressed; and (b) social swearing, associated with social context, where the swearer is relaxed” (pp. 259-260). The example given prior (the job interview vs. the pub) definitely falls into category B, where swearing for intensified meaning is social and the individual is relaxed. Kapoor also suggests that social swearing “promotes social bonding, enabling the formation of coalitions” (2016, p. 260) but this is quite obviously ineffective in the context of a job interview, even if the interviewee’s goal is to form a coalition with the interviewer for the express purpose of being hired. Using ‘fuck’ in an interview would issue the quite appropriate response that the interviewee may not be able to act in a professional manner with clientele, as they have already ignored quite a stable social norm.

Perhaps it is a matter of politeness, as Isaacs (2014) argues: “Swear words are words not in general polite usage” (p. 1). It simply wouldn’t be polite to assume enough social intimacy to use vulgar words (words of an unrefined nature, like ‘fuck’) in unfamiliar company. Allan and Burridge (2006) argue that “[w]hat counts as courteous behaviour varies between human groups; and, because the smallest group consists of just two people, the variation is boundless” (p. 29). Lexical self-censorship, or politeness in this case, between human groups is “sensitive to social standing” (Allan & Burridge, 2006, p. 30). In the context of an interview, the social standing is clear; the interviewee is asking something of the interviewer (i.e. to be considered for the job), and so with that request, the interviewer is given a certain power over the interviewee. This power demands a certain respect for the social standing of the particular “context, place and time. That which is polite is at least inoffensive and at best pleasing to an audience” (Allan & Burridge, 2006, p. 29). As the goal is established, to be hired, the interviewee must be sure to please the interviewer to accomplish it.

This obviously is not the case in the context of talking to friends over a pint. The concept of politeness does not necessarily apply in the same way here. Allan and Burridge (2006) state that “good manners” depends on a number of factors, including: “the relationship between speakers, their audience, and anyone within earshot; the subject matter; the situation (setting); and whether a spoken or written medium is used” (p. 29). This brings us back to what Kapoor (2016) said about swearing promoting “social bonding [and coalition]” (p. 260). The familiarity level is much higher here, the relationship between speakers is more intimate and, as such, the expected standard of politeness differs to that of an interview setting. It is socially acceptable to ‘flavour’ your speech in the company of friends as there are no stakes involved, unlike in an interview.

While swearing does flavour our speech and promote social comradery, it is entirely dependent on the context in which it is used, as previously discussed. Using ‘fucking’ as a lexical intensifier may be quite innocuous in an everyday social setting, but in an interview, it would surely flag up as an ignored social norm of expected politeness, and decrease one’s chances of being hired. As this is not the intended outcome of an interview, we all have to censor our flavourful speech unless, of course, you’ve applied to work in Gordon Ramsay’s kitchen.

JAKE PARRY, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Allan, K., & Burridge, K. (2006). Forbidden Words. New York, United States of America, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hoeksema, J., & Napoli, D. J. (2008). Just for the hell of it: A comparison of two taboo-term constructions. Journal of Linguistics, 44, 347-378.

Isaacs, D. (2014). Swearing. Journal of Paediatrics and Child Health, 50, 1-2.

Kapoor, H. (2016). Swears in Context: The Difference Between Casual and Abusive Swearing. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research, 45(2), 259-274.


3 thoughts on “How do you flavour your speech? Are you a Gordon Ramsey or a Nigella Lawson? JAKE PARRY discusses when ‘fuck’ is an acceptable menu item

  1. Katie Roberts says:

    Hi Jake,

    I found your blog post really fascinating. Taboo language is not something that is widely talked about and you demonstrate good knowledge about a very contested and challenging linguistic debate.

    Your discussion of swearing in relation to a speaker’s social environment particularly caught my attention. I certainly agree that our choice of language differs in certain social settings. I would never dream of swearing in a job interview! Have you looked into Tajfel’s (1978) Social Identity Theory? The notion that we gravitate towards group behaviour and uniformity seems to link in very well with your second categorisation of swearing (Kapoor, 2016).

    I also agree with your point on politeness in relation to swearing or, as you put it, “flavourful speech”! Entrenched societal norms impact on people’s speech habits because I certainly tend to diverge away from my usual speech patterns in formal contexts. I become more consciously aware of how I am speaking! Do you think the social norms of politeness extend beyond the realms of swearing?

    Have you considered researching more into swearing in the workplace? A recent article in The Guardian for example, actually portrays swearing as “good for you”. It goes as far to suggest that it can benefit the workplace by building camaraderie and team relationships! I have attached the link, which may provide you with some useful additional content for this intriguing debate:

    Thank you for such an interesting and detailed blog post!

  2. Briony Greaves says:

    Hi Jake, I really enjoyed reading your blog and liked how you referred to it as ‘flavouring speech’ as I had not thought of it in this way before!

    I see that you mentioned a job interview example and compared it to being at the pub with your friends. This made me think of the scenario where you were at the pub with work friends after a few weeks at being at your new job, if you would think it is acceptable to swear in this situation? Personally, it depends on the social distance and assessing the circumstance, for example, whether your work friends swear around you. I think it also is a different environment as well that needs to be taken into consideration, as you are no longer in the work place and it is when your shift has ended. I wondered this because, for some people it can be second nature to swear in their sentences without thinking about the taboo language they may be using, especially after a few drinks.

    The two categories of swearing that you presented in your blog was interesting. It made me realise that I only hear my mum swear when she is stressed or experiencing road rage. However, I believe this may be because she does not want to promote casual taboo language to her children.

    Likewise, I would not swear in an interview, and I also find it intolerable when people swear around children because I think the social situation for swearing varies. I do believe it is wrong to swear around young children, because parents may have strong views against taboo language and find this disrespectful. Although you only refer to Goran Ramsey at the end, it is intriguing to see him swearing at adults as opposed to him never swearing when he has children on his shows. This may be because he knows people would object to his language towards the children. However, due to technology, I am positive they may have already seen compilation videos of Gordon Ramsey swearing. This type of behaviour can be humorous but the image of Gordan Ramsey to many people is that he is quite intimidating, and he now has a reputation for swearing. Although, I would say he has a larger following compared to Nigella Lawson, do you think this is because he swears and viewers find him funny?

    The spoken versus written aspect is also interesting to me because I find I do not swear as often in text messaging. This mainly is because I know most swear words are auto-corrected anyway, and I only really add swearing when I think it adds humour to the message.

    Thank you for posting such an interesting blog!
    Briony Greaves

  3. Emma Stevens says:

    Hi Jake, I thought that this was a brilliant read. I am very interested in your opinion on how taboo language being deemed as acceptable depending on your social environment and surrounding.

    In your blog you speak about how during an interview people stay clear of using any taboo jargon. I agree with this point, as during a job interview I would personally not use swear words out of politeness to the interviewer. Yet, I think in today’s society the use of taboo language is being more widely used and is becoming more of a social norm. Therefore, I think that the use of taboo jargon may depends on the sector of the job you are applying for ( dealing with customers or not) and the age of the interviewer. This is because the younger generation use swear words a lot more frequency and is therefore seen as a more acceptable use of language, then those in the elder generation.

    Yet I also agree that when in an interview the interviewee may be more careful on the use of taboo language they are using. For example, the interviewee may deem it to be more socially acceptable to use the word ‘bloody’ then to use the word ‘fuck’. Due to the fact that the interviewer has more authority than the interviewee and therefore may still be more careful about there use of swear words then if they had been down the pub with their friends.

    Do you believe that there is starting to become a fuzzy boundary of what language may be seen as taboo and not taboo in today’s society?

    Thank you for an interesting read!

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