Why the f*** are some words more offensive than others? HANNAH BURY swears that context and content are crucial

I think we can all agree with Hazlitt (1821) that “[t]he English are a rather foul-mouthed nation”. Yet, it is more difficult to determine exactly how or why swear words have the impact they do. Should we allocate the blame to the way a word sounds, or the inherent meaning behind it? Perhaps this is just the tip of the ice-berg: maybe we can tolerate certain words in everyday conversation, apart from when they are spoken in ‘inappropriate’ situations?

Context is extremely important when exploring what we consider to be ‘taboo’ language. Terms like ‘swearing’ and ‘bad language’ are encompassed by this larger umbrella concept, but they don’t really mean the same thing. According to Stapleton (2010), “[s]wearing is a linguistic practice based on taboo, or that which is forbidden”, whereas McEnery (2006) claims that bad language constitutes “any word or phrase which, when used in what one might call polite conversation, is likely to cause offence”. Profanity is a form of taboo language which strays even further than these definitions, as it’s specifically associated with “religious cursing” (Battistella, 2005) or blasphemy. ‘Taboo’ language serves many different functions in society; it may be acceptable to swear freely with your friends, but we would probably refrain from such language around our nan!

Swearing, when spoken in any context, has the potential to be derogatory. Unsurprisingly, “[t]aboo words occupy a unique place in language because once learned, their use is heavily context driven” (Jay & Janschewitz, 2012). We may label someone we dislike as a ‘motherfucker’ or a ‘prick’ in order to purposely offend them, but we could also use swear words as intensifiers or a way of being affectionate to someone we love (McKervey, 2013).

Anyone familiar with the phrase “I fucking love you”? Because “the more ‘informal’ swearing becomes, the more the language becomes elastic, malleable and flexible” (Hughes, 1998). Therefore, each one of us is probably guilty of doing it at some point in any form; swearing eventually becomes second nature if you do it enough!

Contrastingly, the content of swear words might be more important than the context they are spoken in. Many swear words are figurative; their denotation is not often intended to mean something literal (Hughes, 1998). So if you called someone a ‘shit’ or a ‘cretin’ it might affect your popularity, but it’s unlikely to cause any lasting offence. However, swear words associated with stigmatised societal taboos are extremely powerful and damaging (Hughes, 1998). If you called somebody a ‘rapist’ or a ‘child molester’, these labels would have a much stronger impact: this suggests that the content of words is paramount, regardless of the context in which they are spoken.

Either way, let’s forget the taboo of swearing for a moment: dare we say it might actually be good for us?

According to Wen (2016) “[t]he most obvious advantage of swearing is to communicate effectively […] It also allows us to express anger, disgust or pain, or indicate to someone that they need to back off, without having to resort to physical violence”. Much research into this area supports how the benefits of swearing work in practice. For example, one experiment encouraged participants to articulate specific swear words freely. They found that individuals had a positively heightened physical response to this, especially those who were punished for swearing as children; they were able to repeat these words freely as adults (Tomash & Reed, 2013). Surely this shows that swearing can be a great way for people to express themselves; sometimes ‘generic’ words just don’t cut it. Most people would probably agree that they’d rather tell someone to ‘fuck off’ instead of starting a fight they may not win!

As Hughes (1998) asserts, “[v]irtually all societies, even the most modern, retain some taboos against swearing”, so it is likely that taboo language will always offend people. Ultimately, however, we can’t say that swear words are only ‘taboo’ because of their linguistic content or the manner or the context in which they are spoken. Instead, it is much more fulfilling to accept both views. The content of swear words like ‘crap’ signifies a specific taboo subject of “defecation” (Alan & Burridge, 2006). However, ‘crap’ has a mostly figurative meaning in context; both content and context are combined in order for swearing to ‘work’ effectively. What do you think? To swear or not to swear? It’s a personal choice, but pick your context and audience wisely!

HANNAH BURY, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Allan, K. & Burridge, K. (2006). Forbidden Words: Taboo and the Censoring of Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Battistella, E.L. (2005). Bad Language: Are some words better than others? New York: Oxford University Press.

Christie, C. (2013). The relevance of taboo language: an analysis of the indexical values of swearwords. Journal of Pragmatics, 58, pp.152-169.

Hughes, G. (1998). Swearing: a social history of foul language, oaths and profanity in English. London: Penguin.

Jay, T. and Janschewitz, K. (2008). The pragmatics of swearing. Journal of Politeness Research, 4, pp. 267-288.

McEnery, T. (2006). Swearing in English: Bad language, purity and power from 1586 to the present. London and New York: Routledge.

Tomash, J. & Reed, P. (2013, July). The Relationship Between Punishment History and Skin Conductance Elicited During Swearing. Research Gate.

Wen, T. (2016, March 3). The surprising benefits of swearing. BBC Future.


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