Is it meaning, context or pronunciation that makes words offensive? JORDZHAH-LOU ROWLEY explores some colourful English lexis.

What is it that makes one specific word more offensive than another? What is it about the simple grouping together of letters and sounds in a certain way that can make a person feel attacked?

The word ‘shit’ is classed as a moderately offensive word, but when we change the last letter to make it, ‘ship’ it loses all of its aggressiveness as it takes on a new meaning. So is it is all about meaning?  Batistella (2005) suggests that there are three main categories of swear words that all centre around their meanings. Epithets play on a person’s insecurities about what makes them different, for example ‘faggot’ or ‘wog.’ Profanity relates to religious swearing, for example ‘God’ or ‘Jesus Christ.’ Vulgarity and obscenity refer to sex or bodily functions, for example ‘shit’ or ‘bloody.’ It is suggested that if the words relate to any of these subjects they can be interpreted as offensive because the meanings behind the words are taboo, and therefore shouldn’t be spoken in public.

The idea that we should not speak of such topics in public implies that behind closed doors, these words are perfectly acceptable to use. If you were to swear when you were alone in your house, and you scolded your arm, is that offensive? Or does it just become a normal word? It is then evident that the key to offensiveness is context, where you are and who you are with. Ofcom (2016) state on their website that they take in to account “context, such as the tone, delivery and time of broadcast, when assessing whether offensive language is acceptable.” This implies that even the most offensive word can be used in a fitting context and still be broadcast. However, that is not necessarily the case.

So, what is the most offensive word? And why? Research suggests that the majority of UK citizens deem the word ‘cunt’ to be the worst swear word in the English language. But what about the word ‘fuck’? Wajnryb (2005) suggests that as a nation we in the UK have become desensitized to swearing, especially to the word ‘fuck’. She suggests that this is due to the overuse of the word ‘fuck’ to illustrate a point. She claims “[i]t would seem that words jump into new classes and become increasingly common place, moving from the taboo category to the slang category.” She implies that this is because of the way we now use the word in, for example, ‘I fucking love you,’ which is being used as a term of endearment and not offence. This is because when using the word as an adjective rather than a verb it takes on a new role in the sentence and in society, as it shifts from a term of offence to an intensifier to emphasise a point, to show enthusiasm or excitement.

However, some of the  most offensive words in society appear to be largely female based. Ofcom’s published list of swear words for instance consist of 61.9% of words describing the female anatomy. So what is so offensive about a vagina? Wajnryb (2005) suggests that the vagina was a symbol of deceit and adultery which dated back to the Middle Ages because the reproductive organs are ‘hidden’ inside of the body. This outdated definition may suggest that women should try to reclaim these ‘vulgar’ words back for themselves. They should begin to use the word ‘cunt’ freely. However this is not necessarily a popular view, as some suggest that if we overuse the word there will be no more offensive language left. I could not agree less. It is evident that ‘swear words’ are disappearing due to overuse. But as long as there is someone that gets offended, there will always be offensive language.

JORDZHAH-LOU ROWLEY, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Battistella, E. (2005). Bad language: are some words better than others? Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ofcom. (2016, September 30). ‘Ofcom explores latest attitudes to offensive language’.

Wajnryb, R. (2005). Expletive deleted: A good look at bad language. Simon and Schuster.


Four sounds, four letters. But what makes ‘c-u-n-t’ one of the most offensive words in English? VICTORIA TAMS gropes around for an answer.

See you next Tuesday. The word that makes many people’s spines shiver, muscles clench and hearts skip. ‘Cunt’ undoubtedly is a taboo word. This word stimulates much deliberation over why and how it has become one of the most offensive words in the English Language. Is it the combination of the four letters? Is it the combination of the four sounds? Is it the origins of the word? Is it the tone in which you say it? Let’s find out.

Usage of the word can be traced back to the 13th century in a street name in London called ‘Gropecuntelane’ where prostitutes were often found (OED online, 2017). Did it have negative connotations from the word go?

With regards to the sound, it has often been found that for a word to be offensive it needs to include plosive sounds to give it that sharp edge. Plosive sounds occur when the mouth passage is completely blocked, the pressure can build up behind the blockage and is released when the lips are separated. The basic plosives in English are [t], [k], and [p] (voiceless) and [d], [g], [b] (voiced) (Wajnryb, 2005, p.207). ‘Cunt’ contains two plosives – [k] and [t] – found in-between a vowel [ʌ] and nasal [n]. Could the phonetic structure of the word be the answer to why it holds the title as one of the most offensive words in the English Language?

Potentially, however, if it is just down to the phonemes then why isn’t ‘git’ seen to be as offensive? In OfCom’s 2016 list of offensive words, ‘git’ was only classified as a mildly offensive word compared to ‘cunt’ which was placed in the strongest category. Surely if it is down to the phonemes then ‘git’ would be placed in a stronger category as that too has the plosives [g] and [t] with vowel [ɪ]? This suggests that it may actually be down to more than just the sounds. However, Stephens (2015) does suggest that there could be a “plosiveness theory of swearing” which focuses on the specific combination of vowels and consonants, such as making a hard sound, contributes to the offensiveness of the word.

What about the combination of letters? How really is it possible for three consonants and a vowel to cause such offensive to hearers? If you look at the contraction of ‘cannot’, ‘can’t’ is just the same construction as ‘cunt’ but yet would be unlikely to have the potential to cause any sort of offence.

This leads us to consider that it must it be to do with the meaning behind the word. Although ‘cunt’ can be traced back to street name, it now is a term to refer to a woman’s genitals. This idea is supported by Allan and Burridge who also suggest that “sexual activity is tabooed as a topic for public display and severely constrained as a topic for discussion” (2006, p. 144). However, although this word refers to a woman’s genitals, so does ‘fanny’ (in the UK) or ‘vagina’ and neither of them have the same effect that ‘cunt’ does. ‘Cunt’ is on another level and somehow has the power to make people feel uncomfortable when they hear it.

Well that leads us to the tone in which you say the word, and whether ‘cunt’ can really ever be used as a term of endearment? Braier (2016) says that she loves the sound of the word when she says it, specifically that she loves the monosyllabic weight of it with the harsh consonants. She also says how her friends use it occasionally as a greeting “alright, you little cunt”. Does this suggest it could be considered as an acceptable word should it be a friend who says it? I’m sure my mother would completely disagree.

So maybe, after all then, ‘cunt’ is seen to be the most offensive word in the English Language due to the meanings and connotations it has occurred over the past years. It can also be said that maybe people are using it due to the pure satisfaction of knowing they have used one of the most offensive words. However, you can’t deny people are using it as a greeting term and get some sort of relief out of dropping that c-bomb.

VICTORIA TAMS, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Allan, K., Burridge, K. (2006). Forbidden words: taboo and the censoring of language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Braier, R. (2016, August 11). ‘In praise of the c-word’. The Guardian

OED Online. (2017). Oxford University Press.

Ofcom. (2016, September 30). Ofcom explores latest attitudes to offensive language.

Stephens, R. (2015). Black Sheep: The Hidden Benefits of Being Bad. John Murray.

Wajnryb, R. (2005). Expletive deleted: A good look at bad language. Simon and Schuster.

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 ( 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


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. 

Mind your ‘fucking’ language. HANNAH RICHARDSON considers the creative, crude and cunning uses of the ‘c-word’

Warning: this post contains language which may offend


Most people when confronted with ‘the c-word’ tend to have one of two reactions: grin and laugh childishly or grimace with shock and disgrace. How did you react when you read this as the first word of this blog? ‘Cunt’ is generally regarded as the most offensive swear word in the English language and has been thrown into a jail cell of taboo, never to be spoken or spoken of (Brown, 2016). Though its roots and core definition is of female genitalia and isn’t inherently offensive, this word still has the power to turn the air blue. So what is it that has everyone so scared of this four letter word?

Being used as early as 1230 in the London street name “Gropecunt Lane”, this word has continued to have an impact on the English language. In the middle ages, ‘cunt’ was used as a synonym for the vulva or vagina and variants were included in many great classics by famous writers. Geoffrey Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales used the word “queynte” throughout, and Shakespeare often used it to provide comedy, most notably in Hamlet with his reference to ‘country matters’ when addressing Ophelia, alluding to oral sex (Braier, 2016). So when did this word become such a taboo?

It was during the nineteenth century that language started to become censored, especially regarding public use. The etiquette of the time meant politeness and manners were considered highly important and reputation was a great priority. This left no room for any swear words, particularly those relating to sex or sexual organs; they were no longer considered a humorous topic. In this era, it was seen to be offensive if private matters of the marital bed were mentioned in public, especially to women and children who were seen as needing to be protected from such vulgarity. Children upon hearing this language could be exposed to ideas they do not need to know of yet and therefore would be inappropriate to use in their presence (Braier, 2016).

However, Victorian values were significantly different compared to today. Religion and saving sex for pro-creation was the order of the day and this therefore ruled out any offensive language from their vocabulary including obscenity or profanity, as it went against many of their religious values.

Since then, the word ‘cunt’ has trickled its way back into use in the public sphere. In the 1970s, there was a movement by the feminists to reclaim the word back as their own. Women felt that s they were the ones who owned and were in charge of the cunts of the world, they too should be able to use the word as they see fit. It was a movement that was trying to battle the misogyny of the word as it had become an insult which used a women’s own anatomy against her (Braier, 2016). In even more modern times, ‘cunt’ has found refuge in colloquial language, being used as a term of endearment for many. As a northerner, I find myself surrounded by it, used to describe anything from a slight inconvenience, to stubbing your toe to being annoyed with a friend. This word has become so commonly used, the Oxford Dictionary in 2014 added in ‘cunty’, ‘cuntish’, ‘cunted’ and ‘cunting’ (Braier, 2016).

Nevertheless, most TV shows and films still rarely use this word even after the 9pm watershed just in case it does offend its audience. Many people still find ‘cunt’ uncomfortable and will not use it, especially in front of the older generations. It appears that its offensive nature is passed on between generations as it is often referred to as the most unspeakable of swear words.

Despite this, it could be argued that the offensiveness of this word is related to how it is used. If I was to use the word ‘cunt’ in a sentence around my mother that had nothing to do with her, she may be shocked, but she would be far more upset, angry and offended if I was to call her one. Edwin L. Battistella wrote in his book Bad language: are some words better than others? (2005) that “the notion of offensive language is a variable one” and depends on the context in which is used. What we can deduce from all this is that language is arbitrary and we give meaning to our words. The degree of offensiveness depends on our own perceptions of what is offensive and in the intent of our use.

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


Battistella, Edwin L. (2005). Bad language: are some words better than others? Oxford: Oxford University Press

Braier, R. (2016, August 11). In praise of the c-word in praise of the c-word. The Guardian

Brown, J. (2016, October 4). Every British swear word has been officially ranked in order of offensiveness. 


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.