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