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.