Does ‘loo’ have the same meaning as ‘shithouse’? NICOLE STALLDECKER investigates struggles with taboo language in everyday life

Two words, but the same meaning. The only difference is the context in which both words are used. ‘Loo’ is a ‘clean’ word that is used in formal situations, whereas ‘shithouse’ is regarded as a ‘dirty’ taboo word. But why is ‘shithouse’ considered as more shocking and offensive if it is a synonym for ‘loo’?

In daily life, speakers struggle with the correct use of vocabulary for specific contexts. They have to decide whether they use euphemisms, dysphemism or orthophemism to avoid offence. Euphemisms are words or phrases that are an alternative for the taboo word. The speaker’s aim is to maintain his and the recipient’s face in the conversation. ‘Loo’ would be a euphemism for the dysphemism ‘shithouse’ which has negative connotations and an offensive meaning. The third option is an orthophemism, which is the direct expression and it is “not sweet-sounding, evasive or overly polite, nor harsh, blunt or offensive” (Allan and Burridge, 2006). ‘Loo’ and ‘shithouse’ are cross-varietal synonyms that have the same meaning, but they are used in different contexts.

There is another view that deals with swearing, but the focus is on the biological aspect. According to Soanes (2002), swearing or taboo language “can increase tolerance for pain”. There are several studies that show that if a speaker repeats a swear word constantly and they hold their hand in ice-cold water at the same time, the people who swear can tolerate the pain longer than people who do not swear. Researchers found out that “swearing increases a speaker’s emotional arousal leading to a stress-induced analgesia as a part of the […] fight response” (Stephens and Zile, 2017). It shows that swearing is linked to the emotion centre of the brain. The reactions can be positive or negative. The athlete Bryony Shaw swore on TV spontaneously when he tried to express his happiness about his Bronze medal at the Olympics. His response was: “I’m so fucking happy” (The Telegraph 2008). Was it meant to offend the audience or just a spontaneous reaction of his emotional centre and therefore a biological reflex?

In the following studies, they examine the relationship between emotional arousal and swearing fluency.

The participants play an FPS video game and their emotions are manipulated. They play two different video games. The first game is a Medal of Honor Frontline FPS video game, whereas the second game is a golf video game. The participants are 60 undergraduate and postgraduate students from Keele University, 33 women and 27 men, aged 18-43 years old. All participants play the two games and the results show that the FPS video game increases the emotional arousal which caused an increased tendency for the production of swear words. The results imply that swearing is a natural reaction to emotional arousal. That means that people do not always want to offend people in their environment when they swear. It can be a physical reaction to the emotional state.

According to Allan and Burridge (2006), “swearing and cussing is […] a function of the right hemisphere of the brain for a majority of the population, whereas normal language functions are carried out in the left hemisphere”. The right hemisphere deals with emotions, whereas the “left part controls the impulses for searing”. Swearing is carried out in the left hemisphere and prefrontal areas, which explains certain behaviors. “When [the left part is] damaged, control over inappropriate cursing is lost” (Allan, Burridge, 2006).

One of the most popular taboo words in English speaking countries is ‘fuck’. In the past, it was a word that was forbidden to use in social contexts and it was regarded as highly offensive. Nowadays, it is present in everyone’s daily life and in many imaginative written texts (McEnery and Xiao, 2004). It can be used as a verb, noun, adjective, and interjection and it is present in many fields like music, film and television.  They pushed the boundaries and used it constantly which had the consequence that it is regarded as a standard word (Murphy, 2009). It has also a different development in Irish English. Instead of ‘fucking’ they use ‘fecking’, which is a euphemistic taboo word that occurs 104 times per million words in the corpus.  It developed in the mid-to late 1990s in Ireland and its meaning can be explained as “to keep a look out” (Murphy, 2009). If you go even further back, you see that the word ‘feck’ is present in Old English ‘feccan’, which means ‘to fetch’, and in German ‘fegen’, which means ‘to plunder’. ‘Feck’ is used as “an euphemistic form whose meaning has been layered on top of a much older expression” (Murphy, 2009).

But ‘fuck’ is not the only word that experienced that development. There are many taboo words that “constantly evolve” and they “[become] increasingly acceptable in mainstream language use” (Murphy, 2009). Nevertheless, there are certain groups that use ‘fuck’ more often than other groups. The group that uses that taboo word mostly are young men in their twenties which implies that the word is “a marker of young adulthood [and] it indicates that it is a marker of maleness” (Murphy, 2009). It is interesting that the literal meaning of ‘fuck’, which means ‘to have sex’, is not often used in daily conversations. The original meaning disappeared in the background and nowadays ‘fuck’ is mostly used to emphasize positive or negative feelings (Murphy, 2009).

According to Jay (1999), who invented the Neuro-Psycho-Social (NPS) theory of speech, it is important to include taboo words and swearing because they give you information about a “speaker’s knowledge of pragmatics, politeness […] figurative language”. Taboo language is crucial in order to understand the real “emotional intensity” of utterances which influences the message (Murphy, 2009). It is understandable that taboo words offend people in specific situations, but it would be wrong to ban them at all because they are part of our daily conversations and speech and they are clearly connected to our emotions. Why is it bad to express the intense and real message by using taboo words only because our society wants us to behave differently? Is it not our right to speak freely as long as we know that we have to use other lexis when we are in another social environment?

NICOLE STALLDECKER, English Language visiting student, University of Chester, UK


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

McEnery, T. & Xiao, R. (2006). Corpus-based language studies: an advanced resource book. New York: Routledge.

Murphy, B. (2009). ’She’s a fucking ticket’: the pragmatics in Irish English – an age and gender perspective. Volume 4, Edingburgh University Press.

Stephens, R. & Zile, A. (2017). Does Emotional Arousal Influence Swearing Fluency? Volume 46, Journal of Psycholinguistic Research.



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.

Caring Unattached Nice Type. Why so serious? RACHAEL BARRY explores the offensiveness of ‘cunt’


The notorious swear word of English. But what makes this four letter word so shocking? Is it the sound? Is it phonologically offensive? Is it the way in which it is said? Has it always been this outrageously offensive word?

The noun ‘cunt’ is derived from the Old Germanic “kunte”, meaning cliff or valley that “bears flowers every four weeks and fruit every nine months” (Wajnryb, 2004). Similarly, in Scandinavian, “kunta” now “kant” carries almost the same meaning, used in modern Norwegian to refer to a mountains edge. So has the English meaning taken such a sharp descent into taboo?

In 1230, the street name “Gropecunt Lane” was common around the UK, most notably in London’s ‘red light’ district. In 1275, records show a place named “Shavecuntwelle” in Kent, aptly describing the nearby valley with a small wooded area. There were no negative connotations associated with the use of ‘cunt’ at this time. The Middle ages provided many literary works containing the word ‘cunt’. Chaucer used “queynte” throughout The Canterbury Tales, which was defined as “an elegant pleasing thing” in Middle English (MED, 2018). In those times it was used to refer to the vagina without any suggestion of vulgarity. Rather, it was used as a utilitarian reference for female genitalia. When did these attitudes change?

In Victorian times, the idea of polite society shunned the use of everything taboo. They shied away from talking about sex and vulgar things. This saw the use of ‘cunt’ as improper and undignified, a concept challenged by D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928). The book was subject to a watershed obscenity trial (1960) due to the content of obscene and sexual terms, where ‘cunt’ appeared 14 times. This was a major public event that tested the new Obscene Publication Act (1959), which allowed publishers to escape conviction if they could show the works were of literary merit. The verdict delivered on 2nd November, 1960, was ‘not guilty’ (Robertson, 2010). This trial challenged the old Victorian view on censorship, allowing these ‘forbidden’ taboo words to be published. This in turn began a revival in modern English. The 1970s saw a feminist movement to reclaim the word, with the view that they owned the ‘cunts of the world’, and so they should have control over its use, battling the inherent misogyny of the word (Braier, 2016).

Today, ‘cunt’ is used colloquially all over the country. It can be used as an insult but also as a term of endearment. In my work’s group chat, titled ‘cunts’, each member is given a ‘cuntname’. An example of this is ‘fat cunt’, referring to a rotund work colleague. These ‘cuntnames’ are used as a term of endearment between friends, with no offensive connotations.

On another note, could the underlying factor to the word’s offensive nature be rooted in how it sounds? Wajnryb (2005) states that plosives are a common phonological feature among swear words. Plosive sounds occur when pressure is built up behind closed lips, which is released when the lips separate. There are six plosives in English; [t], [k], [p] (voiceless) and [d], [g], [b] (voiced). These give a harsh, emotive quality to a word.  ‘Cunt’ is made up of the two plosives, [k] and [t], a vowel [ʌ], and a nasal [n]. Comparing this to another ‘less offensive’ derogatory term for women; ‘bint’, which has similar phonological features with the two plosives [b] and [t], the vowel [ɪ] and a nasal [n],  shouldn’t both words be in the same category of offensiveness, as they have similar features?

Is it therefore the meaning behind the word that retains its crown of obscenity? The offensiveness of ‘cunt’ seems to be underpinned by meaning. Allan and Burridge (2006) state that sex is a taboo topic in society, today as well as in Victorian times. Although deriving from picturesque imagery in Old Germanic, ‘cunt’ is associated with a woman’s genitals, and to describe an unpleasant or stupid person (OED online, 2018). However, it is also used today as a greeting which implies no offence is being taken from its use. This in turn implies that the word is context related.

It is undeniable that there is an “anxiety of using the C-bomb” (Braier, 2016), but also a satisfaction derived from using a taboo term.  Having done this research, there seems to be no definitive answer as to why it is such an offensive word, considering the degree of semantic change from its origin to current day, as it is subjective to the hearer of the aforementioned c-bomb.

RACHAEL BARRY, 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, July 9). In praise of the C-word. The Guardian.

MED Online, (2018). Middle English Dictionary.

OED Online, (2018). Oxford University Press.

Robertson, G. (2010, Oct 22). The trial of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. The Guardian.

Wajnryb, R. (2004). Language Most Foul. Crows Nest, Allen & Unwin.

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

Why is the ‘c-word’ considered one of the most offensive in English? JOSHUA WOLSTENHOLME explores the origins and versatility of the four-letter offender

Swearing has become quite common in spoken and written English. Most swear words and uses of taboo language refer to religion or to bodily functions such as, sweat, organs, disease, sex acts, faeces and killing (Allan & Burridge, 2006, pp. 1-2). These words can be used to intensify strong feelings and give offence in a manner that non-taboo words cannot achieve (Jay, 1992, p. 68). Although the original meanings of these words are not inherently offensive, why and how have they become some of the most offensive words in the English language?

Believed to originate from the Old Norse ‘kunta’ and the Proto-Germanic ‘kunto’, ‘cunt’ is currently one of the most offensive swear words in the English Language (Brown, 2016). Its roots can be traced back to around 1230 when it was used in the name of a London street called ‘Gropecunt Lane’. Initially, ‘cunt’ was just a noun used to describe female genitalia in dictionaries and medical journals and was not considered offensive. Later, ‘cunt’ was used by famous writers such as Geoffrey Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales, and Shakespeare in Hamlet (Dent, 2017).  So why have the attitudes towards this word become so negative?

One explanation could be due to the sound of the word. ‘Cunt’, alongside swear words such as ‘fuck’ and ‘dick’, include plosive sounds. These occur when the airway is blocked resulting in pressure building up and being released explosively. It could be argued that this makes words with plosives sound more aggressive and therefore more offensive. However, not all words that have plosives can be considered swearing. The only phonetic difference between ‘can’t’ and ‘cunt’ is the vowel sound.  If the degree of offensiveness was based on just sounds, then ‘can’t’ would also be taboo. Therefore, the meaning behind the words must also contribute towards them being classified as taboo language.

It could be argued that the meaning behind the word has contributed towards its notoriety. Allan & Burridge suggest that swear words relating to sex or sexual organs are severely taboo when used in public (2006, p. 144). As a result, ‘cunt’ could have developed to become offensive and therefore taboo. Using this explanation, the other words in the English Language that refer to our genitals should also be taboo. However, ‘penis’ and ‘vagina’ are both considered not offensive even though they are used to refer to someone’s genitals. This shows that the meaning of a word is not the only criteria for a word to become taboo.

Battistella (2005) suggests that “the notion of offensive language is a variable one”. So the offensiveness of a word is related to the context in which it is used. Would you use the word ‘cunt’ at work? Or would you be more likely to use it at home? The use of ‘cunt’ has become more versatile. It can be used to describe a person, help relieve pain and even as a term of endearment when greeting friends. Braier (2016) explains that her friends occasionally use it, in formulations such as “alright, you little cunt”. This swear word has become so popular that the different variations such as, ‘cuntish’, ‘cunted’ and ‘cunting’ have been added to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED Online, 2018).

However, despite its recent growing popularity, most TV channels and films rarely allow ‘cunt’ to be broadcast before or after the watershed. The Federal Communications Commission, who regulate offensive words and phrases on American TV have even included it in their ‘seven dirty words’ list that should never appear on any TV show (Kaye & Sapolsky, 2009). This shows us that the degree of offensiveness is subjective and therefore based on our own opinions of what is offensive and what is appropriate in certain situations.

So then, why is ‘cunt’ considered the most offensive word in the English Language? Is the Federal Communications Commission right to add it to their list of ‘seven dirty words’? Alternatively, are swear words becoming less taboo? Can they become so commonly used that they are no longer ‘forbidden’?

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

Braier, R. (2016, July 9). ‘In praise of the c-word’. The Guardian.

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

Dent, S. (2017) Susie Dent’s guide to swearing. Channel 4.

Kaye, B. and Sapolsy, B. (2009). Taboo or not taboo? That is the question: Offensive language on primetime broadcast and cable programming. Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, 53(1). pp.1- 16.

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.

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.