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