What Are Swear Words and What Are They Used For?

A swear word is a word or phrase that's generally considered blasphemous, obscene, vulgar, or otherwise offensive. These are also called bad words, obscenities, expletives, dirty words, profanities, and four-letter words. The act of using a swear word is known as swearing or cursing.

"Swear words serve many different functions in different social contexts," notes Janet Holmes. "They may express annoyance, aggression and insult, for instance, or they may express solidarity and friendliness," (Holmes 2013).

Etymology

From Old English, "take an oath."

Swearing in Media

Profanities in today's society are about as ubiquitous as air, but here is an example from media nonetheless.

Spock: Your use of language has altered since our arrival. It is currently laced with, shall we say, more colorful metaphors, "double dumbass on you," and so forth.
Captain Kirk: Oh, you mean the profanity?
Spock: Yes.
Captain Kirk: Well, that's simply the way they talk here. Nobody pays any attention to you unless you swear every other word. You'll find it in all the literature of the period, (Nimoy and Shatner, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home).

Why Swear?

If using swear words is considered offensive or wrong, why do people do it? As it turns out, there are many reasons that people might choose to pepper their language with colorful curse words, and profanity actually serves a few meaningful roles in society. Here's what the experts have to say about why, when, and how people swear.

Uses of Swear Words

"A final puzzle about swearing is the crazy range of circumstances in which we do it," begins Steven Pinker. "There is cathartic swearing, as when we hit our thumb with a hammer or knock over a glass of beer. There are imprecations, as when we suggest a label or offer advice to someone who has cut us off in traffic. There are vulgar terms for everyday things and activities, as when Bess Truman was asked to get the president to say fertilizer instead of manure and she replied, 'You have no idea how long it took me to get him to say manure.'

There are figures of speech that put obscene words to other uses, such as the barnyard epithet for insincerity, the army acronym snafu, and the gynecological-flagellative term for uxorial dominance. And then there are the adjective-like expletives that salt the speech and split the words of soldiers, teenagers, Australians, and others affecting a breezy speech style," (Pinker 2007).

Social Swearing

"Why do we swear? The answer to this question depends on the approach you take. As a linguist—not a psychologist, neurologist, speech pathologist or any other -ist—I see swearing as meaningfully patterned verbal behaviour that readily lends itself to a functional analysis. Pragmatically, swearing can be understood in terms of the meanings it is taken to have and what it achieves in any particular circumstance. ...
Typically, a social swear word originates as one of the 'bad' words but becomes conventionalised in a recognisably social form. Using swear words as loose intensifiers contributes to the easy-going, imprecise nature of informal talk among in-group members. ... In sum, this is jokey, cruisy, relaxing talk in which participants oil the wheels of their connection as much by how they talk as what they talk about,"
(Wajnryb 2004).

Secular Swearing

Swearing, like any other feature of language, is subject to change over time. "[I]t would appear that in Western society the major shifts in the focus of swearing have been from religious matters (more especially the breaching of the commandment against taking the Lord's name in vain) to sexual and bodily functions, and from opprobrious insults, such as coolie and kike. Both of these trends reflect the increasing secularization of Western society," (Hughes 1991).

What Makes a Word Bad?

So how does a word become bad? Author George Carlin raises the point that most bad words are chosen rather arbitrarily: "There are four hundred thousand words in the English language and there are seven of them you can't say on television. What a ratio that is! Three hundred ninety-three thousand nine hundred and ninety-three ... to seven! They must really be bad. They'd have to be outrageous to be separated from a group that large. 'All of you over here ... You seven, you bad words.' ... That's what they told us, you remember? 'That's a bad word.' What? There are no bad words. Bad thoughts, bad intentions, but no bad words," (Carlin 2009).

David Cameron's "Jokey, Blokey Interview"

Just because many people swear doesn't mean that swear words aren't still controversial. Former British Prime Minister David Cameron once proved in a casual interview how quickly conversations can turn sour when swear words are used and lines between what's acceptable and what's not are blurred.

"David Cameron's jokey, blokey interview ... on Absolute Radio this morning is a good example of what can happen when politicians attempt to be down with the kids—or in this case, with the thirtysomethings. ... Asked why he didn't use the social networking website Twitter, the Tory leader said: 'The trouble with Twitter, the instantness of it—too many twits might make a twat.' ... [T]he Tory leader's aides were in defensive mode afterwards, pointing out that 'twat' was not a swear word under radio guidelines," (Siddique 2009).

Censoring Swear Words

In an effort to use swear words without offending, many writers and publications will replace some or most of the letters in a bad word with asterisks or dashes. Charlotte Brontë argued years ago that this serves little purpose. "[N]ever use asterisks, or such silliness as b-----, which are just a cop-out, as Charlotte Brontë recognised: 'The practice of hinting by single letters those expletives with which profane and violent people are wont to garnish their discourse, strikes me as a proceeding which, however well-meant, is weak and futile. I cannot tell what good it does—what feeling it spares—what horror it conceals,'" (Marsh and Hodsdon 2010).

Supreme Court Rulings on Swear Words

When public figures are heard using especially vulgar expletives, the law will sometimes get involved. The Supreme Court has ruled on indecency countless times, spanning many decades and multiple occasions, though often brought to the court by the Federal Communications Commission. It seems that there aren't clear rules as to whether the public use of swear words, though generally deemed wrong, should be punished. See what New York Times author Adam Liptak has to say about it.

"The Supreme Court’s last major case concerning broadcast indecency, F.C.C. v. Pacifica Foundation in 1978, upheld the commission’s determination that George Carlin’s classic 'seven dirty words' monologue, with its deliberate, repetitive and creative use of vulgarities, was indecent. But the court left open the question of whether the use of 'an occasional expletive' could be punished.

The case decided Tuesday, Federal Communications Commission v. Fox Television Stations, No. 07-582, arose from two appearances by celebrities on the Billboard Music Awards. ... Justice Scalia read the passages at issue from the bench, though he substituted suggestive shorthand for the dirty words. The first involved Cher, who reflected on her career in accepting an award in 2002: 'I’ve also had critics for the last 40 years saying I was on my way out every year. Right. So F-em.' (In his opinion, Justice Scalia explained that Cher 'metaphorically suggested a sexual act as a means of expressing hostility to her critics.')

The second passage came in an exchange between Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie in 2003 in which Ms. Richie discussed in vulgar terms the difficulties in cleaning cow manure off a Prada purse. Reversing its policy on such fleeting expletives, the commission said in 2006 that both broadcasts were indecent. It did not matter, the commission said, that some of the offensive words did not refer directly to sexual or excretory functions. Nor did it matter that the cursing was isolated and apparently impromptu. ...

In reversing that decision, Justice Scalia said the change in policy was rational and therefore permissible. 'It was certainly reasonable,' he wrote, 'to determine that it made no sense to distinguish between literal and nonliteral uses of offensive words, requiring repetitive use to render only the latter indecent.'

Justice John Paul Stevens, dissenting, wrote that not every use of a swear word connoted the same thing. 'As any golfer who has watched his partner shank a short approach knows,' Justice Stevens wrote, 'it would be absurd to accept the suggestion that the resultant four-letter word uttered on the golf course describes sex or excrement and is therefore indecent.'

'It is ironic, to say the least,' Justice Stevens went on, 'that while the F.C.C. patrols the airwaves for words that have a tenuous relationship with sex or excrement, commercials broadcast during prime-time hours frequently ask viewers whether they are battling erectile dysfunction or are having trouble going to the bathroom,'" (Liptak 2009).

The Lighter Side of Swear Words

Swearing doesn't always have to be so serious. In fact, swear words are often used in comedy like this:

"'Tell me, son,' the anxious mother said, 'what did your father say when you told him you'd wrecked his new Corvette?'
"'Shall I leave out the swear words?' the son asked.
"'Of course.'
"'He didn't say anything,'" (Allen 2000).

Sources

  • Allen, Steve. Steve Allen's Private Joke File. Three Rivers Press, 2000.
  • Carlin, George, and Tony Hendra. Last Words. Simon & Schuster, 2009.
  • Holmes, Janet. An Introduction to Sociolinguistics. 4th ed., Routledge, 2013.
  • Hughes, Geoffrey. Swearing: A Social History of Foul Language, Oaths and Profanity in English. Blackwell, 1991.
  • Liptak, Adam. "Supreme Court Upholds F.C.C.’s Shift to a Harder Line on Indecency on the Air." The New York Times, 28 Apr. 2009.
  • Marsh, David, and Amelia Hodsdon. Guardian Style. 3rd ed. Guardian Books, 2010.
  • Pinker, Steven. The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window Into Human Nature. Viking, 2007.
  • Siddique, Haroon. "Sweary Cameron Illustrates Dangers of Informal Interview." The Guardian, 29 July 2009.
  • Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. Dir. Leonard Nimoy. Paramount Pictures, 1986.
  • Wajnryb, Ruth. Language Most Foul. Allen & Unwin, 2004.