What Makes Swear Words So Offensive?

September 4, 2016

In 2012, The Sun newspaper reported that the British MP Andrew Mitchell, then a prominent member of the UK government, had called a group of police officers ‘fucking plebs’. According to that story, the police thought about arresting him, but decided against it.

In the wake of ‘plebgate’ (as this incident has become known), several journalists pointed to a double standard: Mitchell managed to escape arrest, but among the rest of us, arrests for swearing at the police are far from unheard of. These arrests have happened under Section 5 of the Public Order Act. People arrested under Section 5 can be issued with a Fixed Penalty Notice, and convictions can result in a fine. Swearing, it seems, can be a big deal. But why?

The Cambridge University Press’s online dictionary defines swearing as ‘rude or offensive language that someone uses, especially when they are angry’. Thinking of swearing as ‘rude or offensive language’ is a good start, but it is too rough for our purposes. For one thing, ‘rude or offensive language’ need not involve swearing at all.

I am rude or offensive when I tell you that your new baby is hideous, when I accept your thoughtful gift without thanks, or when I crack a tasteless joke about death after you reveal that you have a terminal illness. Some definitions of swearing get around this issue by specifying that swearing should involve taboo (ie forbidden) language – but even this is not specific enough.

Taboo language includes not only the familiar, bog-standard swear words like that mentioned above, but also other sorts of words that are not my focus here.

A category of non-swearing taboo language is blasphemous expressions and words that are otherwise unspeakable for certain religious groups. Another category is slurs: words that deride entire groups of people, and that are often associated with hate speech. In slurring someone – for example, by calling them a faggot – you express contempt not only for the person you are addressing, but also for a wider group to which they may belong; in this case, homosexual men.

By contrast, in yelling ‘Fuck you!’ at someone, you do not express contempt for anyone other than the person you are addressing. The dividing line between swears and slurs is not clear-cut (we view ‘cunt’ as a swear, but it is deemed by some to be so universally offensive to women that it might be appropriate to view it as a slur too). The line between swears and religious taboo language is similarly fuzzy; consider that we can swear using the word ‘damn’.

However, there is enough of a contrast between swearing and these other categories to make it worth separating them when we consider the ethical issues.

I’ll focus here on the non-slurring, non-religious swear words that, in English and many other languages, often have a sexual or a lavatorial theme. So, what’s special about these words? What sets them apart from other areas of language?

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A clue is provided by the second part of the dictionary definition quoted above: the qualification that people swear ‘especially when they are angry’. It’s not quite right to link swearing uniquely with anger, but it does have a special role in expressing and communicating emotion.

The expressions ‘My car has been stolen’ and ‘For fuck’s sake, my fucking car’s been stolen!’ both assert the same thing, but the second also conveys a sense of anger, desperation, and annoyance, thanks to the inclusion of swearing. As the linguist Geoffrey Nunberg has remarked, ‘[s]wear words don’t describe your feelings; they manifest them’. It is this unique role in expressing emotion that separates swearing from other uses of language, including other types of taboo language.

This unique psychological role gives swearing a unique linguistic role, too. Suppose we overhear somebody exclaim ‘Fuck it!’ when he accidentally spills tea in his lap. We can’t grasp the meaning of this exclamation by reflecting on the literal meanings of the words, as we’d do if the speaker had said ‘Eat it!’ or ‘Wash it!’ Someone who says ‘Fuck it!’ after slopping tea in his lap is not expressing a desire to fuck something, nor is he instructing anyone else to fuck something.

To understand this exclamation, we need to consider not what the speaker is referring to or talking about, but what he aims to indicate about his emotions. This makes swearing, in such circumstances, more like a scream than an utterance: just like a scream, it expresses emotion without being about anything.

Perhaps this explains why swear words often fail to function like other words. Steven Pinker argues that ‘fucking’ is not an adjective because, if it were, ‘Drown the fucking cat’ would be interchangeable with ‘Drown the cat which is fucking’, just as ‘Drown the lazy cat’ is interchangeable with ‘Drown the cat which is lazy’.

Quang Phuc Dong – a sweary pseudonym of the late linguist James D. McCawley – thinks, for various reasons, that ‘Fuck you!’ is not an imperative (that is, a command) like ‘Wash the dishes!’ One reason is that, unlike other imperatives, ‘Fuck you!’ cannot be conjoined with other imperatives in a single sentence. We can say ‘Wash the dishes and sweep the floor!’, but not ‘Wash the dishes and fuck you!’ And Nunberg suggests that ‘fucking’ is not an adverb like ‘very’ or ‘extraordinarily’, because while you can say, ‘How brilliant was it? Very,’ and, ‘How brilliant was it? Extraordinarily,’ you can’t say, ‘How brilliant was it? Fucking.’

The philosopher Joel Feinberg remarked that swear words ‘acquire their strong expressive power in virtue of an almost paradoxical tension between powerful taboo and universal readiness to disobey’. And, indeed, both in the UK and in many other cultures, we do much to prevent, censor, and punish swearing.

This is often done informally: perhaps the most effective way of regulating swearing is through our awareness of attitudes towards it. Knowing that we face disapproval from others if we swear in the wrong context is effective at ensuring that we watch our language. But there are formal efforts to police swearing, too: swearing can get you fired from your job, fined, censored, and even arrested. The taboo against swearing is, it seems, a pretty serious matter.

A clue as to why lies in swearing’s focus on taboo topics, and the fact that different cultures give different weight to different taboo themes; for example, in English, blasphemous forms of swearing are relatively rare, and those that do exist – like ‘damn’ and ‘God’ – are considered pretty mild these days. But elsewhere, blasphemy plays a much larger role. Perhaps the most striking example is Quebec French, in which the strongest swears are terms relating to Catholicism. These include tabernak (tabernacle), criss (Christ), baptême (baptism), calisse (chalice), and osti (host). Je m’en calisse is equivalent to the English ‘I don’t give a fuck’.

These expressions are considered stronger than standard French swears like merde (shit). They can be amplified by combining them with each other and with standard swears, as in Mon tabernak j’vais te décalliser la yeule, calisse (roughly, ‘Motherfucker, I’m gonna fuck you up as fuck’), and Criss de calisse de tabernak d’osti de sacrament (untranslatable expression of anger).

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