Swearing / A Natural Painkiller and Emotion Regulator

 Asperger types may have difficulty understanding “cursing or swearing” as a social phenomenon. My “take” is that swearing originates as a physiological function; an expressive “sound” response to pain, frustration or failure. It’s SOCIAL use is obviously grounded in MAGIC: the belief that words have the power to do HARM – literally, to bring a strongly felt emotional aggression to fruition. This can be seen in the association of swearing with religion; religion is ritualized magic, offering both positive and negative power to initiates through the priesthood or elect. Curse words are not “taboo” because of social rejection, but because these words and spells are believed to have active and dangerous power, which is reserved for the “magician-priest” class alone. They are a key step in the formation of a social hierarchy. The designation of which persons may or may not use “swear words”  demonstrates segregation of power in the social hierarchy. 

Females in JudeoChristian culture have always been suspect of having magical power over men, to the extreme – the manifestation being paranoia in males. Therefore, “swearing and cursing” have traditionally been taboo for “ladies”. This denies females the “soothing power of a good expletive” and is an excuse for all male groups, professions and other power organizations to exclude women as employees and especially as bosses. (Sexual predation being the number one tactic) This exclusion is both fear-based (women have magic power over men – sex) and a social constraint that functions to keep women low on the social pyramid – dependent, childlike and economically disadvantaged. 

Swear by it: why bad language is good for you

It bonds workers, sheds light on the brain and pacifies us.


Emma Byrne on the uses and paradoxes of swearing:

When I was about nine years old, I was smacked for calling my little brother a “twat”.

I had no idea what a twat was – I thought it was just a silly way of saying “twit” – but that smack taught me that some words were more powerful than others and that I had to be careful how I used them.

Except that experience didn’t exactly cure me of swearing. In fact, it probably went some way towards piquing my fascination with it. Since then I’ve had a certain pride in my knack for colourful and well-timed profanity: being a woman in a male-dominated field, I rely on it to camouflage myself as one of the guys.

But what is swearing and why is it special? Is it the way that it sounds? Or the way that it feels when we say it? Thanks to a range of scientists, from Victorian surgeons to modern neuroscientists, we know a lot more about swearing than we used to.

For example, I’m definitely not the only person who uses swearing as a way of fitting in at work. On the contrary, research shows that swearing can help build teams in the workplace. From the factory floor to the operating theatre, scientists have shown that teams who share a vulgar lexicon tend to work more effectively together, feel closer and be more productive than those who don’t.

Swearing has also helped to develop the field of neuroscience because of its function as a barometer of our emotions. It has been used as a research tool for more than 150 years, helping us to understand the structure of the human brain, such as the role of the amygdala in the regulation of emotions.

Swearing has taught us a great deal about our minds, too. We know that people who learn a second language often find it less stressful to swear in their adopted tongue, which gives us an idea of the childhood developmental stages at which we learn emotions and taboos. Swearing also makes the heart beat faster and primes us to think aggressive thoughts while, paradoxically, making us less likely to be physically violent.

And swearing is a surprisingly flexible part of our linguistic repertoire. It reinvents itself from generation to generation as taboos shift. Profanity has even become part of the way we express positive feelings – we know that football fans use “fuck” just as frequently when they’re happy as when they are angry or frustrated.

That last finding is one of my own. With colleagues at City University, London, I’ve studied thousands of football fans and their bad language during big games. It’s no great surprise that football fans swear, but it isn’t anywhere near as aggressive as you might think – fans on Twitter almost never swear about their opponents and reserve their outbursts for players on their own team.

In researching and writing about swearing I’m not attempting to justify rudeness and aggression. Not at all. I certainly wouldn’t want profanities to become commonplace: swearing needs to maintain its emotional impact to be effective. We only need to look at the way it has changed over the past hundred years to see that, as some swear words become mild and ineffectual through overuse or shifting cultural values, we reach for other taboos to fill the gap.

That doesn’t mean swearing is always used as a vehicle for aggression or insult. Study after study has shown that swearing is as likely to be used in frustration with oneself, or in solidarity, or to amuse someone else. Either way, it is a complex social signal that is laden with emotional and cultural significance.


A review of:

Swearing: A Cross-Cultural Linguistic Study.

Magnus Ljung (2011) / Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. Pp. 240 ISBN: 9780230576315 (Hardback)

Affiliation Birkbeck College University of London, England

SOLS VOL 8.1 2014 183–187 © 2014, EQUINOX PUBLISHING

Reviewed by Nooshin Shakiba

This book studies the forms, uses, and actual instances of swearing in English and twenty-four other languages of the Germanic, Romance, Slavic, and Finno-Ugric language families, among others. The study mainly draws upon the results of the application of a questionnaire used to interview native speakers. From a sociolinguistic perspective, swearing is seen as a type of linguistic behaviour that society regards as disrespectful, vulgar, and even offensive. It is a sociolinguistic phenomenon worthy of investigation because of its social regulatory function.

The volume under review begins with the definition and classification of swearing. To the benefit of those interested in diachronic studies on the topic, the history of swearing is covered subsequently. The two following chapters focus on forms of swearing that can be used as independent utterances. The remaining chapters deal with swear words that, in spite of their independent character, are used as parts of larger units. In addition, this book highlights the (socio)linguistic characteristics of swearing, featuring various examples from past and contemporary researchers. The author analyses the data from his own research throughout the whole book but also uses the one million word British National Corpus (BNC).

In the first chapter, ‘Defining Swearing’, the author identifies four criteria common to all instances of swearing. First, swearing is the use of utterances that contain taboo words. The use of taboo words in swearing adds emphasis to the message the speaker wishes to convey. At the same time, swearing frequently violates cultural rules. Second, while the literal meaning of these taboo words is indeed used in swearing, they do not carry much weight. Third, due to lexical, phrasal, and syntactic constraints, swearing is considered a type of formulaic language. Finally, swearing constitutes an instance of reflective language use that reveals the speaker’s attitudes and feelings. In addition to these criteria, the author notes in this chapter that some types of swearing have entered into societies and languages where they have never been used before as a result of an increase in immigration. The author explains how a taboo word’s degree of offensiveness is not related to the perceived strength of the taboo ‒ which eventually changes over time. Even materials prohibited during daytime tend to be admitted for broadcasting beyond the restricted hours.

In addition, taboo terms cannot be replaced with their literal synonyms in the context of swearing in spite of the fact that they display interchangeability with other words in that specific context. For instance, we cannot say ‘Shag you!’ instead of ‘Fuck you!’. However, ‘Screw you!’ can be used to carry the same meaning. This indicates that swear words present a specific synonymy which is particular to them. Swearing is formulaic as the meaning of the entire sequence cannot be understood from the words it contains, nor from its grammatical configuration. This feature is at times considered a case of grammaticalization, which is accompanied by desemanticization. Desemanticization, the loss of meaning, is very common in swear words. As an emotive language genre, swearing is primarily used to communicate the speaker’s attitude. However, the listener will also form their own interpretation of the utterance on the basis of the available linguistic and non-linguistic information. Ultimately, the speaker cannot be certain of the exact impact any use of swearing will have. This may lead to severe consequences or penalties.

In Chapter 2, Ljung elaborates on the subcategories of swearing. He uses the distinction between function and theme as the main aspects of the taxonomy provided in his study. The term ‘function’ refers to the uses of swearing, while ‘theme’ refers to the areas of taboo language from which the swearer draws his or her swear words. The pertinent functions can be divided into the three categories of stand-alones, slot fillers, and replacive swearing, each of which has its own subdivisions. This chapter also lists five major – as well as some minor – themes from which most languages draw their swearing vocabulary. The first major theme is religion. In Christian cultures, there is a distinction between celestial and diabolic swearing, but among Muslims, diabolic themes apparently do not occur. The second and very popular theme is scatological. The third one is about sex organs. Using taboo words for the female sex organ was the most popular among all the languages studied by Ljung. The fourth theme revolves around sexual activities.

In some Germanic languages, such as German and Swedish, speakers never use their taboo words for sexual intercourse in swearing. The final theme is about the mother, which is very widespread. Indeed, it can be subsumed under the category of ‘ritual insults’. Except for English, the Germanic languages do not use this theme in swearing. Moreover, the mother theme’s abbreviated format, e.g., English ‘Your mother!’, is found in many languages. Among minor themes of swearing, ancestors play a crucial role in several cultures. Animals, disease, and prostitution are not uncommon. Death plays a significant role in all cultures, and some languages prefer euphemistic terms for discussing that subject.

Chapter 3 deals with the ‘History of Swearing’. It explains the first recorded instances of swearing, and all the social, cultural, and global impacts of the use of swearing up to the twentieth century. The first two recorded cases of swearing come from Ancient Egypt. Since the very beginning, swearing shows traces of self-cursing. Swearing performed by Zeus or Hercules was totally acceptable in classical Greek and Latin. Therefore, swearing focused on the use of the names of gods and bad language was not present in their swearing. This does not mean that classical Latin had no ‘bad words’, but that ‘swearing was not part of the linguistic repertory’ (p. 51). In addition, gender-based differences were apparent among the Romans.

Uttering a swear word in public in medieval times could lead to the death penalty. Swear words were hence used in oral interactions for hundreds of years before ever being recorded in written language: people did not dare to use them in writing. Despite such severe punishments and the rise of the power of the Church during the Middle Ages, the use of swearing was not eliminated nor reduced. In fact, swearing increased. It became very common among all social classes regardless of their gender or age. Moreover, the use of swearing became an art form, since it could convey a well-designed linguistic ‘product’ and be used in a very sophisticated form.

In Great Britain, swearing reached a high point during the eighteenth century, but in the following century respected members of society ceased using such language. Swearing remains the most popular way to express anger among soldiers and sailors of any rank. In the twentieth century, swearing in general and the use of four-letter words in particular almost resulted in the same mode of speaking. ‘Fuck’ has been used since the seventeenth century, and compared to other four letter words, its use is quite recent. However, this does not mean that other types of swearing have diminished in use. Scatological swearing, which is used in all languages, showed the highest usage of all types of swearing in this study.

Chapter 4 focuses on ‘Expletive Interjections’, i.e., how swearing, in many languages, contains expletives for exclamations of pain, surprise, or annoyance. Ljung formulates the hypothesis that any utterance can be an exclamation; nevertheless, what matters is the delivery. In fact, the delivery carries the representation of the speaker’s state of mind, while the syntax or other features of the utterance are of lesser importance.

Ljung’s study of expletive interjections in the BNC shows that the majority of expletive interjections are religious in nature, such as ‘Oh God’ and ‘Hell’. Expletive interjections may be used in two different ways. First, there are reactive interjections – often thought to be the most frequent ones – which indicate the speaker’s involuntary reaction to stimuli, as in exclamations of surprise, annoyance, or pain. By contrast, pragmatic interjections fulfill the communicative functions of subjectivity, interactivity, and textuality. These three functions are strongly related to the category of pragmatic markers, and their use exceeded that of reactive interjections in Ljung’s study (2009). It is evident that the same interjection can carry different meanings on different occasions. Furthermore, the majority of pragmatic interjections were used as slot fillers, particularly before clauses.

Chapter 5 discusses ‘Oaths, Emphatic Denial, and Curses’. Informal oaths and curses are the two oldest forms of swearing. Present-day English speakers have fewer choices as far as oaths are concerned and show a lack of creativity in their oaths compared to speakers from the Middle Ages. However, there are several languages, including Arabic, in which oaths are alive and unaffected by the interjectionalization and grammaticalization that have affected oaths in the languages spoken in Western-derived cultures. In addition, emphatic denial is found in many languages. This type of swearing uses emphatic utterances to deny statements, a usage similar to oaths. It is particularly used for denying the truth of a subsequent utterance, as in the phrase ‘The hell it is!’ In emphatic denial swearing, scatological and religious themes are most common.

Chapter 6 specifically addresses three types of swearing: ritual insults, name calling, and unfriendly suggestions. With few exceptions, infernal powers, worldly powers, and summons of heaven do not appear in these types of swearing as they do in curses. Instead, the types of swearing covered in this chapter use more common taboo themes like sex, mothers, masturbation, animals, and disease. The most popular theme in ritual insults is the mother theme. This theme is less related to languages than to cultures. In other words, two languages belonging to the same language family, such as the Finno-Ugric languages Finnish and Hungarian, do not treat the mother theme in the same way. However, due to immigration, linguistic and cultural boundaries sometimes get blurred. Some swear words that were entirely absent in particular languages or cultures have begun to surface in them due to the impact of linguistic and/or cultural contacts.

In Chapter 7, ‘Degree, Dislike, Emphasis, Exasperation, and Annoyance’, Ljung introduces swear words that are used inside larger units, e.g., as slot fillers. Since the focus is on swear words only, these are called ‘expletive slot fillers’ which express the speaker’s state of mind. It is important to keep in mind that in spite of the tendency to categorise swear words, individual opinions on swearing, religious beliefs, and appropriate behaviour differ a lot. Ljung states that all the languages in his study use expletive slot fillers to indicate emphasis and dislike. He also indicates that in certain languages, such as Arabic, some ways of expressing dislike are absent. In addition, there are languages featuring different linguistic typologies and cultures that still use the same means of expressing dislike and intensification. Cross-linguistic comparisons of swearing constitute a fertile area for research into emotive language. Therefore, for those interested in studying swear words and emotive language, it would be worthwhile to extend the comparison to other languages not covered by Ljung’s study.

Chapter 8 focuses only on ‘Replacive Swearing’. In the previous chapters the author mentioned that it can be hard to determine the category to which a specific swear word belongs, or which criteria might apply for classifying that item as a swear word. However, this issue becomes even more difficult in the case of languages that assign more than one literal meaning to a specific swear word. In fact, understanding the illocutionary force of a swear word depends on linguistic and situational factors as well as the context of the utterance. Ljung elucidates a very interesting structure for creating new vocabulary in Russian which makes the Russian swearing lexicon quite impressive. Ljung’s findings indicate that there are significant similarities between the swear word systems of languages, regardless of their cultural and linguistic differences.

The distinct chapters of this book can be used as teaching material for various courses, including courses on sociolinguistics and historical linguistics. Scholars interested in such topics as comparative linguistics or multilingualism can benefit from reading the analysis presented in this book on the languages used in Ljung’s study. At the same time, the volume is a valuable resource for graduate students and researchers. Each chapter provides readers with rich information about pertinent studies as well as sufficient examples. In addition, Ljung’s own findings provide in-depth analyses of the proposed topics of each chapter. Since the author covers twenty-five languages in his study, his findings constitute a significant resource in their own right.

PDF downloads of the text are available online. 





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