Sunday, 2 February 2014

Linguistic myth #2 Swearing shows a lack of intelligence, morals and a limited vocabulary

Warning: if you object to swearing and 'foul' language you should probably stop reading now. On second thoughts, -read it. It might do you some good.

According to the website "cuss control" Swearing is bad for the following reasons:

Swearing Imposes a Personal Penalty 
It gives a bad impression
It makes you unpleasant to be with
It endangers your relationships
It's a tool for whiners and complainers
It reduces respect people have for you
It shows you don't have control
It's a sign of a bad attitude
It discloses a lack of character
It's immature
It reflects ignorance
It sets a bad example

Swearing is Bad for Society
It contributes to the decline of civility
It represents the dumbing down of America
It offends more people than you think
It makes others uncomfortable
It is disrespectful of others
It turns discussions into arguments
It can be a sign of hostility
It can lead to violence

Swearing corrupts the English language
It's abrasive, lazy language
It doesn't communicate clearly
It neglects more meaningful words
It lacks imagination
It has lost its effectiveness

Now I can't be entirely sure that this website isn't a Poe, (can swearing really have 'lost it's effectiveness' while also possibly leading to violence?) but there are certainly people with a strong dislike of what is often called "bad language". It's a real shame in a way that some bad language has such a 'bad rap' since as Melissa Mohr's  new book "Holy Sh*t" illustrates swearing is one of the most fascinating parts of language. The book details the rich history of swearwords, and the title is a clever nod to the (up to now) two most popular topics for taboo language, namely the sacred (holy) and the profane (shit).

Mohr's book begins with Roman swearing and she shows, through the types of insults people used, what a profoundly different view of sexuality the Romans had to us. She notes that sexually 'passive' people (female or male) were considered worthy of ridicule and adds that accusing some of performing (but not receiving) fellatio or cunnilingus would have been "the worst of the worst, the most obscene most offensive things you could say in Latin"(2013:37) Yet these words have somehow become our most polite words for the act. This is perhaps a testament to the prestige that Latin has among English speakers. 

She goes on to detail how, the notion of 'worst' has historically swung between the religious and the physical. It is interesting to see how bad language can act as a barometer of morality. In the religious middle ages, swearing an oath on some part of God's body, such as God's bones was the most taboo thing you could say since it was believed that god actually suffered an injury when His name was taken in vain. Ironically (from our perspective) at the same time words like piss, shit and cunt were perfectly acceptable, -and in fact where we get street names like Sherborne Lane (Shite-burn-lane) and Gropecunt lane, a name which was at one time as apt, for it's purpose presumably, as 'church street'.

Swear words are in fact one of the most fascinating parts of language, a point testified by so many people's desire to learn the 'bad words' of a foreign language first. profanity has power, as Mohr notes  "swearwords are the closest thing we have to violence without actual physical contact" (2013:225). But their power doesn't stop there. Scientists have recently shown that swearing can actually reduce pain (except among those who swear frequently). Swear words are also stored on a different side of the brain to the rest of language and subsequently people with aphasia despite not being to speak can still swear. As Mohr notes, those with dementia will often lose the ability to speak, but retain the ability to swear.

As to the idea that swearing shows a lack of intelligence and a limited vocabulary well, as Mohr notes "It is probably true in some cases that people who swear frequently are uneducated and with impoverished vocabularies and imaginations...but it is important to remember that these attitudes were brought to us by the same people who declared that it was a sin to boldly split an English infinitive"(1013:209) what we're probably seeing is a correlation, not a causation:
But perhaps the greatest mystery is why politicians, editors, and much of the public care so much. Clearly, the fear and loathing are not triggered by the concepts themselves, because the organs and activities they name have hundreds of polite synonyms. Nor are they triggered by the words' sounds, since many of them have respectable homonyms in names for animals, actions, and even people. Many people feel that profanity is self-evidently corrupting, especially to the young. This claim is made despite the fact that everyone is familiar with the words, including most children, and that no one has ever spelled out how the mere hearing of a word could corrupt one's morals (Pinker -'What the fuck, why we curse)

One interesting point that Mohr brings up is that the most taboo language in society is not longer the religious or even the physical. The F-word and even the C-word have been superseded by the N-word. I found it rather reassuring that the society I live in considers racial insults to be the worst expletives. 

So swearing relieves pain, is among our most descriptive language, builds social bonds, creates humour and expresses emotion. It's also incredibly versatile and can perform most grammatical functions.  Dismissing swearing, or even worse trying to get rid of it is to ignore the vast depth of cultural significance hidden by the grawlix (@#$%&!).

You can listen to an interview with the author on the excellent lexicon valley podcast.


  1. What? No comments! Is that because no-one cares or are just too shy to admit they like a good 'fuck'?
    I actually did a talk on swearing - my second ever at IATEFL - in 2001 and a head-scarved Pakistani woman came up to me and said how much she had enjoyed the talk, but she could never say to anyone she'd attended such a talk as she would be sacked.
    12 years later I was in an office at work being 'disciplined' by our new boss because of material we had used in a free open class called 'language you don't find in your coursebook'. It apparently held a "reputational risk" for the university as, while the university can be full of wankers, it's not apparently a word that should be taught at one. Asked by the (coincidentally head-scarved) HR manager how I could possibly think this might fit in with the university's values of employability I was very tempted to shout 'Oh for fuck's sake', but having a finely attuned sense of appropriacy simply offered to agree to disagree.
    Life is strange, and if swearing didn't exist we'd have to invent it.

    1. Jus realised I never replied to this! Nice to meet you yesterday!

    2. I'm not a prude. I swear myself when it could be considered appropriate. With familiar and casual people. But I have a friend who says Fuck several times in a sentence. I went to the fuckin gas station and saw Joe and he was driving his old fuckin truck cause his fuckin wife took the nice ass one he just fuckin bought. I thought he was fuckin crazy for fuckin giving her that truck. It's super embarrassing to bring him around certain people or even bring him to the store. We're in our late 30s with kids. Time to talk like a respectable grown up. . . Most of the time.

  2. Like it.

    How can simple letters and words be "offensive" "sexist" "violent" etc.

    Perhaps I should get worked at the number 8, as on its side, as in a Googol, it could look like a pair of breasts. Go figure eh?

    1. the 8 on the side (or ∞) does not represent a Googol, it represents infinity.

  3. Then, is it fine with you if I say the formatting looks fucking stupid?

    1. hahahahaha justified you mean? I'd love to think you were CGPgrey

  4. Thanks for the tip on Mohr's book - I shall definitely get hold of that.

    Also something which has always fascinated me is the way in which swearing is used to show membership of a group. When it comes to swearing, context is everything!

  5. Hi Russ - have discovered this post a bit late! Whoops. But thought you might like to follow this excellent blog on swearing, if you don't already:


  6. Hi Russ - tried to share this link earlier, but not sure it worked. A blog on strong language that you might enjoy:

    1. hey! Thanks for this....only just saw it. :) a whole blog on swearing!!

  7. Originally the word FUCK stands for "For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge". Mid evil times if you got caught molesting, raping, sodomy, bestiality, incest, ect..............they would throw you in the FUCK. It was considered the lowest of the low, the vilest of the vile! Personally the word FUCK rolls very easily off the tongue especially when I'm angry.............but when I stop swearing, my brain has to take extra effort to use other adjectives. So, I guess I chose to exercise my brain. :)

    1. I'm afraid this isn't true

  8. A nun in a human sexuality class shared-"a student paralyzed her class by using the mother f---er word"
    The instructor had her and classmates remove their shoe and beat the table while yelling "mother f---er loudly
    When she returned to her class--the student stood-repeated the word--she said "turn to page 25 and start reading"-and she regained control of the kids:) desensitization works!

  9. I think of "swearing" as, invariably, including the word "damn." Vulgarity, to include all else. Profanity...including reference to god. I use all forms judiciously, (most of the time), and have great respect for what used to be their power. "Fuck" I hear from elementary school kids walking past, and it's a shame because it is being used without recognition of its power when used with meaning. In everyday speak, it is just hard consonsants, as helpful as they can be - not the same.

  10. Love the lack of logic and science. When one spews forth vulgarity- yes, they may be more 'fluent' as the mouth is running non stop- but that is not equate intelligence- So, he or she can continue to put forth verbally- did it add anything? Did it make it more concise? or did it merely fill up a void why their brain tried to locate the next word that wasn't a mere expletive of emotion? Intelligent people THINK about what they want to say- they select from an arsenal of words that relate what they want to say- not just lam blast their level of passion of a topic. Swearing is crude, it lacks imagination, it is also usually arrogant and related to opinion. It serves no good purpose other than creating shock value, bravado or showing lack of control. My opinion. And though someone has refereed to the refraining of it as prudish- I prefer manners, decorum or decent. Do you really want your doctor, nurse, teachers, police, etc having a garbage mouth? If it isn't ok, there- then it isn't ok.

    1. I want to say 'thanks for the comment' but really I can't :) I'm not convinced you even read the post.

  11. plently of lies about profanity.