Swear Words

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"Dirty language" and "Vulgar language" redirect here. For sexual foreplay, see Dirty talk. For other uses, see Common language.

Profanity (also called bad language, strong language, foul language, swearing or cursing) is a subset of a language's lexicon that is considered[by whom?] to be strongly impolite or offensive. It can show a desecration or debasement of someone or something, or show strong or intense emotion. Profanity can take the form of words, expressions, gestures (such as flipping the middle finger), or other social behaviours that are construed or interpreted as insulting, rude, vulgar, obscene, obnoxious, foul, desecrating, or other forms.[1]


Analyses of recorded conversations reveal that roughly 80–90 spoken words each day – 0.5% to 0.7% of all words – are swear words, with usage varying from between 0% to 3.4%. In comparison, first-person plural pronouns (we, us, our) make up 1% of spoken words.[2]

A three-country poll conducted by Angus Reid Public Opinion in July 2010 found that Canadians swear more often than Americans and British when talking to friends, while Britons are more likely than Canadians and Americans to hear strangers swear during a conversation.[3]

As blasphemy

The term "profane" originates from classical Latin "profanus", literally "before (outside) the temple". It carried the meaning of either "desecrating what is holy" or "with a secular purpose" as early as the 1450s CE.[4] Profanity represented secular indifference to religion or religious figures, while blasphemy was a more offensive attack on religion and religious figures, considered sinful, and a direct violation of The Ten Commandments.

Profanities, in the original meaning of blasphemous profanity, are part of the ancient tradition of the comic cults, which laughed and scoffed at the deity or deities.[5][6] An example from Gargantua and Pantagruel is "Christ, look ye, its Mere de ... merde ... shit, Mother of God."[7][8][9]

Research into swearing

Swearing performs certain social and psychological functions, and utilize particular linguistic and neurological mechanisms; all these are avenues of research. Functionally similar behavior can be observed in chimpanzees, and may contribute to our understanding, notes New York Times author Natalie Angier.[10]

Angier also notes that swearing is a widespread but perhaps underappreciated anger management technique; that "men generally curse more than women, unless said women are in a sorority, and that university provosts swear more than librarians or the staff members of the university day care center"; and that linguistic research has shown that the physiological reactions of individuals who are proud of their education are similar between exposure to obscene words and exposure to bad grammar.[10]

Profane language is by no means a recent phenomenon. The Bible sometimes uses strong language, such as mention of men who "eat their own dung, and drink their own piss" in the Authorized King James Version of 1611's translation of Hebrew text of 2 Kings 18:27. Shakespeare is replete with vulgarisms, though many are no longer readily recognized. Even the oldest traces of human writing include swear words.

Keele University researchers Stephens, Atkins, and Kingston found that swearing relieves the effects of physical pain.[11] Stephens said "I would advise people, if they hurt themselves, to swear".[12] However, the overuse of swear words tends to diminish this effect.[12] The team earned themselves the Ig Nobel Peace Prize in 2010 for the research.

In English, swears and curse words tend to be more often Germanic than Latin in terms of etymology (linguistic origin). "Shit" has a Germanic lineage, as does "fuck".[13] The more technical alternatives are Latin in origin, such as "defecate" or "fornicate".

A team of neurologists and psychologists at the UCLA Easton Center for Alzheimer's Disease Research suggested that swearing may help differentiate Alzheimer's disease from frontotemporal dementia.[14]

By country

Swearing in the United Kingdom

In public

Swearing, in and of itself, is not a criminal offence in the United Kingdom although in context may constitute a component of a crime. In England and Wales, swearing in public where it is seen to cause harassment, alarm or distress may constitute an offence under section 5(1) and (6) of the Public Order Act 1986.[15] In Scotland, a similar common law offence of breach of the peace covers issues causing public alarm and distress.

In the workplace

In the United Kingdom, swearing in the workplace can be an act of gross misconduct under certain circumstances. In particular, this is the case when swearing accompanies insubordination against a superior or humiliation of a subordinate employee. However, in other cases it may not be grounds for instant dismissal.[16] According to a UK site on work etiquette, the "fact that swearing is a part of everyday life means that we need to navigate a way through a day in the office without offending anyone, while still appreciating that people do swear. Of course, there are different types of swearing and, without spelling it out, you really ought to avoid the 'worst words' regardless of who you’re talking to".[17] With respect to swearing between colleagues, the site explains that "although it may sound strange, the appropriateness [of] swearing [...] is influenced largely by the industry you are in and the individuals you work with". The site continues to explain that, even in a workplace in which swearing is the norm, there is no need to participate in it.[17] The site stresses that swearing is, in general, more problematic in asymmetric situations, such as in the presence of senior management or clients, but it also mentions that a "holier than thou" attitude towards clients may be problematic.[17]

The Guardian reported that "36% of the 308 UK senior managers and directors having responded to a survey accepted swearing as part of workplace culture", but warned about specific inappropriate uses of swearing such as when it is discriminatory or part of bullying behaviour. The article ends with a quotation from Ben Wilmott (Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development): "Employers can ensure professional language in the workplace by having a well drafted policy on bullying and harassment that emphasises how bad language has potential to amount to harassment or bullying."[18]


The relative severity of various British profanities, as perceived by the public, was studied on behalf of the British Broadcasting Standards Commission, Independent Television Commission, BBC, and Advertising Standards Authority; the results of this jointly commissioned research were published in December 2000 in a paper called "Delete expletives?".[19] It listed the profanities in order of decreasing severity.

A similar survey was carried out in 2009 by New Zealand's Broadcasting Standards Authority. The results were published in March 2010, in a report called "What Not to Swear".[20] According to the Authority, the findings "measured how acceptable the public finds the use of swear words, blasphemies, and other expletives in broadcasting".


In countries where it is illegal to broadcast profanity on radio or television, programs can be pre-recorded or a broadcast delay device can be used to screen for and delete profanity or other undesirable material before it is broadcast.

Minced oaths

Main article: minced oath

Minced oaths are euphemistic expressions made by distorting or clipping profane words and expressions, with the effort to make them less objectionable. Although minced oaths are generally acceptable for use in many situations where profanity is not (including the radio), some people still consider them a form of profanity. In 1941, a judge threatened a lawyer with contempt of court for using the word "darn".[21][22]

Notable instances in popular culture

  • Seven Dirty Words - a comedy routine by George Carlin, from 1972, in which he explained the seven words that must never be used in a television broadcast.

See also


Further reading
  • Jim O'Connor. Cuss Control. 2000.
  • Edward Sagarin. The Anatomy of Dirty Words. 1962.
  • Bill Bryson. The Mother Tongue. 1990.
  • Richard A Spears. Forbidden American English. 1990.
  • Sterling Johnson. Watch Your F*cking Language. 2004.
  • Geoffrey Hughes. Swearing. 2004.
  • Ruth Wajnryb. Expletive Deleted: A Good Look at Bad Language. 2005.
  • Jesse Sheidlower. The F-Word. 2009. (3rd ed.)
  • Volume 33, Number 3, May 2011, pp. 343-358. Published by Elsevier.

External links

  • Most vulgar words in The Online Slang Dictionary (as voted by visitors)
  • Steven Pinker, "The Stuff of Thought: Language as a window into human nature"

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