Holy fucking shitballs, I love a good swear. Joining a cuss with an adjective to create such phrases as “holy moly magnificent fuckshits” has to be, in my opinion, the best way to express the fact that I have just dropped my entire wine all over my jeans when I haven’t even taken a sip yet. There’s just something about it: a finesse, an expression of frustration, a certain satisfaction.
But why is that so? I don’t really know, but decided to investigate this thing called cursing.
WHAT’S UP WITH SWEARING? WHY’S IT CONSIDERED BAD?
Swearing is considered a social taboo. It is language that has been classified as exclusive and isolating to general society. The offensive nature of it comes from a general consensus of what is, and what isn’t, appropriate. However, what society deems as “appropriate” is an ever-changing thing. That is, the taboo of swear words changes over time – while "crap” was once seen as atrocious, it would no longer raise the eyebrows of your peers; unlike dropping the word "cunt" in casual conversation. The general rule used for “Is a swear still socially taboo?” is the classic, “Think of the children!”. If you drop it around a young kid and people gasp, that taboo is probably still in place. So, if I go up to a child in a pram and say: “Fucking A, that’s one bae-by,” I will be ostracised for the fuck, not for the poor pun.
HOW IS SWEARING USED?
Swearing can be used either intentionally, or unintentionally. Non-propositional swearing – the off-the-cuff “Fuck!” at slipping a second time and spilling wine on my top – is expression of emotion, and becomes a reactionary habit. It rarely has a pointed direction involved. This is unlike propositional swearing, which is planned and intentional, and can be used as a form of strategic rudeness. Often propositional swearing is directed at individuals, and can be a targeted insult. This intentional swearing is often used to intimidate individuals. Take a man yelling, “You motherfucking bitch!” at me. Obviously, it is meant to make me feel worthless and like they have some power over me, and would probably succeed if done on a dark night when I’m alone. Less likely to affect me if I’m strutting away from his MRA office which I just lit on fire, yelling “Suck on my clit!” over my shoulder.
TYPES OF SWEARING
So swearing is alienating, and can be used as a direct threat. But within its usage, swearing can be further classified on a mild to extreme scale. They can also be gender-neutral, male-gendered, or female-gendered. Have a go with the following swears:
So why is this important? Why even care about the type of swearing we use?
When you look at the gender-neutral words, they are generally more socially acceptable – some like "bloody", "hell", "piss", and "idiot" are not even considered swear words any more. They have overcome the social taboo to the extent that they can pass the baby test. Male-gendered swearing has also started to overcome the social taboo. Calling someone a "dickhead", a "wanker", or a "prick", is more socially acceptable than calling someone a "cunt". However, they are far more socially acceptable when men say them than females.
Female-gendered swearing still holds a strong taboo and with that taboo, there is a power. When someone uses the word "cunt" in a propositional manner, it is often in order to directly intimidate and belittle them. This is often the case with most female-gendered swearing. Calling people a "slut", "bitch", "whore", or a "motherfucker" directly insinuates their position as a second-class citizen. This is predominantly based on the fact that they are rooted in sexual social taboos, generally female promiscuity.
Why does this matter – surely female-gendered language being taboo is a good thing?
Data (which can be found at the end of this piece) has revealed that men are likely to swear more often, and use a broader spectrum of swears than women. They are more likely to swear in a propositional manner, using language to directly offend others, and more likely to use female-gendered swearing than females. This is problematic because these words are directly rooted in slurs against a minority. They were invented to keep them within the patriarchal system. This language is used against women both as verbal slander, and as being seen as far too taboo for women to even access, i.e., the word "cunt" can be used as a direct insult against me as a direct exclusory action, and if I say the word "cunt", I isolate myself.
Thankfully, there have been movements to reclaim female-gendered swear words. Movements such as SlutWalk have taken great strides to reclaim the word "slut" and to fight back against the rape culture it helps perpetuate. Tina Fey and Amy Poehler on 'Saturday Night Live' did a great take down on the word "bitch", helping push back against the perception of bossy women and their role within society. This reclaiming of language has helped take away the power these words have when used against us.
When such a stance is taken, we push back against the basic premise upon which their derogatory nature is built. In reclaiming words like "bitch", "slut", and "whore", we are saying that there is nothing wrong with being sexually active or having strong opinions. In using the word "cunt", we are reclaiming the vagina – of which I, not you, have, MrSickCunt99. We are calling out the taboo such words hold, and claiming that we have just as much right as men, if not more, to use such language. It is through owning the language that we are able to call out negative propositional use, and reclaim female-gendered swears.
So come on galz, let’s stop washing our mouths clean, and start motherfucking reclaiming some bitching swear words.
To drastically re-work a Joanne Rowling quote: “Fear of a fucking word only increases fear in the patriarchal system in which it thrives”.
On taboo: see Allan, K & Burridge, K 2006, Forbidden rods: Taboo and the censoring of language, Cambridge University Press, United Kingdom.
On how to change taboo, and why such taboos exist: see Burns, M 2008, ‘Why we swear: the functions of offensive language’, Monash University linguistic papers, vol. 6, no. 1, pp. 61-69.
On Propositional and Non-Propositional swearing: see Jay, T & Janschewitz, K 2008, ‘The pragmatics of swearing’, Journal of politeness research, vol. 4, no. 1, pp. 267-288. This text also discusses how other factors – such as context, culture, and company – influence how likely people are to swear.
For comprehensive data analysis, see Stapleton, K 2003, ‘Gender and swearing: a community practice’, Women and language, vol. 26, no. 2, pp. 22-34; and Mehl, M & Pennebaker, J 2003, ‘The sounds of social life: a psychometric analysis of students’ daily social environments and natural conversations’, Journal of personality and social psychology, vol. 84, no. 4, pp. 857-870. Both these studies occurred in the early 2000s, so while they may not be completely accurate of current gendered practices of swearing, they still reflect that there has been a difference between gendered swearing practices. What they also highlight is the places individuals feel comfortable swearing in, specifically the context they are in. Specifically, Stapleton highlights that women are more likely to moderate their language than men in public places.
See this discussion of current double standards between male and female swearing.
Let’s have a throwback to Amber Rose’s speech at the LA 2015 Slutwalk. You know, just because.
Go on. Watch it again.