Wordplay is a blog project featuring posts from students enrolled in ENG 320 Grammar and Linguistics (Fall 2019)

What the **** Is Up with Swearing?

by Jessica Whetham

The ambiguity that exists in the English language can be quite confusing to people who are not familiar with it, but can be fun for people who know the language well. There are functional shifts among many words, where a noun can turn into a verb. There are homonyms, where words can have the same spelling and pronunciation, but have totally different definitions. There are even various words that suit one definition. With all of these factors playing a part in the ambiguity in the English language, it can be very confusing and overwhelming to learn and know all of the rules that go along with it.

As if the language wasn’t confusing enough, there is a whole other category of words within the language that has its own set of grammatical rules, implications, and meanings that are not explicitly taught in the public school systems–yet, most English-speakers are familiar with and use these words quite frequently: swear words.

So, let’s take a look at the ambiguity that exists within the swear word category of the English language, particularly with the “F-word,” my personal favorite. The F-word can fit into various word classes within the English language. The table below demonstrates how to “appropriately” use the F-word while maintaining grammatically correct practices:

Word Class

Example Using ****

Example Alternative

to Using ****

Adjective

My ****ing car won’t start.

My broken car won’t start.

Adverb

My car won’t ****ing start.

My car won’t quickly start.

Noun

Those ****s threw rocks at my car.

Those guys threw rocks at my car.

Verb

They ****ed my car up.

They messed my car up.

Determiner

Stupid ****ing cars always have problems.

Stupid, cheap cars always have problems.

Conjunction

I drove the car to the mechanic, **** the problem.

I drove the car to the mechanic, despite the problem.

Interjection

****! My mechanic bill is expensive.

Oh, my! My mechanic bill is expensive.

Pronoun

I’ll tell ****head that I’m not paying the bill.

I’ll tell him that I’m not paying the bill.

Now, let’s put it all together:

Those ****s threw rocks at my car and they ****ed my car up. Now, my ****ing car won’t ****ing start. Stupid ****ing cars always have problems. I drove the car to the mechanic, **** the problem. ****! My mechanic bill is expensive. I’ll tell ****head that I’m not paying the bill.

With the ambiguity of this word, it can be inserted in almost any sentence slot and still make sense, with minor altercations to the word in some cases.

The Disadvantage of Swearing

Since childhood, it was instilled in me that using profanity is almost as bad as murder. Fortunately, I have grown up and become less naïve since then. Profanity makes up a large part of my vocabulary nowadays, depending on the social situation. I still believe that children should be discouraged from swearing; however, I’m not exactly sure why. It just seems wrong.

There are many disadvantages to swearing, depending on the social situation. Some people believe that swearing, “gives a bad impression, reduces respect others have for you, shows you don’t have control, sets a bad example, makes others uncomfortable, can lead to violence, and doesn’t communicate effectively” (Cuss Control Academy, 2003). The reason that these negative implications are attached to using profanity is because society has made it that way. Society has made swearing a “bad” thing to do, and I do not disagree with that. I believe a responsibility that comes along with using profanity is the social situation in which it is being used. I would not talk the same way around my grandmother as I do my friends. People who reap the benefits of swearing also need to be considerate of those who choose not to.  

The Benefits of Swearing

Besides making your language more colorful and enlightening, there are many more benefits that come along with swearing. “Richard Stephens, a senior lecturer in psychology at Keele University found that swearing can increase your ability to withstand pain” (Wong, 2017). This claim was tested in an experiment and proven to be true. In the experiment, test subjects were asked to come up with a list of swear words that may express pain and a list of neutral words. They were then asked to submerge their hand in a bucket of ice water while some subjects repeated a neutral word and other repeated a swear word. The participants who were repeating the swear word were able to keep their hands in the bucket over 50% longer compared to the ones repeating a neutral word. The explanation of the results of this study concluded that, “For pain relief, swearing seems to trigger the natural ‘fight or flight’ stress response, as well as increased adrenaline and heart pumping,” Dr. Stephens said in an email. “This leads to stress-induced analgesia — being more tolerant of pain” (Wong, 2017). This may also explain why it seems instinctual to use profanity when pain is immediately inflicted on a person, such as stubbing your toe. This could be a response to how humans cope with pain.

There was also a study conducted that disproved the myth that people who lack vocabulary use swear words in lieu of the words they lack. People were given a letter and asked to generate words that began with that letter. The study found that, “people who could generate a lot of letter words and animal names could also generate the most swear words; so as fluency goes up, so does the ability to say swear words, not the other way around” (Wong, 2017). This disproves the theory that people who swear use those words because they are not intelligent enough to come up with more creative, descriptive words. They have those words, but they choose to use the alternative.

There has also been research that link swearing to honesty, although this is a difficult concept to prove. The research states, “The idea is that liars have to use more brain power and require more thinking time to make up lies, remember lies or to just avoid telling the truth. Truth tellers, on the other hand, get to the point faster, which might mean speaking impulsively and without a filter” (Wong, 2017). When people speaking using profanity, it likely means they are comfortable in the social situation which can be a sign that the are also comfortable telling the truth in that situation.


References:

Cuss Control Academy. (2003). “What’s Wrong with Swearing?” Retrieved from http://www.cusscontrol.com/remarks.html

Wong, Kristen. (July 27,2017). “The Case for Cursing.” The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/27/smarter-living/the-case-for-cursing.html


Jessica Whetham is in her fifth year of college studying Elementary Education and Early Childhood Education. She attended Casper College in Casper, Wyoming for three years and is now attending Chadron State College to finish up her degrees. She was born in Chadron, then moved to Greybull, Wyoming when she was eleven. While it is nice to be back in a familiar area with family while attending school, she calls Greybull home–where, she hopes to obtain a teaching position.

3 thoughts on “Wordplay: What the **** Is Up with Swearing?

  1. Jessica,
    I loved this blog! Swearing is such an interesting topic, and it basically is one of the most versatile set of words in our language. I think swear words intensify whatever you may be talking about so much, and it can be needed to have that extra “push” to get a point across. I really like how you had the sentence examples showing how easily swear words can be used. I never really thought about swear words and their ease within the language. It makes me wonder if swear words are just as versatile in other languages as they are in English, or if they serve one specific purpose and meaning. Either way, I think swear words are the little extra spice within a language, and whether or not you choose to use them is completely up to you. I, for one, f****** love it. Great post!

    Like

  2. Interesting topic Jess! When it comes to curse words, I have always found it interesting that as a whole, society has deemed certain words as inappropriate or bad. It makes me wonder how swear words were created, and if they were initially used in a derogatory manner. While your chart was very informative and interesting, I also found it quite funny. I think that the reason these words are so easy movable is because we continue to create more expressive ways to throw curse words into our vocabulary and conversations. For example, if someone is very upset or angry, they might use a curse word in between every other part of speech in their original sentence, and because it is a swear word and holds no actual meaning, we accept it. I am glad you picked this controversial topic to discuss further because as adults I believe we are mature enough to decide for ourselves how we are going to use this language! Great thoughts!

    Like

  3. Jessica,
    I am a big fan of this blog post! It is very creative and I love your take on it; I always love controversial topics. The chart you designed that replaces curse words with other descriptive words is funny, as well as very informative! I will not be one to lie and say that I never curse or swear because I have my moments — depending on the day, I might be compared to a sailor. Now while I was lucky enough to grow up in a time when cursing was not AS popular and common as it is now in schools and other public places, the youth today are growing up with this idea that it is OK to curse and swear wherever, whenever, and in front of whoever they please. As I said before, I am not innocent, BUT, I do have enough respect not to curse in front of my elders and not in public (or at least not loud enough for the public to hear). I feel that the youth does not have this same respect and believes that they are “entitled” to doing/saying as they wish, which is truly unfortunate!

    Like

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