On Swearing

[Note: This article contains a great deal of foul language. if you are likely to be offended please do not read any further.]

Swearing is considered by many to be offensive and anti-social. But in most cases to swear is to use language as an expressive expletive in which the words themselves are literally meaningless. How can a meaningless word be offensive? In what way exactly is swearing offensive?

And I am not talking here about the offence caused by being sworn ‘at’. If someone is swearing ‘at’ you, they are almost always displaying some form of aggression towards you and regardless of the language used it is perfectly legitimate to take offence at an open display of aggression.

No, what I am talking about here is the offence caused to listeners when a speaker uses swear words in a non-aggressive or conversational way.

Indeed, often offence is taken when people overhear swear words being used in a private conversation happening in a public place; it is felt that people should not have these terrible words inflicted upon them, and many of us would think that this is right; that the person swearing is not entitled to use such language in a public space – but why? In a free country why do some citizens think they have the right to restrict the way other citizens speak or the words they use?

In discussing the Danish Mohammad cartoons most commentators have come to the conclusion that in a fee country citizens do not have a right “not to be offended”; that in a free country citizens do not have an obligation to avoid offending others and indeed that offending others may be the legitimate aim of making a statement, proposition or work of art.

This is of course to assume that by swearing a citizen really has said something offensive. But I’m not sure even that is the case.

There have been swear words throughout human culture & history. Evidence of verbal taboos exists from the earliest written records. But, the actual words that qualify as swear words differ hugely from culture to culture and even within cultures across time there is a huge diversity in the words that qualify as offensive at any given time.

Today, in Western Anglo/American culture it is words associated with sex that cause the most offense but in other cultures, at other times, the most offence has been caused by words associated with religion, caste and ethnicity.

My point here is that while the category and concept of “socially offensive words” seems universal, it is not the words themselves, or their meaning that causes the offence, the offence is an entirely socially normative construct.

In the UK in my lifetime words like bloody and bleeding that were once entirely socially unacceptable across the entire stratum of the class structure have become almost entirely socially acceptable.

Today in the UK the most offensive swear words are to do with sexuality and the sexual organs. Cock, pussy, dick, minge, fuck, arsehole and the mother of all swear words cunt!

The argument may be put that the offence is caused by the correspondence between the word cunt and what it refers to. But vagina isn’t a swear word. Vagina is a word that might often cause embarrassment, depending on the social situation in which it is used, but rarely offence.

On the other hand ‘pussy’, which means the same as cunt, while clearly a swear word that could cause offence is nowhere near the level of a word like cunt. There seems to be a hierarchy of offence operating here that bears little relationship to the correspondence between a swear word and any object in the material world.

Indeed, in most swearing the swear words are not being used to denote actual objects or actions at all. They are more like rhetorical flourishes.

In some cases such as “He gave here a right fucking.” The word fucking is being used to denote the sexual act (and its use demonstrates a particular attitude to the act). But in a phrase like “You must be fucking joking!” Or “Jesus fucking Christ!”, the word “fucking” doesn’t denote or refer to anything at all. In linguistic terms it is meaningless. In semantic terms however it is charged with meaning.

So what is going on here? It is undoubtedly true that some people are genuinely offended and upset by hearing other people swear but if the words are meaningless what is causing the offence?

Some claim that their objection to swearing is not based on their own emotional response to the swearing but that swearing causes harm to the swearer by rendering the swearer’s speech incoherent.

But is this true? Language is used not only to convey ideas but also to convey emotion. And in real-word interchanges the meaning of a statement is a combination of both what is being said and the way it is being said.

I think the phrase “Fuck You, You Fucking Fuck!” conveys meaning very clearly.

Just like the, “The fucking fucker is fucking fucked!” Which does not convey much technical information about the nature of the mechanical breakdown but conveys a huge amount of information about the speaker’s attitude towards the breakdown and the terminal nature of the event.

Indeed, it could even be argued that on occasion swearing can enhance meaning. Take these two responses to an event: “Lickle Foo Foo has done a woopsy on the grass.” Or “That ratty little fucker has shat on my lawn!”

Which statement more accurately describes the situation depends entirely on your disposition towards the event. But no one could complain that the second version does not clearly convey meaning!

In fact most swearing is linguistically meaningless and yet does not render speech incoherent, indeed swearing often succinctly clarifies the speakers disposition towards individuals or events.

Another reason for offence being taken is that swearing is an offence against public decency.

“Society holds certain moral principles which it enforces through the criminal law. If anyone breaks these principles they are thought of as offending society as a whole.” P141. Jonathan Wolf. An introduction To Political Philosophy.

So maybe people are not offended by the actual words, even though they think they are, perhaps, they are offended by the self-conscious breaking of the social taboo?

The person who swears declares things about the way they fit into the social hierarchy but they also declare that they do not accept the normative social values that forbid swearing.

Traditionally swearing is most common in the working class and is far more common in the upper classes and aristocracy than most bourgeois suburbanites would care to acknowledge.

Bourgeois is not just a socio-economic designation, it is a moral category and a state of mind. The distinctive bourgeois values, including thrift, hard work, moral uprightness, conformity, the sanctity of the family, and respect for private property and the law, come as a package. To reject one is to reject them all. So to the bourgeoisie the swearer rejects everything civilised, they invoke the horror of the uncouth lower classes.

Perhaps this is why swearing offends the bourgeoisie so much; that swearing represents the collapse of “standards”, the collapse of a whole moral system; that swearing represents a threat to their way of life.

Normative social codes, taboos and conventions are central to the successful functioning of any human society; for social life to happen we have to be able to broadly predict the behaviour of our fellows, for this to happen we have to be playing by the same rules.

The genuine distress of those offended by swearing is perhaps a form of anxiety caused by the apparent social anarchy that swearing represents. In turn, perhaps they perceive this as a reflection of the fragmentation of our society into a myriad of separate social groupings each with their own internally consistent and coherent value system; but that these various value systems are not consistent with each other.

But I would argue that this is to assume that in previous eras society was not fragmented and specifically that there was a time when bourgeois values were universally accepted. However, to their critics bourgeois values have always represented a far less attractive set of attributes; attributes like small-mindedness, moral hypocrisy, pettiness, greed, pretentiousness, exploitative calculation, and social cruelty. The suspicion is that the bourgeoisie use swearing as a form of social control, as part of the myriad of social conventions like accent, table manners and cultural preferences that they use to raise themselves above the mob.

Swearing is a threat to bourgeois values and the increasing acceptability of swearing in our society does perhaps represents a wholesale but unreflective rejection of those values. There is much to admire in the bourgeois values of thrift, hard work and commitment to family but the values of deference to authority, social conformity and materialism are not so useful in a democratic society and clearly not attractive to many who have grown up since WWII who have placed much more value in equality, creativity and independence of thought and action.

I Am Not A Number

Political and Philosophical Dispatches From An Individual Living In A Society


About I Am Not A Number

I Am Not A Number is written by Chris Jury. For 30 years Chris Jury was a TV actor, director and writer best known for playing Eric Catchpole in over 60 episodes of the BBC’s antique classic, Lovejoy, and for directing over 50 episodes of Eastenders. In 2008 he was appointed as the Senior Lecturer in Recorded Media in the School Of Music & Performing Arts at Bath Spa University. He currently presents, Agitpop, a pop & politics radio discussion programme on North Cotswold Community Radio http://www.agitpopradio.org.uk He is currently the Communications Officer for UCU at Bath Spa University and a UCU SW Regional Rep at SWTUC.
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One Response to On Swearing

  1. Chris Gresham says:

    I think offense is subjective. What might be deeply offensive to me may not be to others and vice-versa. Personally I’m not offended by swearing. Sometimes a well chosen swear word can add meaning and depth to a statement – especially when spoken.

    The evolution of a language is a wonderful thing. Swear words once deemed too offensive to appear on the written page are now commonplace. Even “the mother of all swear words” makes a semi-regular appearance on our TVs these days.

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