Comparative swearology

From Out magazine, February 2011, p. 17, on MTV’s racy new teen series Skins, adapted from the wildly popular UK version by the creator and producer of the UK version, Bryan Elsley:

Despite variations in characters and plot, Elsley says teen angst is universal no matter the side of the pond—with one exception: “Americans use fewer swear words than British people. We have about 25 swears at our beck and call, and you have four. It’s really quite strange.”

Two points here.

The small point: the nouning swear (discussed on Language Log a while back), which elicited this e-mail comment from Dave Kathman (on 8/19/08):

The use of “swear” as a count noun meaning “swear word” is completely normal and unremarkable for me, if somewhat informal and more characteristic of spoken than written language.  I never would have given it a second thought in that cartoon if you haven’t remarked upon it, and before reading your post I wasn’t (consciously) aware that there were speakers who find it unusual or remarkable.  But I guess that’s usually how these things are.  I’m not sure if it’s a generational thing or what; I was born in 1966 and got my Ph.D in 1994.

But the larger point is the claim about swear words in AmE vs. BrE. Just what are the four swears (usable as free-standing interjections) in the swear-impoverished AmE? Well, fuck and shit, for certain (I’ll throw in shitfuck and fuckin’ shit for free). Are damn and hell powerful enough to count? (I’ll throw in goddamn and damn it to hell.) That would make an easy four. But then there’s the god-family: god, oh god, my god, and oh my god. And lord. And the J.C. family: Jesus, Christ, Jesus Christ, and expanded versions of these, like Jesus fucking Christ and Christ on a crutch. Now we’re past four.

And there’s balls as a (negatively tinged) interjection. (I’d imagine that nuts as an interjection doesn’t count as a swearword.) And screw it alongside fuck it. And probably some more along these lines. And piss and crap alongside shit.

BrE has all of these, plus, Elsley supposes, more to make a total of about 25. Well, there’s bloody hell (with largely BrE bloody) but that’s just an expanded version of hell. And there’s bollocks (genuinely not used widely in AmE) alongside balls.

At this point my references on British taboo vocabulary essentially come to an end, dissolving into body-part and sex-act references and slurs of many sorts rather than interjections; there are certainly differences between AmE and BrE in these vocabulary domains, but I don’t see any notable advantage for one variety over the other. And the differences in the interjection domain are minimal.

It probably just comes down to Elsley’s being a native speaker of BrE and being more sensitive to its usages as a result.


7 Responses to “Comparative swearology”

  1. Jack H Says:

    Perhaps “cocksucker” and “cunt” are the other two swears?

  2. The Ridger Says:

    Maybe swears have to be obscene/scatalogical, not religious?

  3. lynneguist Says:

    Yeah, you’re missing ‘cunt’. Very shocking to Americans to hear the ease with which it’s used here.

  4. Tweets that mention Comparative swearology « Arnold Zwicky's Blog -- Says:

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  5. Robin O'Brien-Dundore Says:

    it seems like you’re lumping together both swear words and what I would call “words you don’t use around Grandma.” Piss & screw don’t fall into the swearing category, but they’re not nice, either. Even though I don’t use “God” as an interjection, I don’t think that many people consider that swearing, and especially not “gosh” and others. Hell & ass are all over TV now, and I think that bitch is okay during prime time, too.

    This reminds me of This Film Is Not Yet Rated & the discussion of fuck as a verb vs. fuck as an exclamation & which one is okay in a PG-13 rated movie.

  6. More on swearology « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] posting on AmE vs. BrE swears elicited comments here and on Facebook that took the discussion from […]

  7. arnold zwicky Says:

    Responses to these comments and those on Facebook here.

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