More on swearology

My posting on AmE vs. BrE swears elicited comments here and on Facebook that took the discussion from interjections to the very much wider set of taboo and slur vocabulary in English. What I said on Facebook was that

the only way you could even entertain the idea that AmE has only 4 swearwords is to limit yourself to interjections. AmE has tons of taboo items, as does BrE, and the lists don’t overlap fully, and there are well-known differences in the offensiveness of some of the items, but the differences in interjections are minimal.

In addition, as I noted in my original posting, the interjections I cited range hugely in their perceived offensiveness (though all are slangy), from fuck at the high end to things like oh my god at the low end (where you might reasonably hesitate to call them swearing at all). Now some elaboration.

First, on interjections vs. other uses of taboo vocabulary. Interjections can all be stand-alone expressions, and they can occur with other material, but separated prosodically from it. They express some strong emotion, which can range from strongly positive to strongly negative, depending on the context. Some sample frames:

Oh, X, I’m gonna come! [announcing an imminent happy ending]

Oh, X, that’s a beautiful move! [referring to a particularly satisfying action in a game]

Oh, X, it broke into dozen pieces! [expressing dismay at an event]

Some items fit easily in the X slot; fuck, shit, hell, damn, are particularly common (and are used here without sexual, excretory, or religious reference). A great many taboo items do not: screw, bullshitcock, motherfuckercunt, asshole, tits, and many dozens more. Slurs (like schmuck, retard, and wop), in general, won’t serve for X, though of course some slurs (as in you dumb fuck and you stupid shit) are specializations of more general taboo items.

In any case, the domain of potentially offensive interjections is only a tiny part of the word of potentially offensive expressions.

Now on what counts as potentially offensive. Research on such expressions normally casts a very wide net — as do ordinary people when you ask them about cursing and swearing, and as many offense-avoiding programs do in blocking material on the internet or substituting other things for potentially offensive content (the asterisking habits of iTunes were a source of some entertainment, and bewilderment, on Language Log back in 2006 and after). This wide understanding of profanity is reflected in the Wikipedia entry on the subject. From the entry, as of this morning, with some added material from me in square brackets:

Profanity are words, expressions, gestures [like giving someone the finger], or other social behaviors [like mooning people] that are socially constructed or interpreted as insulting, rude, vulgar, desecrating, or showing disrespect. [this from the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, 6/5/07]

… Other words commonly used to describe profane language or its use include: cursing, swearing, expletives, dirty words, sentence enhancers, cussing, blasphemy, and irreverent, obscene, foul, indecent, strong, pejorative, choice, bad, or adult [or blue] language.

… Research looking at swearing in 1986, 1997, and 2006 in America found that the same top-ten words of a set of over 70 different swear words were used. The most-used swear words were fuck, shit, hell, damn, goddamn, bitch, boner, and sucks [whatever its historical origin, sucks in that sucks and the like is now perceived by some as at least borderline offensive]. These eight made up roughly 80% of all profanities. Two words, fuck and shit, accounted for one-third to one-half of them. The phrase “Oh my God” accounts for 24% of women’s swearing. [with a reference here to Jay, Timothy. (2009). The Utility and Ubiquity of Taboo Words. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 4:153-161.]

There is considerable research on the relative offensiveness of items. Fuck and shit are at the top in both AmE and BrE, but there are significant differences between the two dialect areas with respect to other items, and of course differences within particular social groups. And these ratings change over time.



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