November 7, 2010    Psychology

Utter Bollocks — An Essay on Swearing

Some friends of mine are having difficulties with their five year old son who has started swearing whilst at his new school. They’ve tended not to discourage him from swearing at home and now they’re faced with the task of socialising him into a set of values which are somewhat different to their own but which are held by the social sphere into which their son is being initiated. It makes one wonder who’s actually being manipulated to conform the most: the child or his parents?

With children it’s often pointless to attempt to rationally explain the complexities of a mode of behaviour which we wish them to modify. Instead we tend to lay down rules and injunctions to control and encourage behaviours which we feel are appropriate to a particular context. We say “No, don’t do that” or “Stop it”, and when asked for an explanation we all too often say “Because I said so” or, if we’re not too distracted or stressed by the situation, we might work a little harder to come up with a shorthand explanation like “Because it’s bad” or “Because it’s naughty”. Whilst this is understandable, it’s often the case that such responses are simply inherited from our parents and other childhood figures of authority. We tend to accept these norms and when explanations are required the most expedient and conventional responses are easily to hand. How often, I wonder though, do we stop to consider the values and motivations behind these attitudes? For the most part the explanations we give aren’t really explanations at all: they’re descriptions of what we judge swearing to be, and they provide very little indication, if any, about the root of the issue. So, not only do our children miss out on the truth, but we ourselves have only the barest understanding of what we believe. If we’re pushed on this subject the most common response we’ll give is that swearwords are sexual in nature, and children should be protected from such things. But is this really anything more than a half-truth?

Swearing is perceived by many people as the result of poor upbringing by parents who, for whatever reason, are too busy, too unconcerned or too liberal to discourage their kids from such antisocial or ‘obscene’ behaviour. But already we can see a series of clear judgements underlying these responses. I’d like to suggest that it’s precisely this, ‘judgement’, rather than simply moral outrage, which is at the heart of our attitudes about swearing.

Swearing allows us to distinguish between members of different social groups and social levels in a very similar way to regional accents and slang. It’s a universal discriminative capacity which creates linguistic differentiation and provides clues as to the values, upbringing and social status of different individuals. The important thing to recognise here is that the conventional objection against swearing has relatively little to do with the explicit sexual content of expletives.

“A word becomes an insult, one would suppose, because it means something bad; but in practice it’s insult-value has little to do with its actual meaning.”

—George Orwell

The argument that children need to be protected from such things, neatly avoids the fact that the typical injunction against swearing contains a significant component of social differentiation and exclusion. As with all exclusionary practices, the uninitiated are either denied entry to the group, expelled, or forced to conform to the group’s dominant norms. The truth, which is easily missed here, is that the argument about the sexual content of swearwords is simply a convenient moralistic foil for these exclusionary and manipulative social practices. Indeed, it could be argued that these censorious attitudes are, in many ways, the very cause of the problems they seek to eradicate:

“Taboo topics tend to generate many slang expressions, and these have been conceptualized as functioning to resist oppressive norms that deny voice to certain groups of people and render some subjects unspeakable.”

—Virginia Braun and Celia Kitzinger

But this isn’t to suggest that all swearwords are entirely innocent or that the intentions behind their use are simply noble expressions of resistance against oppression. Many swearwords are forms of abuse, specifically designed to alienate and insult people by marking them out as different, inferior or abnormal, and we’re right not to tolerate such xenophobic and abusive attitudes. We all have our moral limits and many of these are shared across differing social groups and are crystallised in social taboos. But not only do these taboos tell us about where we set some of our most delicate moral limits, they also tell us about our collective fixations and anxieties. As with any group, these fixations and anxieties are frequently associated with what we regard as sacred, and by extension, profane — from whence we derive our conceptions of profanity.

Alongside this perception of language as a register of the sacred and profane resides the belief that words are more than simply utterances: words have the power to offend, to shock, to violate and to transgress. The well known phrase that ‘sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me’ becomes, from this perspective, little more than a case of wishful thinking: words can, on the contrary, inflict severe and lasting psychological harm. But we still need to be careful around such arguments. For example, there’s a legal term sometimes known as the Hecklers Veto in which a group can effectively force the government to prevent an individual from exercising free expression by taking offence and threatening to riot. It’s the government’s duty in such cases to prevent a riot whilst granting all individuals free speech, so long of course, as this free speech isn’t acting with the singular intent to incite a riot.

“The rioters are the culpable parties, not the artist whose work unintentionally provoked them to violence.”

—Judge Posner. Nelson v. Streeter, 16 F.3d 145, 150 (7thCir. 1994). (Source)

The vital issue here then, is the intent behind an utterance or expression rather than the offence taken. Inevitably, it’s not always a straightforward matter to determine the underlying intentions behind an utterance but it’s certainly preferable to allowing self professed offended parties to dominate or veto free expression.

“Much might be said on the impossibility of fixing where these supposed bounds are to be placed; for if the test be offence to those whose opinion is attacked, I think experience testifies that this offence is given whenever the attack is telling and powerful, and that every opponent who pushes them hard, and whom they find it difficult to answer, appears to them, if he shows any strong feeling on the subject, an intemperate opponent.”

—JS Mill

One of the principle complexities at the heart of our consideration of swearwords derives from the confusing lack of consistency in the ways that different groups, and even individuals within these groups, use expletives. This inconsistency is much less a consequence of the fluidity of linguistic meaning than a clear indication of the fact that swearing is primarily a form of social negotiation and exchange:

“swearing functions not only as a marker of (group) identity, but also as a means of negotiating and actively constituting that identity.”

—Karyn Stapleton

Once again, we find that the literal meaning of expletives tends to be secondary to the communicative dynamic which such words create. Swearing reinforces relationships or quite literally comes between them, and differing social groups define their linguistic boundaries in a variety of nuanced and complex ways in order to negotiate and express their collective values, often to the point of inventing their own euphemisms or, on occasion, entirely new lexicons.

This tendency for taboo subjects to stratify into distinct lexicons was noted by the British author CS Lewis who pointed out that when discussing sex we are “forced to choose between the language of the nursery, the gutter and the anatomy class.” This observation illustrates how each lexicon is closely associated with a particular contextual use. Moreover, when we encounter terms from a particular lexicon outside their familiar setting they often seem incongruous, if not completely absurd. For example, you’re unlikely to say in the heat of passion “let’s have sexual intercourse”, nor are you likely to say to a doctor “I have an uncomfortable pain in my arsehole”, though, interestingly, such things are becoming more common (see here).

When I first began thinking about the issues of swearing I was tempted to consider the exclusion of children from the use of ‘adult’ language to be a case of irrational inconsistent disingenuousness on the part of adults. Willy, Penis and Prick name exactly the same thing after all, so why might we wish to prevent children from using these different associated lexicons freely? I can see two possible reasons. The first is related to the contextual dependency of different lexicons and the subtlety with which individuals use swearing to test, negotiate with and/or to gain entry to different groups:

“Speakers who use taboo language successfully (i.e., they do not seem to Offend their listeners) are often attuned to the situation in which they are speaking.”

—Robin-Eliece Mercury

It has been found that the urge to swear originates at a fundamental neurological level and is therefore an unusually instinctive and pre-linguistic form of expression which has been identified even in primates. Despite these primitive origins, swearing has also been shown to involve sophisticated process of predictive modeling which subconsciously assesses potential audience response:

“Researchers point out that cursing is often an amalgam of raw, spontaneous feeling and targeted, gimlet-eyed cunning. When one person curses at another, they say, the curser rarely spews obscenities and insults at random, but rather will assess the object of his wrath, and adjust the content of the ‘uncontrollable’ outburst accordingly.”

—Natalie Angier

The higher-order forms of cognitive processing and sensitivity to nuance involved in the use of swearwords are specifically enabled, on a neurological level, by the functions of a well developed Pre-Frontal Cortex; a portion of the brain which only fully matures in late childhood. To expect children to understand, yet alone appropriately utilise such sophisticated, context dependent forms of language would surely be unrealistic and would undoubtedly to lead to error, confusion and misunderstanding in the use of forms of language to which many people are especially sensitive.

But there’s another, equally compelling reason why swearing might be thought to be a sensitive issue for children and this relates to children’s developing understanding of the meaning of privacy. As children’s language skills develop and they become more independent, it’s important for them to be able to function effectively within the moral culture that surrounds them. At this stage it becomes increasingly necessary for them to form conceptions of the personal and the private and their first encounters with these concepts are most likely to be through language and the taboos which are so deeply inscribed within it. The way adults frame and proscribe language through the use of different lexicons becomes an alert to children that there’s something curious about the things to which these words refer but also something mysterious, powerful and most of all threatening which they don’t yet quite understand. In a sense, it might be argued that taboos act like a form of protection, by raising awareness of social sensitivities and forcing parents to demarcate boundaries of acceptability. In many ways taboos functions exactly like subtle socially accepted versions of parents who say “You can’t do that because I said so”: they establish boundaries based upon authority and they leave explanations to be sought or invented by minds who, in so many respects, have other peoples ideas of innocence foisted upon them.


ANGIER, N., 2005. Almost Before We Spoke, We Swore. New York Times.

ARNOTT SMITH , C., Nursery, gutter, or anatomy class? Obscene expression in consumer health.

BRAUN. V. AND KITZINGER. C., 2001. “Snatch,” “Hole,” or “Honey-pot”? Semantic Categories and the Problem of Nonspecificity in Female Genital Slang. Journal of Sex Research, May, 2001.

JOELVING. F., 2009. Why the #$%! Do We Swear? For Pain Relief. Scientific American.

MERCURY. R.E., 1995. Swearing: A “Bad” Part o f Language; A Good Part of Language Learning TESL CANADA, JOURNAUREVUE TESL DU CANADA, VOL. 13, NO.1, WINTER 35.

ORWELL. G., 1933. Down and Out in London and Paris. Penguin. London.

STAPLETON. K., 2003. Gender and Swearing: A Community Practice. Women and Language, Vol. 26.