In praise of swearing

November 22, 2011 by
Filed under: Social Brain 

Swearing has been all over the headlines in the last few days, what with someone saying the word ‘sod’ on Strictly Come Dancing, a judge overturning the conviction of a bloke who told police to ‘F off’ while being searched, and Rihanna wearing shocking shoes on prime time TV at the weekend.

In his excellent comment piece in the Guardian, Mark Lawson examines the shifting cultural role of swearing, and draws attention the importance of intent and the power to cause offence. The point of swearing is to deliberately employ a taboo term in order to add dramatic, emphatic or insulting heft to whatever is being said. If swearing is a regular component of one’s vernacular, and therefore not truly taboo, then surely it loses its force and isn’t really swearing any more. Lawson notes that there is now a “class of cursers who literally don’t know they’re doing it”.

There’s something about his turn of phrase which gives the impression of this “class of cursers” being unsavoury and probably generally objectionable. That’ll be me then…

There’s something about his turn of phrase which gives the impression of this “class of cursers” being unsavoury and probably generally objectionable. That’ll be me then…

When I was at school, I got myself into trouble a number of times through not really understanding the rules of swearing. At the age of eleven, after managing to complete a cross country run without having an asthma attack, my PE teacher encouragingly asked me how I was. Feeling pretty pleased with myself and grinning, I replied, “I’m knackered!” I was genuinely stunned that this led to an explosion of furious admonishment from my teacher, plus the deep humiliation of an after school detention. I genuinely had no idea that the word I’d used was an expletive – as far as I knew it was as good a synonym as any to describe exhaustion. To be honest, I’m still not entirely convinced that the word ‘knackered’ really has an offensive etymology…

It seemed like a real injustice to me at the time, and I remember trying to explain to the teacher that I couldn’t have intended any offence because I didn’t even realise that the word I’d used was an obscenity. It didn’t help my case, and probably just made me come across as irritatingly precocious as well as foulmouthed. However, I do have a great deal of sympathy for Denzel Harvey, the young man who was fined £50 for exclaiming, “what the f*ck?” while being searched by police. I think the judge was absolutely right in his conclusion that the police officers who were being sworn at were unlikely to have been the victims of harassment, alarm, or distress as a result.

Quoted in the Telegraph, chairman of the Metropolitan Police Federation, Peter Smyth said, “I’m not saying that police officers are going to go and hide in the corner and cry if someone tells them to F off, but verbal abuse is not acceptable and this is wrong message to be sending out”.

I think he’s missing the point slightly, and what’s going on here is rather more nuanced. Reflecting on this case earlier today, Ellie Bloggs argues that it’s not the words that matter, but the tone and the degree of malice with which they are uttered. She points out that a bit of nonchalant swearing is nowhere near as offensive and threatening as a torrent of swearword-free vitriol. Unfortunately, the judge in this case wasn’t able to capture this nuance explicitly in his statement, although his judgement indicates an implicit understanding of it.

Personally, I’m not easily offended by swearing, but I do think it’s a shame that so many swearwords have become subsumed into everyday speech, not because I think they’re filthy and offensive, but rather because they lose their power. And what’s the f*cking point in swearing if it’s not going to get a reaction?


  • Nigel

    Strikes me that many English swear words derived their power from sexual sensitivities and taboos. With our society’s relaxation of its attitudes to sex it is inevitable that sexual swear words have lost much of their potency to shock. these have now been replaced by taboo words which reflect the values and concerns of contemporary society. These relate to areas of discrimination, including racism, homophobia, disability, etc.    

  • Wes G

    Nigel makes a good point, but we should also remember how language is also used as a tool to divide, specially during the heights of ‘etiquette’, an elitist stance very much to separate the rich from the poor or haves from have nots depending on your personal view. Regional dialect and different cultural attitudes toward words used and what they signify can highlight differences also, differences which some choose to jump on because they conflict with other perceived norms.   I assume this plays a roll in how society reproduces itself.

  • Anonymous

    It’s bizarre that so few people seem to be able to see the difference between ‘swearing in front of’, ‘swearing to’ and ‘swearing at’. There’s clearly quite a big difference between them.