The Linguistics of Swearing


Not much has changed since George Carlin’s infamous 1972 Seven Words You Can Never Say On Television bit. For the young’uns or those who need a refresher, those words were (and are): shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker and tits. And by the way, if there truly are any young’uns reading this blog, please stop. Don’t make me tell your mom.

All adults here now? Good. Let’s continue. For some reason, I enjoy theorizing about why certain words or phrases cause such a visceral reaction in some people. Obscenity is fertile ground for exploring this concept, since the vast majority of swear words have inoffensive synonyms. Why, for instance, is every word for defecation deemed TV-appropriate except for shit? Sexual content can be downright graphic, too, as long as those engaging in such televised discussions refrain from uttering the words fuck, dick or cunt. And then there are the “mild” swear words that are generally okay on prime-time broadcasts: bitch, bastard, screw, damn, crap, etc. Again, most of these have a verboten equivalent on Carlin’s list.

Well, I think I have it figured out. The reason those 7 words still elicit offense from seniors, prudes and puritans (and even some people who are none of those things) is due to their being composed of hard consonant sounds. That’s it. Parse each of our taboo “four letter words” and you’ll find that all of them have 3 hard consonants and one soft vowel sound. This configuration of letters creates a word that actually sounds violent. Piercing. Harsh. FFFFUUUUCCCCKKKK! Right?

So there you have it. Since the sound of our “offensive” words will never change, I am guessing that there will always be a sizable amount of people who will take offense upon hearing them. And therein lies their efficacy. I, for one, don’t ever want those 7 words to become universally acceptable. Offending the easily offended is my raison d’etre.

20 thoughts on “The Linguistics of Swearing

  1. I got into a lot of trouble playing the Occupation Foole album over and over again when I was 9. Kind of tells you why I am the way I am if I was listening to that at 9. Oh and I did puberty years with Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

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  2. I swear a LOT. I think that’s pretty obvious. I think Brits sound great swearing. The only word I don’t like is cunt. I wrote a post about it. It freaks me out

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  3. I love that you sent away all the kinds… after listing all the swear words you can’t say on television. Heh, keep up the responsible adulting, Paul.
    You know, up until recently I was very much sworn off of swearing. Don’t ask me why, it just wasn’t my cup of tea – something to do with misguided morals and my upbringing in a religious family, probably. Of course then life took a turn for the shittiest and I developed a mean habit of swearing at everything: people, places, inanimate objects, vague concepts, abstract ideas, and a general sense of existence itself. Fuck ’em all, amiright? Goddamn inanimate objects, always fucking up your shit.

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  4. You know, follow-up thought: I’m actually having a little trouble with my book that you might be able to help me with. See, in the time period the book takes place in any memories or historical recordings of Jesus Christ have long since deteriorated, meaning the people in the book have no idea who he is. The problem is this: Jesus Christ is an incredibly useful swear. I mean, I can’t think of any other swear word to better convey awe, exhaustion, disbelief, or surprise. I mean “fuck” works in some cases, but it really doesn’t have the full effect of a good “Jesus Christ!”
    So maybe you could help me come up with a good alternative – preexisting or not. I mean, is there anything I can use that fits in the same phonetic structure?

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