I swear

Some studies seem to suggest that swearing uses parts of the brain not generally involved in regular speech–parts of the brain that have a role in emotion and instinct. Some people have made the assertion that chimpanzees swear, though how you could know that, I’m not sure. But at any rate, it seems entirely possible that what we call “swearing” is a kind of speech distinct from other speech–not just in the way we categorize it, but in the way our brains process it.

So you’d think people would just, you know, swear. But it’s more complicated than that. In the US at least there are all kinds of rules about who swears and when.* So even if we accept that swearing is a speech with a distinct neurological difference from other speech, it’s also clear that it intersects very strongly with culture, sometimes in complicated ways.

Well, often in complicated ways, if you ask me. Those rules about who swears and when? I find them kind of weird and interesting. Now, I grew up in a family that had a very relaxed attitude toward swearing, and my parents (nearly always) gave me any information I wanted in a very straightforward fashion. But outside our family? Apparently children (including, apparently, adolescents) were not to swear in front of adults–this was always expressed as some variant of “good children don’t swear” or else “we don’t use words like that,” though how any grownup could actually say either thing with a straight face was a mystery to me. And adults (who I knew damn well swore more or less frequently) were not to swear in front of children.

Once I started working, there were additional wrinkles to it. My first job was bussing tables at a pancake joint. Outside the building, I knew that at least some of my co-workers swore freely and fluently, but at work? It was clear that one never, ever swore in front of customers, nor did one ever, ever swear in earshot of the boss. If the place was closed (a rarity, we only closed on single evening of the week) or empty of customers (also a rarity, it was–still is–a popular place to get pancakes) then there was a sort of gray area. But it was pretty obvious that status and power were involved. The boss could fire you. The customers could complain and cause you to be fired. If they, themselves, dropped a few profanities as they ate their blueberry waffles, their server might be offended, but could not express it. She might, if there was a spare second, frown and mutter disapproval back in the kitchen, but there would be no real consequences for a customer dropping a few curse words in her hearing. These rules remained the same for every food service job I took. Looking around, it became pretty clear that power and status were a pretty good determiner of who you could or couldn’t swear in front of. And that while I didn’t care if some customer swore incidentally while I was taking away their syrup-covered plates, some of my co-workers took it as disrespectful, but had no power to protest. That was interesting.

Then I got a job as a rodman on a land surveying crew.** The company was small, and the boss liked to pretend he was pals with his few employees. Some mild swearing was perfectly fine. Out in the field, the swearing generally remained mild. It was another gray area, in fact. Sometimes we were performing the sort of survey required for a mortgage, in which case we were working in a residential area and there might be people around to complain. But other times we were staking out the corners of not-yet-existent buildings, so that when a foundation was poured it would be in the right place.*** Those times, we were on construction sites. So either nobody was around, or construction workers were. And sometimes they could be a little weird about swearing in front of me, if they noticed me. Which they didn’t always.

You’d think this was all about respect–after all, one generally expressed rule about swearing is that you don’t do it in front of women or children (though, you know, the servers at the pancake house were all women, and all the bussers were high school girls) and I’d already concluded that who you could swear in front of was at least partially about status.

But then one day, instead of going out in the field (actually I couldn’t go out, my crew chief was still laid up from the whole horsefly incident) my boss sent me to a meeting. I was, it turned out, the only woman in the room at this meeting. This was a road-widening project that had been vexed by all kinds of disagreements and delays. Most recently, some work had not been done for way too long, and nothing could move forward until it did. The person whose job it was to make sure it got done did not take the criticism well, but insisted it was the surveyor’s fault. We had not sent him the numbers he needed.

As it happened, I had made those measurements myself, two weeks previously, and with my own hands I had written the numbers down on the appropriate sheet and faxed it to him. (Yes, I am that old.) Upon investigation, the fax was found in the gentleman’s folder. Awkward!

After the meeting, in the few moments before everyone left, there was some polite, outwardly jovial chatting about the frustrations of the project and Mr I Don’t Have Those Numbers Yet mentioned something that hadn’t gone right and then turned to me, with a smirk, and said, “But I won’t say what I thought, because there’s a lady present!”

This was the first time I had ever seen the supposed respect of not swearing in front of someone turned into a means to put someone in their place. All right, I had shown him up over the cut sheet, but I wasn’t one of the guys and don’t forget it.****

I smiled and said something polite. I had been a waitress. I could smile brightly through nearly anything.

I thought about it a lot, though. You don’t swear in front of women (well, ladies. You can swear in front of women who aren’t ladies!) and children, not because they’re higher status or more powerful, but because they’re protected minors. It’s kind of paradoxical, but there it is. In one case “respect and courtesy” is a matter of deference, and in another it’s a matter of “protection.” And women–the right sort of women, anyway, the kind who don’t, themselves, swear–are like children, they need to be protected from swearing.

The converse of that is that swearing could theoretically mark you as a full adult. If you are permitted to swear, or to be sworn in front of, you are not one of those protected minors. In that case, the prohibition on swearing in front of women and children (and the classing of women and children who swear as “not ladies” or “not good children” rather than “recognized adults who engage in adult speech”) looks more like a means to exclude certain people from adult status, even (particularly?) if they engage in behaviors that ought to mark them as an adult.

I don’t really draw any particular conclusions from that. I don’t have a grand theory of swearing or anything. I just find it really interesting, how something apparently as basic as a particular sort of emotionally charged utterance gets tied up so firmly with attitudes toward status, some of which seem paradoxical but probably aren’t.
*And of course, some words are shocking to some and quite inoffensive to others–sometimes others from pretty much the same linguistic and cultural background.

**No, I’m not a man. To make things even weirder, I worked on a two person crew, and so the crew chief was also the “instrument man.” But he much preferred to place the rod himself, and have the rodman run the instrument. Which made both names inaccurate.

***This could be fairly high stakes. If a foundation turned out to be in the wrong place the whole thing might have to be dug out and poured again. I have several remembered moments of pride from the land surveying job, and one of them is running the instrument to stake out a house that had been planned with less than a tenth of a foot between it and the legally allowed building lines. There’s always a bit of slop between measuring and setting stakes and then pouring, so when you go back to shoot the foundation and be sure it’s where it should be, it’s never just exactly where you placed it. It generally doesn’t have to be really, really exact, it just has to be good enough. But this job was a dicey one. We spent a lot of time over it, the crew chief using nails instead of stakes, and asking me to check the numbers several times. It was the first time he was obviously nervous about me being on the instrument, but the exact placement of those nails was also an issue, so he took that end.

When we went back to shoot the foundation, it was only a hundredth of a foot off where it was supposed to be. He looked at the numbers and said, “I know I told you to be exact, but damn!” Interestingly, that was one of the only times he ever swore in front of me. Even when you’d think he might have, with justification, he generally didn’t. Which reminds me. Protip: when you’re cutting brush with a machete (so that the instrument has line of sight) and a horsefly lands on your other hand and bites you? Don’t forget that you’re holding the machete. He didn’t even swear that day. (It wasn’t as bad as it could have been. I got some ice out of our water cooler to put on his hand, and then I packed the equipment back up and drove him to the hospital and he got stitches. It turned out okay. But don’t ever do that, yourself.)

****”But,” some might protest, “maybe he was just being polite and making a little joke!” Well, you didn’t see that smirk, or feel the tension earlier when that fax turned up. And besides, even if he was just unwilling to swear in front of me out of respect, he could easily have avoided it without very pointedly drawing attention to it. “I was so angry!” or similar. No, he wanted to draw my attention to the fact that he would have spoken more frankly, and it was only my presence that restrained him. The “joke” also invited the others present to appreciate my outsider status, and ratify it by laughing because yes, of course, we’d be swearing if she wasn’t here. It was no big trauma for me, really–I didn’t care if I was “one of them” or not. I was usually in the field anyway, and besides the reason the boss had sent me to this meeting was because he was in the middle of a personal-life meltdown and was dropping responsibilities left and right. A month later the survey company was out of business and I was doing temporary office work, and the dynamics around swearing in that milieu is a whole other thing again. But it was interesting and I’ve never forgotten it.

31 thoughts on “I swear

  1. Asakiyume says:

    Culturally it’s a huge kettle of fish, for sure, and since as soon as you say “culturally,” the number and nuance of different cultures (even, say, within the United States) is huge, yeah: there’s food for conversation here for a long time to come.

    I’m thinking just on the studies, though, and wondering if they’re thinking of the sort of swearing–still with plenty of baggage, but it’s only one sort of swearing–that’s a quick response to a negative stimulus. Like, when you hit yourself with a hammer or drop a plate, or when you suddenly remember something you were supposed to have done (… though I’m not sure if that last qualifies). In those cases, I can see how it might be neurologically different from regular speech–it’s in the area of a yelp, I’d think. There’s still a matter of what word/sound you use–whether you use “ouch” or “damn,” or something stronger, so all the cultural stuff still attaches. But I’m thinking merely of what the studies might be driving at.

    But there’s also swearing as a form of exclamation that’s prompted by more general surprise or admiration, even, that doesn’t seem like it would be the same sort of neurological thing. But maybe it is? IDK.

    The cultural rules also yank together these sorts of swearing and use of those same words in other, non-swearing contexts, which is interesting: that the noise you emit as a yelp in one context might be something you use as filler speech in another context, and those are completely different neurologically, but because of the nature of the word, those two sorts of speech are going to have the same complicated cultural rules laid on them.

    1. Ann says:

      That’s a whole other thing, isn’t it! The names for it–“swearing” or “profanity” are, I think, euphemisms of one sort or another, and they cover several different things as though they’re the same thing! Originally I had included that in this post but it was so long and difficult to untangle that I just cut that bit. It’s fascinating, though!

  2. Paul (@princejvstin) says:

    I wonder if the phenomenon of the various degrees of Tourette’s syndrome indicates a deep-seated origin to things like profanity. That clashes against social mores and differing social customs…yeah.

  3. DMS says:

    I have been that woman in that meeting. I’ve also been in i’ve-long-since-lost-count-of-how-many meetings where a man swears and then stops to apologize to me. And only me.

    My response to both of these situations is to smile innocently and ask, “why would I give a shit?” Certainly not the best response in every case, and not a smart decision if there was a substantial power disparity, but I appear to have zero fucks to give men who want to put me in my place.

  4. S
    Seth Gordon says:

    In my family we refer to “driving words”. These are words that the grown-ups use when they are driving and that the kids are not allowed to use until they are old enough to drive.

    Regarding the linguistics of swearing, there is this classic paper: http://lonniechu.com/QUANG.html

    1. Ann says:

      Oh, thanks for that link, I enjoyed that. 😀

  5. -
    --E says:

    I do what DMS does (though usually I go with some version of “fuck” rather than “shit”). Makes me laugh every time, whether it’s simply telling fellows that it’s okay for them to relax around me, or telling assholes what they can do with their archaic, patronizing attitude.

  6. J
    Jeff says:

    Swearing is interesting. I personally have never said a swear word in my life that I am aware of. (I’ve learned a couple different languages and as you’ve pointed out what constitutes a swear word can vary a lot.) I come from and live in a culture where swearing, by most definitions, is very rare. In fact, I was realizing the other day that I probably haven’t heard a swear word in person (so excluding books, movies, the internet…) in over a year or maybe longer.

    Where I live, people don’t swear in front of children and most women, and they don’t swear in front of people in positions of power. If someone were to swear in front of their boss, they normally would apologize to their boss, regardless of gender. And the boss could, sometimes do, terminate a persons employment over their use of language.

    The culture I live in, if someone swears a lot, it is usually assumed they belong to a lower social class. That may not be true, and it may be an remanent of an earlier time, but it is how people think around here.

    I would suggest that in some cultures, not swearing in front of children and women is a way of placing them on a pedestal. It may be a way of giving them power out of either a belief that they deserve respect or a belief that they are helpless. I think it could go either way depending on the individual. Some might do it out of respect and some might do it out of condescension. I don’t feel like its always one way or the other.

    Sometimes I wonder when I see someone says they don’t care if another person swears in front of them if they are giving up power that the person apologizing is willingly giving them. Power to control how others speak around you can be a lot of power.

    Now when I’ve lived in other cultures/subcultures, particularly in larger urban area, poorer areas, or outside of the U.S., attitudes about swearing were very different. So I’m not saying the rules about swearing in my culture/subculture need be universally applied. Though I maintain my personal stance on not swear to maintain solidarity with the culture/subculture I’m from even when I’m in another culture.

    There is the issue of how to appropriately handle someone swearing in front of you and it does offend you. But that is a whole other etiquette and cultural issue.

    Those are just my thoughts on what has been presented.

    1. Ann says:

      The culture I live in, if someone swears a lot, it is usually assumed they belong to a lower social class. That may not be true, and it may be an remanent of an earlier time, but it is how people think around here.

      I don’t know which culture specifically you’re coming from, but some studies have suggested that in fact in the UK, for instance, the upper classes swear just as much as the lower classes. It’s the middle class that actually abjures profanity. Which is interesting for several reasons.

      I would suggest that in some cultures, not swearing in front of children and women is a way of placing them on a pedestal.

      I would suggest that “placing them on a pedestal” is not in fact a good thing. It is, in my experience and opinion, a way to sugarcoat the condescension (not just for those on the pedestal, but for those who are placing them there) and a way to remove power. The issue of placing people on a pedestal is one that quite a few people have dissected over a very long time, and it’s worth looking into why a lot of folks don’t consider it a good thing.

      Sometimes I wonder when I see someone says they don’t care if another person swears in front of them if they are giving up power that the person apologizing is willingly giving them.

      The power of receiving an apology? Not much of a power. It’s all pretty surface with nothing real underneath. The power to actually participate in adult society? Now you’re talking. Putting women and children on that pedestal explicitly removes that actual power from them. And it’s particularly not a power worth having when that “apology” is so often really just a reminder that, no, you aren’t a full adult and won’t ever be.

      And I think the studies that show the upper and lower classes swear more or less freely, while the middle class does not, is instructive here. Who’s got reason to be anxious about their status? It’s the middle class. Not caring who swears in front of you isn’t giving up any sort of power–it’s giving up (or not having to begin with) anxiety about your status. This is easiest for those with extremely high status, of course, and much, much more difficult for people whose status is precarious or ambiguous, or not as high as they would like.

      1. J
        Jeff says:

        I disagree with some of what you have to say.

        I do agree that pedestals can be a bad thing. I don’t look at it as always being good or bad, but as neutral situation that in context may be good or bad. I’ve seen it dissected in both directions for a long time. For example, there are studies that the wealthy create pedestal positions for themselves in order to grow power that they wouldn’t otherwise have the resources to obtain, like being on the board of multiple companies. But you are correct that being on pedestal does prevent an authentic relationship with an individual. It kind of depends if you want or need that relationship to be authentic or not. I agree that there isn’t a lot of real power being on pedestal, but that’s not the same as no power.

        As for letting go of anxiety about status, I don’t know if that is a good thing. Not to say it is a bad thing either. If someone has a lot of anxiety about their social status that it interferes with their ability to function in society, then that would a bad thing. But had no anxiety one’s social status shows a lack of empathy. The upper class in particular tend to have a lack of empathy. A lack of empathy is very destructive in forming authentic relationships. There are many studies that show a little anxiety is helpful.

        I think there is some code-switching involved with swearing and culture. In some context it is empowering, in other contexts it is harmful. In some contexts, it’s receiving power and other contexts it is giving it up.

        I don’t mean to imply that what you have said is not valid. I feel it is, as far as I can tell, valid for you. I question the universal applicability of it.

      2. Asakiyume says:

        I think you can tell a pedestal is a bad thing by how small it is. What room do you have to move, or do anything, on a pedestal? None. You can’t act. You can only stand and be observed.

        1. gordsellar says:

          … and exhibit the very limited set of behaviours demanded of you by those who put you on the pedestal, of course. (Be demure, agreeable, and pretty, woman. Be cute and well-behaved and quiet, child. In both cases, don’t curse, or use language–or do anything, really–on an equal footing with adult men.)

          It’s different if you’re putting yourself on a pedestal, of course. Some of the same pressures apply, but you’re choosing to do that to yourself for personal benefit of some kind. It’s when you’re being put on one by others that the behavioral blackmail sets in… because if you don’t act within type, then the pedestal often gets yanked out from under you…

          … and, bingo! How many curse words exist almost solely to undermine that pedestal-status? Certainly all the epithets for women (and kids, but especially for women and girls) are at least partly about the dynamic where, if you take someone off a pedestal, they must go straight to the gutter.

  7. G
    Greg says:

    My theory is that one common way swearing is used is to signal that the swearer believes they are of roughly equal status than their audience, and that the conversation is informal. Thus, you swear around your buddies, but not around your boss or around children. When your boss swears around you, it is (or at least can be) a way to indicate that they want to be perceived temporarily as having equal status; that they are not acting in their boss capacity. Conversely refusing to swear can be a way to assert higher status, as in your example: “…there are *ladies* present!” While superficially polite, this is actually an assertion that ladies are of inherently lower status and can never be equals.

    I think this explains why, for example, some teachers get so upset about children swearing at them, especially in the presence of other students. They perceive it, possibly correctly, as an attack on their status and authority. If one kid can assert equal status and get away with it, or force a conversation to be informal when the teacher would prefer that it be formal, it could lower the teacher’s status in the eyes of other students, and make them less likely to obey in the future.

  8. Sophia says:

    This ties in to a rage issue for me. This common situation: A group consisting of a few men and one woman, all colleagues. One man may be complaining about something that affects them all, and then will express his feelings with a swear.

    He will then pointedly look at the woman and apologise for swearing. This is bad enough, for the reasons given in your post.

    The worse scenario is when he apologises *first*, and then swears. Because this is saying to everyone in the room, (a) That the woman is not “one of us”. She is most definitely “other”, and let no one forget that, and (b) that he is going to do this thing anyway, because what she thinks is unimportant. And not one of the men will say anything to this.

    The woman is left with two options: (a) Let them know she has no problem with swearing, thus earning their disapproval for not being the “acceptable” type of woman, the sort who they can control, while also earning the wrath of, at minimum, the man who singled her out (because this man certainly did not have noble intentions, and now that she has gone against her expected role, he will retaliate). She may let them know politely, or she can throw in some expletives herself. The latter only emphasises how much of the “other” she is. Or, (b) she can go along with it herself, reinforcing both the idea that she is not one of them, and the idea that her feelings are not worth respecting.

    The way swearing is used to control others infuriates me.

    1. Ann says:

      Absolutely right. It’s a double-bind, isn’t it.

  9. S
    Siderea says:

    Swearing and beliefs about swearing are tied to social class in the US, too.

    I come from an upper-middle class background and live in one of the wealthiest communities in my metro area. I work an hour away in a “blue collar” neighborhood which has been decaying into a slum. I used to work as a programmer (male-dominated, prestige white-collar workplace) and now work as a healthcare professional (female-dominated pink-collar workplace).

    I grew up with swearing being normal among adults and children. Swearing was unremarkable at the prestigious college I attended, or in the IT departments I worked in.

    Swearing is almost unheard of in the clinic I work for. January, a patient asked to be referred to me because she had heard the rumor that I was the one clinician who swore(!). Many of my colleagues come from culturally conservative Christian backgrounds, and do not swear, ever. Both my colleagues (master’s degrees, but many from poor working-class upbringings) and my blue-collar (or lower s/e class) patients generally seem to believe that swearing is not something white-collar or higher s/e class people do. When it’s come up in discussion, and I’ve informed them, no, people from my background, old profession, and present community swear pretty freely, they’re often shocked, and skeptical.

    Meanwhile, those of us who grew up in such privileged backgrounds, moving into these milieus can be in for a bit of a culture shock. Or get a nasty surprise if you don’t notice that you’re the only one working blue, and it’s being taken very amiss. I certainly didn’t know that these social classes had these semiotics and rules for swearing, and I’m glad I figured it out early.

    I participated in a program that treats prison inmates. Prison inmates are forbidden to swear; it is a violation of prison rules and grounds for a “shot”. I would tell my patients that while meeting with me, swearing was aloud, and it was interesting to see who would take me up on it. Sometimes a swear would slip out, and they would quickly apologize for it. This might be because I am female, white, or professional, but I think it’s equally likely because I had the status within the prison system to bust them for violating prison rules, and they were doing it to demonstrate deference to my power and their cooperativeness.

    I have a candidate for grand theory of swearing. Thinking on it, I think swears are rhetorical weapons: the rules for having and employing them are pretty much like those Western society once had for swords. Upper classes get to have swords, wear them as decoration, and even toy with them (tournaments). The peasant class may get access to swords as infantry fighting for their masters, but only the men, and only on the job — you certainly don’t get to wear them around town — but of course, having access to them, they use them on one another (but not if their bosses can see). The middle class — burghers — wants nothing to do with warfare and eschews swords, except in that getting to wear one is a sign of belonging to a higher class.

    The sword metaphor, I think, explains how swearing is both something that’s a status signal and something people need to be “protected” from. They’re weapons, they’re dangerous, and they’re an honor not everybody is allowed to have. The people who are allowed to have them aren’t supposed to use them on people who aren’t allowed to have them, but can wear them in their presence. But of course all sorts of people who aren’t “supposed” to have access to them get their hands on them — they try to make sure anybody with the power to bust them doesn’t find out.

    There’s a difference between swearing at someone and swearing around someone, and it’s interesting to me that a lot of the blue-collar background people I’ve discussed swearing with don’t really see a distinction. My observation of the rules of my class is that that’s a huge distinction, the distinction between exclaiming “Ah! Fuck!” when you swat a fly on your hand with a machete, and saying “Fuck you and your fax machine” to a coworker who showed you up in public — the distinction between getting to wear a scabbarded sword on your hip and actually drawing it on somebody.

    I think there’s a sense in which that “because there’s a lady present” comment was saying, “I won’t draw my sword on you, even though I am entitled to call you out for what you did, because at the end of the day you’re just a peasant.” And similarly, customers taking offense at waitresses swearing is like them exclaiming, “what’s that peasant woman doing with that sword?! How dare she!”

    1. Ann says:

      Very good points! I like the sword metaphor and will chew on it awhile. Certainly there’s some aggression involved, which makes it line up nicely, doesn’t it.

      There’s a difference between swearing at someone and swearing around someone

      Oh, yes, there certainly is! Some of the blue collar folks I’ve worked with do indeed see a distinction, but I suspect it’s not as strong as among other groups. It would be a huge distinction to me, too.

    2. -
      --E says:

      There’s a difference between swearing at someone and swearing around someone

      –>Yes yes yes! I wonder if some people have a hard time understanding the distinction because they don’t hear a lot of swearing to begin with.

      Like you, I also come from an upper-middle-class background. My dad never/rarely swore (twice in my life, I think, that I heard); my mom had quite a mouth on her.

      Where I come from (NYC), most people swear all the time and it’s semantically meaningless. “Fucking” is equivalent to “very” most of the time, e.g., “I was so fucking annoyed.” It’s practically a verbal tic, like peppering speech with “you know” (which annoys me so much more than cursing!).

  10. Polenth says:

    I don’t often swear, unless I make an effort to do so. I’ve found there’s a status thing in the other direction, in that it’s often implied my words are less valid and less honest because I don’t swear. I also get people doubting I’m working class because of the way I speak, which usually comes up when they’re trying to dismiss anything I have to say about what it’s like to be working class.

    It’s assumed it’s somehow an act not to swear, rather than how I speak. I’m calm most of the time, so it’d be unlikely I would regularly use words that tend to be used when people are feeling emotional. Calm doesn’t mean dishonest. Yet that’s exactly what is assumed.

    Which means when I do swear, it is usually an act, because it’s sometimes the only way to get people to listen to what I’m saying.

    1. Ann says:

      Ugh. I’m sorry to hear that. But, sadly, not entirely surprised.

      The refusal to accept your experience as authentic or valid because you don’t fit a preconceived notion of what “working class” ought to be is bad enough. Add to it the idea that somehow honesty is about swearing, or being rude or aggressive in some way, and…bleah.

  11. A
    Adrian Turtle says:

    When I was starting to work in a rough field, I had to learn to swear. I don’t mean I had to learn how to use the right kind of strong language for description and emphasis, to fit into the group and be taken seriously. Nobody cared if you said “that [obscenity-obscenity] pump” or just “that filthy pump that breaks if you look at it funny.” But if you drop a very expensive part on your foot, shattering the part and possibly breaking your foot…it’s important to swear rather than just bursting into tears.

    One of the things swearing signals is a loss of control. It’s not *complete* loss of control, like a baby melting down. But it’s a breach of propriety. Equals can use it to say “we’re all buddies here, we don’t need propriety just among us,” and high status people can do it to say “you’re not important enough for me to worry about propriety in front of you.”

  12. r
    romsfuulynn says:

    I would add to this that cultures/subcultures have taboo/blasphemous/vile words.

    In my particular subcultures (I use the plural because there are complex rules I follow about what words I use with whom and what circumstances.)

    Fuck (in all its meanings) isn’t a high taboo word though – now.

    But I think you need to account for what I would call the “new obscenities” – the words that I can barely say and hesitate to write.

    Many of them are vile derogatory racial and ethnic slurs – nigger for example.

    Even in the 50s and 60s I can remember my shock when I read children’s or YA books from the 1890-1920 period (my family keeps books) where black horses or dogs were given such names. And when my daughter (born 1981)read such books it made her almost ill.

  13. “Some studies seem to suggest that swearing uses parts of the brain not generally involved in regular speech–parts of the brain that have a role in emotion and instinct”

    This would seem to be borne out by my grandfather who, after a stroke, could not communicate. Any time he tried to talk, he merely made unintelligible sounds–except when he’d swear, which came through as clear as day.

    The cultural issues around swearing bug me. I dislike the very concept of “bad” language, and I’ve no patience with people who think less of those who swear. My mother in law is fond of the idea that those who swear have small vocabularies; how she reconciles this belief with the fact that I’ve got a degree in English, teach the subject, and regularly use words she doesn’t know, I will never understand.

    I do forbid swearing in my classroom, but that’s because I need to teach the kids the skill of code-switching. But if I hear them swearing before or after class, I just don’t care.

  14. R
    Russell Kirkpatrick says:

    Maybe children elect to swear to disavow their status as protected minors (or, in my case, as an implicit acknowledgment that I was not protected). To assert their adult-ness.

    Reading this fascinating post was extremely helpful, thank you.

  15. ryandake says:

    great shit, Ann!

  16. J
    Jennifer says:

    Another thing to think about is the power that the general public may have over employees who have to serve them. You’re not allowed to swear anywhere that there’s “outsiders”/customers, because they will take offense. I do a lot more public service now than I used to (ugh) and everyone is constantly picking at you for every little thing you do or don’t do. If you’re not friendly enough, happy enough, subservient enough, or don’t give them what they want, they’re calling every authority above you to complain about it. Dear god.

    This is interesting because I am reading a mystery series where the female heroine’s fiance has a “swear jar” on her (seems to be his instigation anyway? can’t recall, but she turns in her quarters for swearing to him) and the sheer amount of weasel words she uses to technically not swear just gets ridiculous–especially given that she’s frequently in danger/getting severely injured and has plenty of reasons to drop an f-bomb. Constant uses of “feck” and “shih tzu” are getting on my nerves. I just want to say stuff like, “you just got kidnapped, it’s totally justified to swear with real words at this point!” It just feels like the author wants to be so prim and proper and not have her heroine use “potty mouth,” but instead it’s just ridiculous. Also, you could just say “go screw yourself” instead of “go feck.” It’s pretty much swearing anyway, come on.

    That said, the heroine just got ticked enough at her fiance that she yanked out her swear jar change purse and started throwing all of her quarters at him while cussing him out, and followed up by chucking what was left in his lap. Hah.

  17. J
    JT says:

    As a musician who spent many years surveying, it floods me with the best kinds of nostalgia to read surveying anecdotes. More, please! Fuck yeah!

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