It’s taboo, occasionally forbidden and often cathartic. Swearing &- once scandalous and vulgar &- is rapidly becoming a very common part of everyday language.
Cursing’s recent movement from the fringes of society into the mainstream means that it’s finally being examined by some sociolinguists, although they’re still nowhere near understanding everything about it. Researcher and linguist, Ruth Wajnryb takes “a good look at bad language” in her 2005 book Expletive Deleted, and linguist Steven Pinker devotes a chapter to the theories and functions of swearing in his latest work, The Stuff of Thought.
Both writers point out the major problem with writing about obscenities: no one has really bothered to study them, despite how prevalent they are in our language today.
What the fuck happened?
University of Toronto professor, Jack Chambers gained expertise with the more vulgar aspects of language when he was an expert witness in several obscenities trials in the 1970s.
He discussed how swearing first began its move into the mainstream through evolving cultures and easing tolerance thresholds. “The proprieties of public swearing went through a big change in the second half of the 20th century, and so the unwritten rules for people swearing changed radically,” he wrote in an email.
“What really happened was that people with one set of proprieties, left over from Victorian times, came up against a generation with a different set of proprieties, much more relaxed and tolerant,” he continued. “In the decades since, we have developed a tolerance greater than any time in history.” This change marked cursing’s movement from the underbelly to the forefront of everyday language.
“The Oxford English Dictionary began including the so-called four-letter words only in the early 1970s,” wrote Wajnryb, adding that other dictionaries waited even longer before making the decision to include these sensitive words.
Sensitive words, wrote Pinker, are “drawn from the short list of topics from which English and French get their curses: sex, excretion, religion, death and infirmity, and disfavoured groups.” The casual approach to swearing, he noted, is “an obvious consequence of the secularization of Western culture.”
Chambers hypothesized that swearing is actually the breakdown of socioeconomic divisions between the upper and lower classes. “In societies with very clearly marked divisions of privilege and class, the highest strata develop markers that symbolize their status,” he said. “They speak better and dress better, for instance” (and to do that they have to establish norms for “better’ and “worse’). Certain activities are considered low, and they usually include, for instance, defecating and fornicating.
“Nineteenth century hypocrisy meant that the highest society pretended that they had no interest in or spent any time [with] bodily functions,” he continued. “Talking about them became an underground activity, and the words associated with them took on special power. The breakdown of priorities in terms of swear words in the second half of the last century may really have been the result of a breakdown in strict hierarchical class systems, a kind of global democratization.”
What’s the deal with this shit?
Whatever the reason, swearing has made its way into everyday speech &- but at what cost?
“Most of the power is gone from ordinary swear words now, at least among young people,” said Chambers. University of Ottawa student Kat &- who, in order to minimize potentially negative repercussions from future employers who might Google her name, didn’t want her last name used &- also noted the transition of the public perception of swearing in her own tendencies.
“I vaguely recall feeling very bad about swearing one time when I was rollerblading to the 7-11. I was probably in grade 8 or 9. I fell, and let out the filthiest stream of curse words. It was awesome in retrospect, but at the time I was like, “this is so bad.'” She contrasted this incident with her current feelings. “There’s not that much more of an emotional impact [when I] swear than [when I say] any other word at this point in time.”
It seems that cursing is becoming socially acceptable, as it no longer has the ability to shock or offend. Chambers argued this shift is not problematic. “That is a good thing because taboo words are a source of embarrassment and social exclusion,” he explained. “The fewer of them we have, the fewer the occasions (there are) for blushing and stammering from day to day.”
Wajnryb also makes an argument that swearing is a sign of comfort. “Studies have affirmed what we know intuitively: in relaxed settings where people are comfortable with other in-group members, their language is characterized by a high degree of swearing.”
Kat provided an example of this, noting the occasions on which she tends to curse. She swears more often in informal circumstances, and particularly if trying to be funny, she said. “For whatever reason, people react more if there is a swear in the sentence, which I think is true for most people, and that’s why you see bad comedians swearing all the time, whereas good comedians don’t. I am a bad comedian, and so when I try to be funny, I swear.”
Indeed, as Pinker noted, comedy has also contributed to bringing cursing into the mainstream. “Progressive comedians have tried to help this process along by repeating obscenities to the point of desensitization,” he wrote.
Where the hell does that leave swearing?
Not all social boundaries have been broken down, however. Kat, on first reflection, felt that there were no gender divisions in language.
“At this point in time, I don’t feel like my peer group really draws distinctions between what is acceptable for men and what is acceptable for women. I could see it being different in more traditional groups, but given that there is no distinction anyways, it doesn’t matter.”
However, she admitted that in the company of her mother, she tones down her foul language use. She said she swears “unless it’s in a situation with my mom, and she gives me a look,” she explained. “It’s unladylike I guess, with my mother. [I have a] little bit of shame if people call me on it.”
Chambers explained the possible reasons behind this tendency. “Women seem more generally attuned to language as a prestige factor than men, and that includes their use of swear words,” he noted.
He also pointed out that women tend to use more formal language all the time. “Women persistently use language in a more standard way than men of the same age and social class,” he said. “For instance, in a group of people who can sometimes say “walkin’, “talkin’, and “thinkin’ instead of “walking, talking, and thinking,’ men will always use the “walkin’ forms &- the non-standard forms &- more than their [partners] and sisters and daughters. In a social group in which it is possible sometimes to say, “I didn’t do nothing’ instead of the standard form “I didn’t do anything,’ men will always use the double negative more than their female peers.”
When to shut the fuck up
This isn’t the only way people censor themselves in certain company. For instance, Kat believes her future career influences her use of language, fearing potential employers could read her name alongside four-letter words. “I imagine that I’m going to have to tone it down substantially now that I’ll be entering the professional world, potentially as a teacher,” she mused. “I do a decent amount of tutoring, just informally with people, and probably my favourite phrase to use when explaining something is, “This is how it goes, these are the steps, blah blah blah and shit,’ and I’m going to have to cut off “and shit’ as the concluding phrase.”
So while swearing does seem to be gaining acceptance, it is still nowhere near totally acceptable as appropriate language under all circumstances. Wajnryb’s book proposes this stigma is the reason for the relative impossibility of finding research on swearing, including its linguistic and biological causes.
History and current cursers suggest that it’s only a matter of time before swearing overcomes this obstacle as well. Kat admitted it’s unlikely she will ever be able to completely give up those four-letter words.
“I remember trying, and in a group of peers that regularly [do] swear it’s kind of difficult because it’s a continuous feedback loop and there’s no negative reinforcement to make you want to stop,” she said. “Unless I’m getting really excessive, and my friends and I decide to have a pact to stop swearing for a while &- which never fucking works.”