Why is swearing bad? Why is the act of speaking using “swear” or “curse” words somehow distinct from the act of speaking with other words? Why is it that some words are worse than others?
Well, swearing isn’t bad. Using a “swear word” or a “curse word” is not actually distinct from speaking with other words. There are no “bad” words. This is reality. However, we human beings socially construct our own realities and so we perceive that there are certain words we should not or cannot say, which is why we have the idea of swearing. How do I know this?
This is George Orwell on swearing in London and Paris in the 1930s:
The whole business of swearing, especially English swearing, is mysterious. Of its very nature swearing is as irrational as magic—indeed, it is a species of magic. But there is also a paradox about it, namely this: Our intention in swearing is to shock and wound, which we do by mentioning something that should be kept secret—usually something to do with the sexual functions. But the strange thing is that when a word is well established as a swear word, it seems to lose its original meaning; that is, it loses the thing that made it into a swear word. A word becomes an oath because it means a certain thing, and, because it has become an oath, it ceases to mean that thing…The rule seems to be that words accepted as swear words have some magical character, which sets them apart and makes them useless for ordinary conversation. Words used as insults seem to be governed by the same paradox as swear words. A word becomes an insult, one would suppose, because it means something bad; but in practice its insult-value has little to do with its actual meaning. For example, the most bitter insult one can offer to a Londoner is ‘bastard’—which, taken for what it means, is hardly an insult at all. And the worst insult to a woman, either in London or Paris, is ‘cow’; a name which might even be a compliment, for cows are among the most likeable of animals. Evidently a word is an insult simply because it is meant as an insult, without reference to its dictionary meaning; words, especially swear words, being what public opinion chooses to make them. In this connexion it is interesting to see how a swear word can change character by crossing a frontier. In England you can print ‘Je m’en foils’ without protest from anybody. In France you have to print it ‘Je m’en f—’. Or, as another example, take the word ‘barnshoot’—a corruption of the Hindustani word bahinchut. A vile and unforgivable insult in India, this word is a piece of gentle badinage in England. I have even seen it in a school text-book; it was in one of Aristophanes’ plays, and the annotator suggested it as a rendering of some gibberish spoken by a Persian ambassador. Presumably the annotator knew what bahinchut meant. But, because it was a foreign word, it had lost its magical swear-word quality and could be printed.
We know swearing isn’t bad for any number of reasons. Here are a few:
- For specific words to be fundamentally evil would require some kind of universal moral code but languages are not universal, nor are moral codes
- Swearing changes with context; not only do swear words change from language to language, but they change within a language, over time and from place to place – a swear word in 1930s London (cow for example) is not likely to be a swear word in 2010s Toronto
- When I was young, you couldn’t swear on Canadian TV ever but just earlier this year CBC aired a Tragically Hip concert during primetime with no bleeping of “swear” words
- We’re not always sure which words are swear words – you’ve definitely heard someone say “Can I say that?” more than once
- What exactly happens when you swear? Sure, you might get ostracized (or disciplined, if you are a child), but if you say the particular word around the right people, it’s just another word.
So if swear words aren’t actually bad, why do we make sure a big deal about them?
Why We Stigmatize Words
Swear words are cultural. There are certain words in each culture that are impolite to say aloud, in public because of a particular culture’s obsession with something. For example, sex in Victorian England or the Church in 20th century Quebec.
But swear words also tell us who’s in and who’s out. Swear words are partially class-based so, if someone swears in front of you in a place where swearing isn’t customary, you know this person doesn’t belong. This is likely a heritage from the past when dialect, accent and even affect were signals to us we were dealing with a stranger, even if they spoke our language. All of us change the way we speak slightly for different audiences. Knowing certain words and saying them in private, or avoiding certain words in public, is a way of showing you belong.
But we live in a multicultural, relatively classless society. So why do we still freak out over swear words? Why do atheist friends of mine with children avoid saying certain words around their kids? Why do we admonish kids for saying certain words when we are trying to promote a classless society of opportunity for all? Why does this happen?
When you’re a kid there’s a limited number of places you can swear. When you’re an adult, the number of places you can swear grows exponentially, to the point where the only place you can’t swear is around kids. It’s the weird trick act, where we’re pretending like they don’t know and we don’t know and newspapers don’t want to print it ’cause they don’t want kids to read it. To which I say, ‘Show me the eight-year-old that reads the paper.’ If the kid’s reading the paper, he probably heard the word ‘fuck.’ – Martin Gero
Why we Think Swearing is Bad
In addition to the legacy of swearing being a way we can tell if someone belongs or not, there is something else going on. And that something is a fundamental belief that certain words are bad, despite all evidence to the contrary.
I have some cousins who are religious. One of them in particular uses the word “frick” all the time. I mean, he uses it constantly. He uses it like young men use fuck. I used to say fuck this much in university. He says it in front of his extremely religious mother. He says it in front of children. He says it all the time. And yet nobody seems to consider it a swear word. Because between that f and that ck there are an r and an i instead of a u. I am not religious so I’ve always wondered who he thinks he’s fooling. Is he fooling his family? I guess so. But is he fooling God? If god exists, and is indeed omniscient and omnipotent, can he still not tell the difference between frick and fuck? Isn’t the intent the same? Can’t God see into our souls even if he isn’t omniscient enough to be fooled into thinking there’s a difference between frick and fuck?
My cousin says frick instead of fuck because he was taught that fuck is bad. He was taught that fuck is bad because his church believes that certain words are bad, that the use of certain words is sinful, probably very minor in the scheme of sins, but sinful nonetheless. (If that church, which I have not attended outside of a wedding, does not believe these words are sinful, I wonder why they discourage their use.) He was taught that it is wrong to say certain words because this church, like most others, believes that certain behaviours get you into heaven, and certain behaviours get you into hell. (If you’re Catholic, certain behaviours can also get you stuck in purgatory.) Now, speaking specific words is hardly much of a behaviour. Especially when those words are used as placeholders and emphasis, like my cousin uses the word frick. (Like I use the word fuck. Even when someone is saying “Fuck you” it’s hard to see fuck as a particularly insulting. It’s not a slur.) It’s hard for an outsider like me to understand why swearing is bad but tacit bigotry appears acceptable, for example. But this stuff isn’t rational because these swear words are considered bad because of the belief in god and the belief in a just world.
If saying or writing fuck (oops) will send me to hell, that is only because the world is just, and we are punished for doing (and saying!) bad things and rewarded for doing (and saying?) good things, however bad and good are classified for that particular belief system. In the world as it really is, saying fuck in the wrong company will only result in tut-tutting or ostracization, or getting a call from your kid’s teacher, contrary to all logic. (Who the fuck cares what words we use if we’re still understood?) But in a just world, this is serious stuff and could result in serious, everlasting punishments.
I don’t mean to single out religious folk, by the way. I think this applies to people who believe in a just world who are not explicitly religious, of a particular denomination or who don’t go to church. Because people believe you should be ostracized if you say the wrong thing. People believe children should be punished or at least reprimanded for swearing, even if they don’t believe in god. The first time I said “fuck” in front of my mother, who is not religious any more, she was mortified. I got into an argument with a new parent a few years ago whose sole argument against swearing was that once I had kids, I’d understand why swearing is wrong. The belief that swearing is wrong – regardless of whether or not you believe in a deity that will punish you for saying fuck or shit or whatever – is a symptom of the Just World Fallacy.
The Just World Fallacy is the belief that the world is fair. We know, intellectually, that the world is not fair. We say “Life isn’t fair” when someone we know is upset at some perceived injustice and there’s nothing else to say. But we all secretly believe that the world is fair, whether or not we’re religious. In fact, we believe that the world is fair towards us, that the rules of fairness and justice that govern the world are the ones we understand. When someone says fuck or shit or something else we deem inappropriate in our presence in a way that violates our understanding of these rules of fairness, we act shocked or embarrassed, and we might ostracize them later because of what they said. If it’s a child, we punish that child or, at the very least, scold her. And we do this even if we don’t believe that saying or writing fuck (oops) will send us to hell.