Offended by swearing? Get better priorities

Swearing, cursing, profanity, whatever you want to call it. [Post contains swearing, obviously]

Understatement: there’s a lot of bad stuff here on planet Earth. Enough for a lifetime of sadness, worry, anger, fear and all the negative feelings. So many inhumane things that people do to each other and this bit of shared space. So much tragedy and hatred. We do not have the bandwidth to engage with all of it, all of the time, nor should we be expected to.
But sometimes, when we encounter awfulness and focus on it a while, we might sum up with an expression of frustration, rage, shock or disgust, maybe: ‘FUCK THIS!’
And why not?

If we ever attempted to spend every waking moment absorbed by the negatives, we’d all break down like Leeloo discovering war in The Fifth Element and maybe we’d never get back up. Yet for all the problems in the world, some people tend to get hung up on… colourful language.


It’s a coincidence I found this draft just as a bad language-related event occurred in the USA (the problem here, however, is not within the swearing itself per se, but in the misogyny – more on that later). I’d like to explain why I swear (quite a lot sometimes) and why I’ll defend continuing to do so.

It’s not practical to try to concentrate on a large amount of wrong in the world, so we cope in various ways. Many decent people commit what time they can – or at least some – to improvement. Whether of self or others, policy, environment… through time, money, thought, art – there are many ways to make a difference. It is possible to care about more than one thing at once.

But expressing some small emotional response through swearing is just unacceptable to some. Why is that? And why do I think it’s bollocks? The kinds of things people say when they complain about swearing include,

“It’s not respectable. It’s unprofessional. Unpleasant. Can’t you just be civil?

and so on. But for my part, I prefer to respect people for what they do/how they act, what kind of values they hold – not how many colourful words come out while they talk. What’s the content and quality of what they’re saying? Sure, if there is no real content and it’s just swearing, maybe we’ll all ignore them. But how often is that really the case?

How people choose to emphasise a point is tangential. Some do it with hand-talking, some with volume or facial expression – many of the ways we emphasise are inaccessible to others. Swearing? It’s a bit more universal. Sometimes you can even tell when someone’s swearing in a language you don’t even understand, which I think is pretty cool.

It’s bollocks because swearing – when it’s not a bigotry problem we still need to deal with – is not inherently a bad thing.

I don’t mean slurs

There’s discriminatory language, of course, and that’s something I’m interested in and working on addressing myself. But it’s not always the discrimination that causes offense; indeed part of my issue is that people who claim to be offended by swearing don’t seem to care about things that actually hurt people.

However, this Ofcom study of viewers’ responses to TV content happily shows discriminatory language to be the most offensive, with plain old swearing lower on the list. It also seems that this “swears-are-the-worst, but [racist, sexist statements]” tendency may primarily be one of previous generations.

It often depends who’s saying what, where, and to whom (context!); there are pejoratives that are purely channels for real prejudice and hatred. The fact that some of our current “worst words” are descriptive of women, femininity, or genitalia associated with women is no accident. Patriarchy, baby. So it can be positive to try to err on the side of neutral/masculine words to counteract pervasive misogyny.

Some also have great fondness for cunt at least in the UK and Australia – and no doubt elsewhere – while US Americans seem to think it’s akin to dropkicking a kitten into a lake after lighting it on fire. Its history is complex, though (see link).

Misogyny, racism, homophobia, transphobia and ableism are all important issues to be addressed (among others) and I don’t intend this post in defense of swearing to dismiss these issues. From the Misogyny link:

…since patriarchy is so deeply embedded in society that many do not even acknowledge what the word actually means, treating it as a mere expression of anger. “People treat it lightly because patriarchal values are so deeply rooted in us that sometimes people resort to using such words unconsciously as well, without grasping the meaning behind it,” she says. There could be others who could argue that swear words are something that shouldn’t be taken seriously and in a literal sense.

However, Tara Mani Rai, a linguist, strongly believes that language and words cannot exist in a vacuum and they mirror the realities of society. “Language is an important component of society. It is a direct reflection of how society functions and the kind of socio-cultural values it has,”

Reclamation is one way that groups targeted by hate sidestep the dehumanising effects of words (slurs) and their attached attitudes and flip them. Take the word for yourself, own it, use it positively and erode its power to harm. We have seen this with the n-word, with queer, partly with slut and cunt and so on.

Some slurs are curse words, some are not – there is overlap, but one does not wholly equal the other. These are also distinct from insults – but the finer points are debatable since language is… slippery.

Joy of swearing

There’s a really old video about the word fuck that I still love, though it’s a bit cringe now and the errors are grating.

Swearing can be creative! My friend Phil for example, introduced a now-beloved swearing formula for our times: shitlark. We now know and love its close relative, the shitehawk.

Along the same lines, there’s a new-ish formula for swearing that goes [standard swear][inoffensive item] or occasionally the reverse, for example: shitbeard. Fuckbag. Crapbasket. Shitecomb. Thundercunt (the classic reversal). Try it..!

Others have covered this eloquently, and here are a couple of short videos some of you have probably already seen:

Swearing can also be useful! I find interesting and amusing – love a bit of Blessed cursing – that swearing does actually help reduce pain! So yes, I will continue to Say The Bad Things when I stub my toe or bash my elbow.

So to sum up: the linguistics of swearing is fascinating and complex, swears aren’t inherently bad (though some are certainly harmful in that slurs perpetuate stereotypes and prejudice; but not all swears are slurs! We can and should avoid the latter), sometimes they’re even good, and instead of policing how people talk, perhaps you could care more about what they’re saying.

There are some truly abhorrent, hugely offensive things that happen in this world every day. The kind of people who decide to police swearing – from strangers or not (though it is even worse to to jump in and do this to people you don’t know who aren’t even speaking to you, I think) – seem to be those who otherwise “don’t want to make a fuss” when there are so many things we could or should be doing something about. More on that another day.

And no, of course on its own using swears achieves nothing. But if you get worked up about something and feel the need to use them? Maybe that’s a good sign, a sign that you care about something.

If all you’d rather do is waste your time telling other people how (not) to speak, then really, you’re doing even less.

There’s Nothing Virtuous About Finding Common Ground

The Underlying Sexism in Swearing and Slurs

The Poison of Male Incivility

Go ahead, curse in front of your kids

One thought on “Offended by swearing? Get better priorities

  1. Pingback: “Don’t make everything political” – Purely a figment of your imagination

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