The Stories We Tell In Swears


Okay, all you language instructors out there! What’s the first thing students of all ages ask about when they step into a classroom to learn another language? What’s the most satisfying part of one’s own language? Yes, it’s swear words, cursing, cussing, expletives, and dirty words. You want someone to care about how people talk in another part of the world, you entice them with forbidden stuff, the things you’re not supposed to say if you intend to kiss your mother or avoid getting a mouthful of soap. It works every single time.

We all have a need to speak dark things. The right combination of dirty phrases can be ridiculously satisfying, stress-reducing, possibly even peace-making. There’s more to swearing than expressions of anger, though. Learning to swear in any language is an exercise in cultural anthropology. I’m constantly amazed at how specific dirty words don’t translate between languages. What’s absolutely filthy in one barely gets you a shrug in another. The things a society chooses to include in its lexicon of naughty words speaks volumes about what’s important, what’s taboo, and what’s amusing. The same is true for language in general, but swearing seems to be a concentrated, condensed version. It’s immediate, direct, and emotionally-charged in a way that the rest of a language isn’t. Recent studies suggest that it’s indicative of a broad vocabulary (I really want this to be true). It’s also pretty funny.

In teaching others English, and in learning other languages myself, here’s what I’ve found:

  • Some cultures are pretty hung up about their bodies (including English). They swear about stuff that goes into them and things that come out of them, and they get nervous about being reduced to or associated with said bodily functions. Children are pretty good a this type of swearing, although in diluted form. Get my drift, Doodie Head?
  • Other cultures are not fond of animals. If you want to really let someone have it, you call someone an animal, or even a combination of non-human critters.  This one’s a little troubling, as animals are sometimes more civilized than we are. Maybe they call each other things like “big, smelly, noisy human” when they get upset.
  • Others are particularly protective of mothers. Swearing in this regard ranges from moms wearing army boots, to moms who are hamsters (and fathers who smell of elderberries), to moms who keep questionable company…because, you know, moms don’t have enough to deal with already.
  • Swearing can also extend to one’s spiritual persuasions as well. If you want to really pack a wallop with your cursing, you can drag superior beings into the conversation.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, and the cool thing about swearing is that it not only varies from culture to culture, but also between regions and generations. There’s a great deal that can be learned about a person, both as an individual and as a member of a bigger group, from what comes out of his or her mouth when he or she is irritated. If animals do swear, I wonder what might be in their canon of questionable language. As robots become increasingly intelligent and human-like, will they evolve their one set of verbal no-no’s? Should we be including a few nasty things in our communications with other intelligent life forms in the universe, so that they’ll really get a full picture of what it’s like to be us?

Something to think about the next time you curse a blue streak.

*Please forgive my lack of actual swear words in this post. Although I’m semi-pro at using foul language (I might even be genetically predisposed to it), I try to keep this blog relatively PG.

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