(Don’t) Watch Your Tongue: Why Swearing Is Fun
Rebecca Roache on the Titillating Linguistic Taboos of Modern Life
Featured image: Jonathan Rolande via Flickr
How are swear words born? The process begins with certain words being widely dispreferred within a given community. This sets the scene for the offense escalation process to occur on a community-wide level, resulting in words that offend the entire community. The process cannot, as in the Rebecca/Rachel and shed examples we looked at in the previous two chapters, be restricted to the response of a particular listener or the use of the word by a particular speaker.
We all have different preferences about the words we use, but words that are widely dispreferred within a community are linked to recognized taboo topics like sex, defecation, religion, and so on. As we’ve seen, it’s not impossible to use taboo-related words inoffensively in polite company: a new parent might manage inoffensively to refer to defecation by remarking that their baby has “soiled herself,” or someone might politely refer to sex by sharing that a mutual friend has ended their relationship after catching their partner “in bed with” someone else.”
Remarks like these can pass off without so much as raising an eyebrow even in cases where the listener is someone who would be horrified by other ways of introducing the same topics—but this takes some skill on the part of the speaker. Part of that skill involves knowing which euphemisms to use: soiled herself and in bed with instead of defecated and having sex with—or, worse, words like shit and fucking. Choosing one’s words carefully in this way helps to signal to our audience that we recognize that the topic is not a pleasant one and that we do not wish to cause offense by discussing it. But it’s not all about the words we use.
Even euphemistic references to defecation and sex can end up causing offense if the speaker keeps returning to the topic, discusses it too gleefully, introduces it at the wrong moment, or in other ways fails to convey that she finds the topic as uncomfortable as her audience does. One wrong move—an indelicate word here, a second too long spent on the topic there—and the speaker risks embarrassing, disturbing, or offending their audience.
An important lesson that arises from the fact that it’s possible (albeit risky) for a skilled speaker to introduce a taboo topic into a polite conversation without causing offense is this: when we cause offense by talking about taboo topics in polite company, it’s not the taboo topic itself that offends our listeners, it’s what we signal to our listeners about our attitudes to them. Specifically, by talking about taboo topics we risk signaling to our listeners that we don’t care about their feelings. After all, we’re choosing to talk about a topic that we know people in our community—including those we’re addressing—dislike.
The strategies speakers employ to avoid causing offense in these circumstances—strategies like using euphemisms and moving on from the taboo topic as soon as possible—work by conveying to their listeners that they (the speakers) are being solicitous of the feelings of their listeners. Dealing sensitively with a taboo topic in a polite conversation is possible when the speaker manages to strike the right balance between signaling I care about having a conversation with you and I care about ensuring that you are comfortable during this conversation.
The ease with which one can cause offense by discussing taboo topics makes taboo words ripe for offense escalation. When we talk about recognized taboo topics with a fellow member of our community—or with multiple members of our community, including ones we’ve never met or spoken to before—our listener knows that we know that the topic is dispreferred. Offense escalation of taboo words can, as a result, occur on a much larger scale than in the Rebecca/Rachel and shed examples described above.
Further, offense escalation of taboo words can skip the stage—required in the Rebecca/Rachel and shed cases—where the audience points out to the speaker that the expression used is disliked, since everyone will take the speaker to understand this already. This means that offense escalation can get started even when the speaker knows nothing about the personal likes, dislikes, and sensitivities of their listeners.
All this means that words referring to taboo topics are much better suited than neutral words like book to develop via offense escalation into swear words. We saw, when we discussed the Rebecca/Rachel and shed cases, that in some cases it may be possible to offend someone with a neutral expression when offense escalation occurs on a one-to-one basis and one comes to learn that one’s listener has an unusual dislike for a neutral expression. But offense escalation of a neutral expression cannot get started when addressing a larger audience, precisely because the expression is neutral (i.e. not widely dispreferred).
There is an additional reason why taboo-related expressions have a head start over neutral ones when it comes to developing into swear words: breaking widely recognized taboos can be thrilling. This idea is already familiar, since it is one of the reasons why swearing—itself a taboo behavior, of course—can be thrilling. The thrill of taboo-breaking helps explain why children delight in toilet jokes, why it can sometimes feel liberating to let rip and be rude, and why we are often entertained (even if also horrified) to witness somebody put their foot in it by unwittingly doing something inappropriate, like complaining about a colleague’s ineptitude to the colleague’s spouse.
That breaking taboos can be fun gives us a Taboo, aggression, and harsh sweary sounds motivation to do it; an observation made no less accurate by the fact that our motivation to break taboos is generally outweighed by our motivation not to break them. By contrast, there is no comparable, community-wide motivation to use neutral words like book for thrills, which makes those words less likely to be used in a way that would give rise to offense escalation.
But there’s more. Not only is breaking taboos fun, it is also widely recognized that breaking taboos is fun. This observation adds an extra layer to the offense escalation of taboo words. To see this, let’s begin by considering that sometimes, when we have a good enough reason, it’s acceptable to break taboos. Yelling at work colleagues is generally unacceptable, but if the purpose is to warn them that the building is on fire, then it is acceptable. Asking a stranger when they last defecated is usually frowned upon, but not if one is a doctor trying to diagnose a digestive disorder. Curtly telling another person to shut up is usually bad mannered, but not if spoken to someone who is verbally abusing another person. And so on.
In cases like these, no sensible person who recognizes that the speaker has a good reason for breaking the taboo is likely to disapprove of the taboo-breaking. Even so, breaking taboos is risky. Given that we all recognize that breaking taboos can be fun, when we break them we run the risk that those around us will suspect that we are doing it merely (or mainly) because it’s fun, and we do not generally regard having fun as a good enough reason to cause distress to others. Etiquette, as well as morality, demands that we take into account other people’s feelings when deciding how to act.
This is part of what’s involved in respecting others. If we anticipate that a certain course of action will be fun for us but unpleasant for others, we are expected to avoid it, unless we have a good reason not to avoid it. What might such a good reason look like? Well, it could involve having permission from the affected others, as when we go ahead and throw a noisy party after getting the go-ahead from our neighbors.
Alternatively, it could involve an action being very fun for us but only mildly unpleasant for others, as when we take a relaxing vacation that will make our colleagues feel even more downhearted about their dreary lifestyle. Or, the affected others might deserve the unpleasantness that our action will cause them, as when I humiliate you (and enjoy doing so) after suffering months of harassment from you. And so on.
In cases where we break a taboo without good reason, we not only give our own fun greater weight than other people’s distress, we also demonstrate that we have done so. There’s an element of performance to breaking taboos in this way; a flavor of Look at me being all naughty—I know you don’t like this but I’m having fun! Our audience can reasonably conclude from this that we do not respect them very much. When we break taboos, then, we had better hope that it is clear to our audience that we are doing so with good reason if we want to avoid causing offense.Our recognition that swearing’s capacity to shock is greater than that of some other taboo breaches makes taboo breaking by swearing even more fun.
Here’s the upshot of this for swearing. Taboo-breaking in general can be fun, but it’s more common—and satisfying—to break some taboos rather than others for fun. Few of us get our kicks by asking strangers about their defecation habits, which loses much of its sparkle once we’re over the age of eight. While bad manners are rather more common, being bad mannered is not something we think of as fun or thrilling.
By contrast, we all recognize that uttering taboo words can be fun, and even funny—even those who don’t enjoy this form of taboo-breaking themselves typically acknowledge (while shaking their head regretfully) that there are others who do. This enjoyment is reflected by the large role that swearing plays in comedy. It means that when we swear, there’s a risk that those around us will suspect that we’re doing so for fun, a risk that doesn’t really arise when we break other sorts of taboos.
Since taboo breaking for fun sends our audience a strong and clear message that we place little value on their feelings—their feelings are, after all, less important than our own fun—swearing can be more shocking than the breaking of many other sorts of taboo. And our recognition that swearing’s capacity to shock is greater than that of some other taboo breaches makes taboo breaking by swearing even more fun, which in turn emphasizes to the audience the disregard in which they are held by the inappropriate swearer—and so on.
I have explained swearing’s focus on taboo topics by arguing that taboo-referring words get a head start over other words in the community-wide offense escalation process that is required in order for a word to become a swear word. As such, I have provided a causal explanation for the role that taboo-referring words play in swearing; in other words, I’ve explained how swearing grew out of words relating to taboo.
But it also seems likely that, over time, the association between taboo topics and swearing has grown stronger, to the extent that now we might not recognize as a swear word a word that doesn’t have a taboo denotation. If that’s the case, then there’s another kind of explanation of why swear words tend to focus on taboo topics. According to this explanation, swear words by definition, or necessarily, have a taboo denotation.
This amounts to claiming that the link between taboo topics and swearing is not merely causal but also conceptual, which would make the idea of swear words that do not denote taboo topics incoherent, in much the same way that there is something incoherent about the idea of a square circle or an invisible color. This is a much stronger claim than I’m going to argue for here. I will, instead, content myself with the causal claim, along with the observation that the conceptual claim might be true.
From For F*ck’s Sake: Why Swearing is Shocking, Rude, and Fun by Rebecca Roache. Copyright © 2023. Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.