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Profanities: Slang, Swearing, Cursing and using  Slurs & Expletives

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Debrett’s has referred[1] to the Victorian etiquette bible, Routledge’s Manual of Etiquette, on the subject of slang and swearing. It makes for interesting reading.

Women who use slang come in for a great deal of opprobrium:
“We know many ladies who pride themselves on the saucy chique with which they adopt certain Americanisms and other cant phrases of the day. Such habits cannot be too severely reprehended. They lower the tone of society and the standard of thought. It is a great mistake to suppose that slang is in any way a substitute for wit.”

And the sanction also applies to gentlemen, who are advised:
“all ‘slang’ is vulgar. It has become, of late, unfortunately prevalent…”

Originally published in 1875, Routledge’s Manual of Etiquette is widely regarded as the final arbiter of proper social behaviour. Brush up on your social graces before an event like a wedding or formal party, or offer a copy to a socially challenged friend. The writers of this etiquette guide would be completely astonished by the infinite capacity of the English language to absorb new phrases and words – from anti-vaxxer, doom scroller, eco-warrior to the gig economy, sofa surfer and fat-shamer.

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Picture Attribution: Tomia, original image en:User: Polylerus, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons. Author: Tomia, original image. en:User: Polylerus

These neologisms reflect a rapidly changing and evolving society, where new ideas and innovative language is disseminated through all types of media, from streaming services and news sites to a myriad of social media outlets. In today’s world, it is very hard to follow Routledge’s advice and avoid slang altogether, but it is worth noting that a too-willing tendency to adopt every new phrase and word that is flying around the ether might indeed indicate a lowering of the ‘standard of thought’. Pause a little first, make sure that you know exactly what the word or phrase means and see if you can find a more creative alternative. You don’t want to be condemned as someone who talks in hackneyed phrases and clichés.

Routledge is censorious about slang, but it does not even broach the subject of swearing, presumably because swearing in society was a horrifying solecism, which would earn the perpetrator eternal condemnation.

In cartoons and comics, profanity is often depicted by substituting symbols for words (“grawlixes” in the lexicon of cartoonist Mort Walker).

How much has changed… Today, the line between a profane curse and an acceptable expletive has become blurred, and words like ‘damn’ and ‘bloody hell’ are seamlessly part of the argot[2] where once they were fearsome expletives. Everyday speech is peppered with vivid swear words of the Anglo-Saxon variety, and the F word abounds on post-watershed television. Once shocking, it has now become a meaningless filler, comparable to ‘like’, ‘basically’ and ‘you know’. Increasingly, swearing has become a way of bonding with peers, and creating a group identity. It is often simply a habit, which is no longer used in extremis to ease physical pain or reduce stress levels.

Swearing has very little to do with good manners. Suppressing, or at the very least controlling, your worst language will have many benefits: you won’t cause offence to others, particularly members of the older generation, who may still be shocked by swearing; you will be a better example to your children; you may even dream up some more linguistically creative ways of expressing rage and so on. Be aware of your swearing and keep your worst insults for life’s most challenging situations – if every sentence is clogged with obscenities, what will happen when you feel truly vituperative? Words will literally fail you…

Slang is vocabulary that is used between people who belong to the same social group and who know each other well. Slang is a very informal language. It can offend people when used about other people or outside a group of people who know each other well. Slang is usually used in speaking rather than writing.

Profanity under the Microscope[3]
Profanity is a socially offensive use of language, also called cursing, swearing, or using expletives. Accordingly, profanity is language use that is sometimes, indeed often, deemed impolite, rude, or culturally offensive. It can show a debasement of someone or something or be considered an expression of strong feelings towards something. Some words may also be used as intensifiers[4]. In its older, more literal sense, “profanity” refers to a lack of respect for things (or persons) held to be sacred, which implies anything inspiring or deserving of reverence, as well as behaviour showing similar disrespect or causing religious offence.

The word profane originates from classical Latin profanus, literally “before (outside) the temple”, pro meaning ‘outside’ and fanum meaning ‘temple’ or ‘sanctuary’. Profanity represented secular indifference to religion or religious figures, while blasphemy was a more offensive attack on religion and religious figures, considered sinful, and a direct violation of The Ten Commandments in the majority-Christian Western world. Moreover, many Bible verses speak against swearing.

The stereotype of English profanity is largely Germanic, and profanity is sometimes referred to colloquially as “Anglo-Saxon”, in reference to the oldest form of English.

Words currently considered curse words or profanity were common parlance in medieval English. In the Elizabethan era, some playwrights, like William Shakespeare, largely avoided direct use of these words, but others, like Ben Jonson, did use them in his plays. Some profanities, for example, damn, has its origins in Latin, with the word damnum meaning ‘to damage, hurt or harm’.

Analyses of recorded conversations reveal that an average of roughly 80–90 words that a person speaks each day – 0.5% to 0.7% of all words – are curse words, with usage varying from 0% to 3.4%. A three-country poll conducted by Angus Reid Public Opinion in July 2010 found that Canadians swear more often than Americans and British when talking to friends, while Britons are more likely than Canadians and Americans to hear strangers swear during a conversation.

Swearing performs certain psychological functions and uses particular linguistic and neurological mechanisms; all these are avenues of research. New York Times author Natalie Angier notes that functionally similar behaviour can be observed in chimpanzees and may contribute to our understanding[5]. Angier also notes that swearing is a widespread but perhaps underappreciated anger management technique; that “Men generally curse more than women, unless said women are in a sorority, and that university provosts swear more than librarians or the staff members of the university day-care centre”.

Keele University researchers Stephens, Atkins, and Kingston found that swearing relieves the effects of physical pain[6]. Stephens said: “I would advise people, if they hurt themselves, to swear“. However, the overuse of swear words tends to diminish this effect[7]. The Keele team won the Ig Nobel Peace Prize[8] in 2010 for their research.

A team of neurologists and psychologists at the UCLA Easton Center for Alzheimer’s Disease Research suggested that swearing may help differentiate Alzheimer’s disease from frontotemporal dementia. Neurologist Antonio Damasio noted that despite the loss of language due to damage to the language areas of the brain, patients were still often able to swear.

A group of researchers from Wright State University (Dayton, Ohio) studied why people swear in the online world by collecting tweets posted on Twitter. They found that cursing is associated with negative emotions such as sadness (21.83%) and anger (16.79%), indicating that people in the online world mainly use curse words to express their sadness and anger towards others.

Swearing in a Foreign Language
An interdisciplinary team of researchers from the University of Warsaw investigated bilingual swearing and how it is easier to swear in a foreign language. The team found that bilinguals strengthen the offensiveness of profanities when they switch into their second language but soften it when they change into their first tongue. The scientists concluded that switching into the second language exempts bilinguals from the social norms and constraints (whether own or socially imposed) such as political correctness and makes them more prone to swearing and offending others[9].

Types of Swearing
According to Steven Pinker[10], a Canadian-American cognitive psychologist, psycholinguist, popular science author and public intellectual, there are five possible functions of swearing:

  • Abusive swearing – intended to offend, intimidate or otherwise cause emotional or psychological harm.
  • Cathartic swearing – used in response to pain or misfortune.
  • Dysphemistic swearing – used to convey that the speaker thinks negatively of the subject matter and to make the listener do the same.
  • Emphatic swearing – intended to draw additional attention to what is considered to be worth paying attention to.
  • Idiomatic swearing – used for no other particular purpose but to signify that the conversation and relationship between speaker and listener is informal.

Coprolalia is the medical term used to describe one of the most puzzling and socially stigmatising symptoms of Tourette Syndrome (TS)—the involuntary outburst of obscene words or socially inappropriate and derogatory remarks. Other examples may include references to genitals, excrement and sexual acts. Although Coprolalia is the most widely known symptom of TS, it occurs in only a minority of patients with TS. It is most often expressed as a single word but may involve complex phrases. There is no way to predict who will develop Coprolalia. Copropraxia is a related complex motor tic symptom involving obscene gestures. You can read more about this on the website, HERE.

Coprolalia can be distinguished from voluntary profanity by characteristics such as interrupting the flow of dialogue, differences in tone and volume relative to a normal voice, variable frequency that increases with anxiety, and association with brain disorders. It is usually expressed out of social or emotional context and may be spoken in a louder tone or different cadence or pitch than normal conversation. It can be a single word or complex phrases[11].

Slurs vs. Profanity
Profanity is widely considered socially offensive and strongly impolite; slurs, however, are both intended to be and by definition are derogatory, as they are meant to harm another individual. Although profanity has been seen to improve performance or relieve anxiety and anger and can be used light-heartedly, this effect and impact cannot be observed with slurs. Though slurs are considered profanity by definition, profanity can be used in a non-targeted manner where slurs cannot.

Why Expletives are used
Expletives are uttered in intensely emotional situations, such as when a speaker is angry and frustrated, under pressure, in sudden pain, or confronted by something unexpected and usually, though not necessarily, undesirable. People use profanities when angry simply because it releases stress.

Sources and Further Reading

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Picture Credit/Attribution: Local law in Virginia Beach prohibiting profanity along the boardwalk of Atlantic Avenue. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. Author: Ben Schumin, CC BY-SA 3.0 <;, via Wikimedia Commons

  1. On 3rd January 2022, HERE.
  2. The word ‘argot’ was borrowed from the French in the mid-1800s, although our language already had several words covering its meaning. In linguistics, it means slang or jargon peculiar to a particular group.
  3. Source:
  4. Wikipedia define Intensifiers, HERE, as: in linguistics, an intensifier is a lexical category (but not a traditional part of speech) for a modifier that makes no contribution to the propositional meaning of a clause but serves to enhance and give additional emotional context to the word it modifies. Intensifiers are grammatical expletives, specifically expletive attributives (or, equivalently, attributive expletives or attributive-only expletives; they also qualify as expressive attributives), because they function as semantically vacuous filler. Characteristically, English draws intensifiers from a class of words called degree modifiers, words that quantify the idea they modify.
  5. Angier, Natalie (2005-09-25). “Cursing is a normal function of human language, experts say”New York Times. Retrieved 2012-11-19.
  6. Richard Stephens; John Atkins & Andrew Kingston (2009). “Swearing as a Response to Pain”. NeuroReport
  7. Joelving, Frederik (2009-07-12), “Why the #$%! Do We Swear? For Pain Relief”Scientific American.
  8. The Ig Nobel Prize) is a satiric prize awarded annually since 1991 to celebrate ten unusual or trivial achievements in scientific research, its stated aim being to “honour achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think.” The name of the award is a pun on the Nobel Prize, which it parodies, and on the word ignoble (not noble).
  9. Gawinkowska M, Paradowski MB, Bilewicz M (2013). “Second language as an exemption from sociocultural norms. Emotion-Related Language Choice revisited”
  10. See: Pinker, Steven (2007) The Stuff of Thought. Viking Press. ISBN 978-0-670-06327-7
  11. Source: Wikipedia, HERE.

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