WARNING: This article contains strong language. Words traditionally used to degrade specific groups, or considered shocking or blasphemous are not intended to offend, and are used only in an academic and journalistic context in order to inform and educate.
A taboo refers to an implicit prohibition on something contrary to social norms, incest, for example. In the context of spoken language however, taboos are words or topics typically considered inappropriate for polite discourse. The etymology is rooted in the Tongan tapu and Fijian tabu. When James Cook visited Tonga, he commented that Tongans used the word to refer to anything that was ‘forbidden to be made use of’. Such was nature of these taboos that mere mention of them could be a grave violation of unwritten social codes.
Yet today, unlike other social taboos which would quickly see an individual become an anathema, swear words are ubiquitous. Only five percent of British adults can go about their daily routine without being exposed to expletives, while nine in ten admit to using them personally. They are about half as common as first person pronouns, making up between 0.5 and 0.7% of the average individual’s speech.
Despite their pervasiveness, they are almost absent from writing. Notwithstanding quoted speech in fiction or media, authors and academics rarely make use of these words. Unfortunately, this means relatively few studies on profanity exist, despite much evidence suggesting profanity is as old as language itself. Perhaps not surprising given the difficulty of discussing them without inducing either amusement or offense.
It is intriguing however that these words can be so offensive at all. Much as money is essentially just paper that we have collectively decided to ascribe arbitrary and inordinate value to, so too are swear words powerful by virtue of the reverence we collectively show them.
There are of course some features which unite swear words. Phonoaesthetic clusters are groups of words with a similar meaning as well as similar phonology. For example, English words related to light, reflectivity and luminosity make disproportionate use of the gl consonant cluster: glisten, glitter, gleam, gloss, glaze etc. Here a combination of etymology, and the tendency of phonoaesthemes to inspire neologisms (new words) are at play.
Similarly, words like fuck, prick and cock make use of the ck consonant cluster, and expletives often have intensely stressed syllables. The euphemistic expression ‘four-letter word’ exists due to the frequency of profane words with this number of letters, appearing at a rate twice as high as typical among all English words. Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie made clever use of these phonological similarities in a sketch satirising the BBC’s restrictions on strong language, creating words like prunk, cloff, fusk and shote.
Yet both banknotes and passports are essentially just paper embedded with security features. One allows access into foreign countries and one can be exchanged for groceries. Both are issued by authority of the state, but they are distinctly different. Similarly, fuck and muck, and cunt and hunt share similar phonemes, are the same length, and are Germanic in origin, but evoke entirely different feelings and emotions.
Particularly in English, which will often have pairs of words of similar meaning, one with Germanic roots the other with Latin, similarities are more likely to stem from etymology than any endeavour to be onomatopoeic or vulgar. Indeed, no word is (nor can be) innately profane, and profanity is culturally relative.
In Harry Potter, calling Voldemort ‘he-who-must-not-be-named’ or ‘you-know-who’ is so ingrained into wizarding psyche that even after his (apparent) death Minister for Magic Cornelius Fudge cannot bring himself to speak his name to the muggle Prime Minister. Here an entirely made up word has become taboo through association with a dark wizard, yet as Dumbledore says, ‘fear of a name only increases fear of the thing itself.’
Interestingly, profanity in human language is thought to have first arisen due to the belief that words have an almost magical power about them, and the belief that their misuse would attract misfortune to the speaker. In the Second Wizarding War this was precisely the case. A spell, coincidentally called the taboo curse, was used to track those people who would dare to speak Voldemort’s name, and death eaters would flock to them.
Some words, notably those considered blasphemous, are still considered by some groups to attract the attention of higher powers. Ancient Jews revered the name of God so greatly that it could only be spoken by the priests inside of the temple. Similarly many Italians believed the expression porco dio (God [is a] pig) to be offensive enough to warrant divine retribution.
Despite this, most swear words and profane expressions in western cultures today are not believed to inspire condemnation from an external force. Rather, they can be categorised into distinct albeit somewhat arbritary categories: those used to express emphatic emotion, those used cathartically, idiomatic cursing, and those words intended to abuse or degrade.
Among these, only abusive or degrading profanity is considered almost universally taboo. Prince Andrew’s remark ‘that really is the nigger in the woodpile’ was criticised widely by all media outlets, whereas Boris Johnson’s alleged outburst ‘fuck business’ was defended by some commenters. Unlike other curses, slurs derive their power from the desire of one person to belittle and dehumanise another.
Efforts to appropriate them exploit the same principle which downgraded the word bastard from the most severe of insults in Shakespeare’s time to one which can be used in jest today – by insisting the underlying insult is neutral or even positive. Queer was appropriated to such a degree that it now forms part of the acronym LGBTQ+, thereby limiting its ability to cause hurt.
Hermione similarly tried to appropriate the slur ‘mudblood’ in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, declaring herself a ‘mudblood and proud’. Taking the wizard equivalent of racial epithet and wearing it as a badge of pride, Hermione denies her enemies the one weapon they have to degrade her since she was in all other ways superior.
Other swear words have undergone a similar process but without the active effort of any particular group. By creating idioms like ‘shit hit the fan’ and acronyms like ‘MILF’ and ‘WTF’ the usage of these words has been somewhat normalised. This has made them less offensive, and studies suggest that with the exception of a handful of words such as ‘faggot’ all traditional swear words are becoming less offensive with time. Examining data from Google Book’s Ngram Viewer confirms this:
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Ultimately, as society (hopefully) becomes more tolerant, slurs should continue to fall out of usage. Although ableist and transphobic slurs are becoming more common, this is, with luck, a shortlived trend. At the same time, words concerning scatology and sex will likely become as normalised as hell or damn to the point where they cause little shock. While profanity has always existed, it appears that it may have seen its last century as a powerful force in language.