All societies and all languages have developed their own swear words, taboo words, and curses, and that seems to have been true for all periods of history.
Swear words constitute around 0.7% of the words people use in everyday speech – which seems a lot when you consider that it’s about the same proportion that most people use first-person pronouns such as ‘we’ and ‘our’. Considering swearing is by definition the use of unacceptable and antisocial language, people certainly seem to do a lot of it.
Some language experts divide swear terms into three categories: those related to religion, those related to sex and the body, and social swear words referencing things such as race.
Sex-related insults tend to be common across many different cultures. But it tends to be the swear word itself and not the mere reference to the act that is considered inflammatory. Using the word ‘f**k’ is far more offensive than to ‘make love’ for example.
Religious societies tend to be more sensitive to swear terms related to religiosity, however these taboos also linger after the country becomes increasingly secular. In French-speaking Canada, many taboo words are grounded in religious references even though the country is increasingly secular in outlook.
It seems that our brains respond significantly when we are exposed to swear words. A part of the brain called the amygdala becomes particularly active when we hear taboo words or ones considered dangerous. It’s the same part of the brain that’s responsible for strong emotions such as crying. Evidence suggests that we take these language taboos on board at an early stage in our lives, at the same time as we absorb other cultural and social norms such as which groups are outsiders and which bodily functions should be private.
Interestingly, when people pick up a second language later in life, they do not respond as strongly to swear terms in their second language as they continue to do in their first. Our capability to be offended by language seems to take root early on.
Part of the reason why words become taboo to us is that we absorb the cultural background that makes certain concepts taboo. In many cultures it is the words referencing female genitalia that are considered most heinous; much more so than swear words referencing male anatomy. It’s theorised that this is because male sexuality has usually been considered acceptable but female sexuality is less commonly accepted and expressed.
As culture changes it’s curious to observe how taboo words also evolve. In 1950’s America it was unacceptable to use words referencing the body or sexuality but far more acceptable to use derogatory words referencing a person’s race. In modern America the reverse is true. In fact, throughout the Western world the last taboos are associated with disadvantaged and minority groups. Whilst we no longer respect god or sex, we reserve our outrage for attacks on the individual.
Back in the Middle Ages, religious swear words were believed to physically injure Jesus Christ. On the other hand, it was far less taboo to use obscenities referencing the body. Historians have suggested that this is because people had little privacy and their sense of shame was less developed than modern people who are more shielded from the bodily functions of others. Modern people seem to have a much greater distaste for visceral language than their forebears.
Five types of swearing
In his bestselling book The Stuff of Thoughts, an experimental psychologist called Steven Pinker examined human nature through the lens of language. He suggested that, rather than three, profanities actually broke into five categories.
- Dysphemistic swearing, which draws attention to negativity or controversy using obscene language.
- Abusive swearing, used to intimidate or abuse other parties.
- Idiomatic swearing, which manages to avoid referring to the matter in question. This uses swear words in an obscure way to enhance the atmosphere, for example to show peers that the setting is informal.
- Emphatic swearing, which is used to give emphasis to something such as size or impact.
- Cathartic swearing, which is used to manage pain or indicate a negative emotion or situation.
This breakdown suggests that we find many reasons to use obscene language. Whilst it’s still considered absolutely unacceptable by many, people continue to swear because they find swearing useful. Some studies conducted in 2011 found that people who swore frequently seemed to have a lower tolerance to pain than non-swearers. The act of swearing also seems to increase a person’s ability to withstand pain at the point of experiencing it.
Whilst many would argue that swearing indicates a poor command of language, it can certainly be an effective way to stimulate a response. Swearing is a way of expressing strength of emotion, and the sliding scale of strength of offensiveness helps indicate the severity of feeling. Swearing can also help people to bond. Breaking language taboos in a social situation can create a sense of community and intimacy.
What is a swear word
It’s surprisingly difficult to agree on what words are really unacceptable for public use. Tempering your choice of language to your audience is an art not a science, but it’s a skill requiring particular sophistication. Many media and broadcasting bodies set their own standards for what is acceptable, at what time and for which particular groups. Schools and sometimes governments institute their own rules.
A number of studies have successfully shown that it’s possible to differentiate between taboo and acceptable words by using autonomic arousal studies to gauge reactions. Another way to determine what is most unacceptable in any particular culture is to see which language is used most often by that small subset of Tourette’s sufferers who present with coprolalia (uncontrollable swearing).
These patients will tend to express the most unacceptable taboo words rather than milder ones, indicating which are most taboo in their particular culture. Yet another way to identify taboos is to examine euphemisms for that word. If there are many euphemisms that are commonly understood to refer to a particular word, it’s likely that it’s because this word is particularly taboo.
Obscenities in advertising
The fact that it’s difficult to know whether your target audience will be offended by certain language doesn’t seem to deter many brands from using obscenities in advertising and marketing campaigns.
An e-mail sent to customers in 2013 from Urban Outfitters, the American multinational clothing corporation, included the message “SORT OUT YOUR SH!T FOR 2013 with NEW AWESOME EVERYTHING …”. Further text stated “WATCH THIS SH!T” next to an image of a cat peering into its litter tray in which “2013” was written in excrement.
The company justified this approach by saying that they were a trendy clothing line with a “street style attitude” brand and that their customers were trend setting, creative individuals with a sense of humour and who liked to experiment. They also said customer surveys had ascertained that their key demographic was between the ages of 18 and 25 years.
The message was sent to their mailing list, which customers had to have signed up for and which they believed were likely to consist entirely of their core demographic. They said, although “SH!T” was a clear reference to the word “SHIT”, it was a less offensive spelling. The phrase “SORT YOU SH!T OUT FOR 2013 WITH NEW AWESOME EVERYTHING! Referred to the common slang phrase “get your shit together” which meant getting yourself organised. They said their core demographic would not find the phrase offensive, because they believed it was commonly used in their everyday language and frequently appeared in other media.
This particular communication didn’t end up being banned by the Advertising Standards Authority. It agreed with Urban Outfitters – whilst the language was distasteful, it was relatively mild and therefore unlikely to cause serious or widespread offence. It also agreed with the brand’s identification of its core demographic, and that the email was therefore unlikely to seriously offend the advertisement’s recipients who had voluntarily signed up to their mailing list.
In 2013, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) banned an internet ad which appeared on the Amazon website for a Christmas card which said: “You’re a c**t. Sorry, I meant to say ‘Merry Christmas’”.
The company that was responsible for selling the cards, SmellYourMum.com,
accepted that some people may have been offended by the card, but stated that this was because they had failed to view it in context. They said that unfortunately Amazon didn’t allow them to list an item in specific ‘adults only’ or ‘over 18’ categories and also didn’t allow them to censor the image.
Amazon itself defended the use of the word c**t in a product image used on its site.
It seems that even implying an obscenity can cause offence and result in a huge number of complaints from viewers.
A 2015 TV ad from the online travel agent Booking.com featured scenes of various people arriving at their holiday destinations and participating in various activities such as horse riding and dancing. The voice-over stated, “Planet Earth’s number one accommodation site. Booking.com. Booking.yeah”.
The ad received over 2000 complaints for its use of the word “booking” as an apparent substitute for the F-word. A number of complainants said the ads were likely to encourage swearing among children, and some reported seeing it during television programmes such as a Harry Potter film.
Despite this, the ASA cleared the ad but instead decided to focus on the company’s claim that it was the “Planet earth’s number one accommodation site”.
These examples show that you can never assume that you will receive the required response from using obscenities or other risky language in advertising and marketing campaigns. This is particularly true when expanding into new markets overseas where consumers could be more sensitive to colourful language or more likely to take offence. As always, research into the preferences of local audiences is key and the advice of native local language and cultural experts is critical to success.