In the UK, it is called a “bum bag”—the waist-straddling, zippered container popular in 1980s roller discos. Say this to an American though, and she is likely to think of a homeless person’s rucksack. What we call it in the US may in turn raise a few eyebrows over here: a “fanny pack”. While I think both countries can agree in calling it “tacky,” this is unrelated to today’s topic, which is this: how do bad words become bad, and what does it mean to our two countries “divided a common language”? (Incidentally, this quote has been attributed variously to George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, and Winston Churchill) We begin with a discussion of taboo.
Taboo words are those with offensive and emotional connotations. A taboo itself is “a ban or inhibition resulting from social custom or aversion” (American Heritage Dictionary). As psychologist Timothy Jay explains, taboo words are sanctioned, both institutionally and individually, under the assumption that something bad will happen if they are spoken. The institutional restriction comes in the form of courts of law, religious leaders, educators, and semi-governmental agencies. On the individual level, we internalize these official prohibitions, though the exact process by which this internalization proceeds is unclear to modern behavioral scientists. Socially speaking, we learn how to swear from those around us, creating a sort of swearing etiquette.
Language taboos are nothing new—religious proscriptions on the use of profanity go back to Biblical times, and probably before. One thing is certain, however, they are quite varied. Taboo words run the gamut from sexual references (cock, cunt) to blasphemous utterances (goddamn). They include scatological references (shit, crap), animal names (bitch, ass), ethnic-racial-gender slurs (American “fag,” the n-word), references to perceived social deviations (retard, wimp), ancestral allusions (son of a bitch, bastard), and offensive slang (cluster fuck), among other categories.
How common is swearing? It has been estimated (McEnery 2006) that swear words occur in spoken dialogue at a rate of 0.3% to 0.5%, with variants as low as 0% and as high as 3.4%. While these numbers are small, Jay reminds us to compare this to a common category such as the first person pronouns (we, us, and our), which account for only 1.0% of speech. Based on estimates of the average number of words spoken a day, this breaks down to 80-90 swear words a day.
Taboo words are far from universal, and are in fact fairly context-dependent. Thus “baby” and “wimp” are more offensive to children than adults, and (traditional) East Asian curse words make more reference to one’s ancestors. How taboo a word is also depends on the appropriate speech style in a given conversational situation—formal speech is expected to be above the use of curse words. As to frequency of usage, (again citing Jay’s statistics), it has been found that socially low-ranking speakers produced higher rates of swearing than did high-ranking speakers (though this is in general in dispute). Men swear more frequently in public than women. Men say more offensive words (e.g., fuck, shit, motherfucker) more frequently than women do. Women say oh my god, bitch, piss, and retard(ed) more frequently than men do. Men and women swear more frequently in the presence of their own gender than in mixed-gender contexts. Swearing occurs across all age ranges, but swearing rates peak in the teenage years and decline thereafter.
Regardless of cultural or gender background, our use of taboo words can be talked about in a very general sense. Psychologist Stephen Pinker delineates five categories of profanity, varying from habitual to meditated. These categories, said to apply cross-culturally, have been admittedly pulled here nearly directly from his most recent book:
“1) Dysphemistic profanity – Exact opposite of euphemism. Forces listener to think about negative or provocative matter. Using the wrong euphemism has a dysphemistic effect. (“I have to take a shit,” as opposed to “I have to go do my business.”)
2) Abusive profanity – for abuse or intimidation or insulting of others (Ex: “Fuck you, you fucking cocksucker!”)
3) Idiomatic profanity – swearing without really referring to the matter. Just using the words to arouse interest, to show off, and express to peers that the setting is informal. (Ex: “Shit, I was pretty fucked up last night.”)
4) Emphatic swearing – to emphasize something with swearing. (Ex: “I’m not going to do a fucking thing!” The word “fucking” emphasizes his refusal to do anything)
5) Cathartic profanity – when something bad happens like coffee spilling, people curse. One evolutionary theory asserts it is meant to tell the audience that you’re undergoing a negative emotion. (Ex: “Shit, my coffee just fell!”)”
(See more here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Profanity )
The above two points—that swearing varies based on context and yet shares certain features at a basic psychological level—bring us to our central investigation: despite these shared impulses, swearing varies quite a bit between the US and the UK, and in fact has for some time. We can, again, trace some of this to the conscious decisions of Noah Webster as to what to include in his American dictionary: he disallowed teat, womb, stink, “to give suck”, dung, and fornication as decidedly un-American utterances. Additionally, in 1830s America it became unacceptable to say “pants” or even “trousers” (being called “inexpressibles” instead), and there was a major taboo against the word “leg”, a prohibition which extended even to the dinner table—it was rude to refer to a “leg” of a chicken, the preferred nomenclature being “second joint”. This taboo was found quite peculiar by visiting Englishmen at the time. We follow Allen Walker Read’s lead in quoting the 1824 English visitor to America Isaac Gindler:
“what Englishman for example would have an idea there being any impropriety in remarking of a lady that she has a well-shaped ankle, yet this would be too gross for American ears, while to say that she has a handsome leg would be intolerable.”
A similar, but reversed phenomenon is found in the use of the word “stomach” in polite British society of the 1930s. An American traveler to England in 1936:
“One does not utter carelessly and simply, as one does at home, the word stomach in England. It is, and in fact all words pertaining to the digestive functions are, ruled out by English manners. Once in ignorance, I used the forbidden word openly at tea party whereat the atmosphere fell to such a degree that on the following day an explanation and apology were tendered to my hostess by the embarrassed friend whom I was visiting.”
Another significant difference lies with the word “bum,” mentioned at the beginning of this post. Despite its harmlessness in America, polite English society has historically taken all major steps to avoid using the word “bum” in conversation, often finding elaborate workarounds:
“There is one other word of three letters, whose initial letters is as close as it could be to the beginning of the alphabet without actually being the first which to my disgust is much used in America. Amongst English people it is considered a most vulgar noun, used to describe a portion of the human anatomy, more useful than elegant and never in polite society inferentially referred to as I am now doing”
Bringing us up to the present day, the word “bum” has become markedly more harmless. But linguistic differences in taboo persist. A puzzling example is the English “bloody”. Contrary to popular belief, this word does not derive from “by our Lady,” and thus did not receive its taboo from the religious realm. Its ultimate origins are unclear. It has nevertheless taken on a very different life in the US and the UK. Similarly with the US “fag”, the UK “bugger”, “spastic,” “poof,” and “wanker”, and any number of others listed by an impressive H2G2 post.
Many would argue that “bloody” has been bleached of its typical, caustically emphatic sense, and to investigate this, it is instructive to look to a report released by the Advertising Standards Authority and the BBC in December 2000. The goal of the report was to gauge the offense taken by the general British populace in response to certain words. In terms of severity, in decreasing order we have: cunt, motherfucker, fuck, wanker, nigger, bastard, prick, bollocks, arsehole, and Paki, with shag, whore, twat, and piss off trailing slightly behind. Cunt, motherfucker, and fuck have not moved from their top three position since 1998. Bloody ranked near the bottom in terms of offensiveness across all demographic categories investigated.
There is a remarkable difference between the standards of American and British television, the latter tending to be more lax with its regulation. Respondents in this same survey noted that compared to British comedies, American comedies contained less swearing and offensive language, and little sexual innuendo. American films, on the other hand, were thought to contain stronger language. What I find most interesting here is an additional comment made by the survey creators: “participants suggested this use of language was less offensive because the culture being depicted was removed from their own and so they could disassociate themselves from the language.”
This speaks volumes about the culturally-conditioned nature of offense. Of the top 10 most offensive words as cited by the report, wholly four of them are alien to my American swearing sensibilities (wanker, prick, bollocks, and Paki). I’m sure a similar list of American swearwords would likewise cause puzzlement around these parts. When you get into the realm beyond the top ten, I honestly don’t know what many of these terms mean. Because of this, like the participants in the study pointed out, these words lose their power. For me, they are stripped of their taboo. It is thus in the position of an outsider to this taboo that I offer the above commentary. In summary, we may share an impulse to swear. But taboo is a bloody complex topic, and it’s pretty goddamned dependent on where you’re from and who you are.