Day 35: Advancing the field of swearing


en som har levd lenge

There is only one solution to the rampant plague of swearing: we must all swear more. But we cannot do that unless we know how. This is how.

First we need a definition: what is swearing? Swearing is verbal aggresion. Swearing is a way of using aggressive words to get what you want: you measure level of swearing with level of aggression, and your swearing is successful if you do get what you want.

Swearing consists of three separate aspects: force, taboo and insult.

Force is level of aggression: You use lots of force, you scream, you get in someone’s face, you’re angry etc. The opposite is making yourself less threatening, speaking softer, smiling or averting your eyes more. It’s the basic animalistic mode of communication we share with all other living creatures: it’s the nonverbal aspect of verbal aggression.

Insult is the personal reaction. This varies unpredictably: when I was 12, all the normal insults (jerk, idiot, fool etc) didn’t affect me — but ‘orang-utan’ did, for some unknown reason. Some Norwegians are insulted by ‘potato’, some find it amusing and have nothing against the idea that there should be a derogatory term for Norwegians in Norway.

Taboo is the (perceived) reaction from society. Although you yourself might have no objection to being called a potato, you might have a strong sense of taboo: one shouldn’t say that here, someone might be insulted, and anyway, it’s just wrong.

Now, this means that all words are swear words to a lesser or higher degree. Almost any word can be said to be taboo in some settings and in some contexts: both of my sons find ‘pink’ to be a taboo word among their pals, since just saying it makes you girly. The latin terms for sex organs are taboo if you want to be a tough 14-year-old boy. (Any word used to create an in-group becomes taboo for some; it even works with pronunciation.) Any word can be used to insult someone, ‘orang-utan’ insulted me, ‘cake’ might insult someone on a diet, ‘tulip’ might insult someone from Holland. And any word can be said more or less aggressively.

In other words, there are no words that are unique and separate from all other words, there is no clear demarcation line between swear words and non-swear words. There is no such thing as an inherently “bad” word, although most children spend hours trying to find that magic ingredient which changes normal words into something despicable, and even more hours trying to find the elusive demarcation line (“Is ‘stupid’ a swear word?” can lead to long discussions among six-year-olds).

There are also ways of combining these aspects:

  • high taboo + high insult (but low force): the way a mafia boss talks in films. Softly, deceptively nice, but with many high-taboo words and with many insulting phrases about your intelligence, dedication etc.
  • high taboo + high force (but low insult): the way you would swear when your pc breaks down. Not with any intention to insult (how can a pc be insulted?), but with many high-taboo words and lots of non-verbal threats to send that damn pc to some sort of hellish afterlife with devils whipping its hard drive and its screen being constantly prodded with needles.
  • high force + high insult (but low taboo): the way people in power use language. Like teachers: if a teacher uses taboo words, he’s in big trouble, but if he shouts insults at you, he is much likelier to get away with it — even if you would much prefer him say one ‘fuck’ too many than hear him shout your grades and your probable future jobs to the entire class.

If you have a high level of all three, then, force + insult + taboo, you have proper swearing: and this is how you measure level of verbal aggression, ie your level of swearing.

To swear better, you must use this knowledge to get what you want. That means you can’t  swear too much and you can’t swear too little. Let’s say I want to be seen as tough in a bar in one of the tougher neighborhoods here. If I order my Guinness with a squeaky, apologetic voice, using laughably old-fashioned and now just funny-sounding swear words, making it obvious that I am trying too hard and that I’m not really that tough, I will get my Guinness but not much respect. If, on the other hand, I barge in and scream from the top of my lungs all the worst swearwords I can think of, word that will make Chuck Norris blush, they would probably call the police or just throw me out themselves, if they can.

If I ask my grandmother-in-law to send me the sugar, though, I should use that squeaky, apologetic voice. The most important principle of swearing is this: you must know your audience.

The second principle is this: do not accept that the meaning of words, and their level of taboo, is fixed once and for all. Adults always say that today’s young swear too much, much more than they used to do. But that’s not true. A word’s level of taboo changes constantly: the next generation will use words differently than you do, they will put different taboo values on words. In Norway, there’s a big discussion about the word ‘neger’ (negro). It used to be

quite neutral, even in use in many children’s songs, but now, probably influenced by the taboo level of ‘nigger’ in the States, it’s fast becoming a high-level taboo word. When old people claim that this is wrong, that ‘neger’ just means ‘black’, that it’s a neutral way of talking about people whose skin are a  tad less fair, they don’t realise that the taboo level has changed, and they discuss as if their way of using the word is the only way and should remain the only way indefinitely.

The opposite is equally true: if an adult accuses a teenager of using swearwords too much, it might be that the taboo level has decreased for those words, and that the teenager doesn’t mean to be verbally aggressive. They’re just words like any other words.

The third principle: swearing is more than taboo. You can be deeply insulted without hearing a single high-taboo word, and since insulting is a kind of verbal aggression, insulting is also swearing. Complaints about swearing is also one kind of swearing.

The fourth principle is this: you must know what you want. How can you measure the effectiveness of your swearing if you don’t know what you want that swearing to do?

The fifth principle: Be precise. Don’t swear too much out of habit, but don’t avoid swearing just because it’s wrong in general. It’s a part of language, like everything else, and anyway, as we have seen, every part of language can be measured on the swearing scale. Every word is a swear word at some level, and almost any word can be made into a swear word in some way: you can make it a taboo word for your group, you can use it to insult someone, and if nothing else works, you can at least scream it. (Try walking into a bank and scream “PROBABILISTIC!” a few times. I’m sure they will feel threatened.)

The fifth principle: being a good swearer also means being empathic. You don’t want your verbal aggression to bring people to tears or to make them feel bullied. Sure, if someone challenges you and starts harassing you, you might use your knowledge of swearing to fight back. But being the one who instigates the  bullying? Picking on those smaller than you? Using your language to make life hellish for others? No. It would go against the next principle.

The sixth principle: have fun. Be creative. Create bonds to other people, make them laugh with you. If swearing is about getting what you want via verbal aggression, the very best way of doing that is by finding that kind of aggression which makes them laugh: when my youngest son swears like a sailor, we all smile and play with him some more; when he whines and complains that we don’t play with him enough, it’s a bit more counterproductive. When you swear on a basketball court, done right, it creates a feeling of “we are a team”. Done wrong, it’s just annoying.

Swearing can be the closest everyday equivalent of poetry there is. A good swearer will use lots of strange metaphors, will relish in the sounds of words, will dance in and with and around language.

We should all swear a lot more. QED.


Read and research about a topic.. Write one page of pragmatic ideas which can advance that field.

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