F***–Letter Words

As you may have inferred by the title, this post contains excessive profanity.


Profanity, as defined by Merriam-Webster, is "an offensive word" or "offensive language". It is also called bad language, strong language, coarse language, foul language, bad words, vulgar language, lewd language, swearing, cursing, cussing, or using expletives.

"Profanity" Wikipedia


My name is Michelle, and I like curse words. I like them a lot. To quote Run the Jewels, "Oh my."

What exactly is behind my affinity for profanity? Do I swear because I think it makes me look cool? Because I have no control over my tongue? Or is it because I simply don't understand the meanings behind the words I use?

Words. After all, that's what "swear words" are—just plain, old words. If I say "What the fork?" versus "What the fuck?", I'm still saying the same thing. Oh, are you, Michelle? Yes, technically, I am. While the words are different, the connotation behind them is the same. Fork = fuck, whether I'm conscious of it or not.

As it just so happens, I am conscious of it. Which is why I choose to use the actual word versus a copycat. Unless, you know, your kid is in the room, in which case I'll switch to a less offensive "schnikes." But ultimately, it doesn't matter what word I use—darn, geez, golly, freaking, shoot—they all serve the same purpose.


The word taboo is defined as “a social or religious custom prohibiting or forbidding discussion of a particular practice or forbidding association with a particular person, place, or thing." First, taboos must be internalized by an individual, usually in childhood, along with many other social norms and customs. This early acquisition of taboos is evident in studies of individuals who acquired a second language later in life. These individuals react much more strongly to swear words in their first language than in their second. As children, we are punished by caregivers such as parents when we swear, and through aversive conditioning we learn that certain phrases are to be avoided. Later, when we mature, we learn the complex social features and characteristics that underlie certain taboos; thus, a more nuanced understanding of where and when to avoid taboo phrases develops.

"The Science of Swearing: A look into the human MIND and other less socially acceptable four-letter words" | By Michelle Drews | Harvard Science Review


Robert A. Leonard, professor of forensic linguistics at Hofstra University, says that the most "successful" swear words tend to be the most versatile—the ones we use in all sorts of situations, regardless of their literal meaning.

"We have curse words center on three main areas," Leonard says. "Sex; death and religion; and effluvia, let's call it. So what are the most iconic curse words in English? You can fill in the blanks for all three. The prototypical curse words have the largest gap between their literal meaning and their situational meaning."

"The Making of the F-Bomb: Why Do We Curse?" | By Glenn McDonald | Discovery NewsSept. 11, 2013


Timothy Jay (1992) gave 49 students a list of 120 words that could be considered taboo, and asked the subjects to rank them on a scale of ‘offensiveness’. He found that shorter words of Anglo-Saxon origin (fuckhumpscrew) were considered more offensive than longer, Latinate words (copulation, coitus, intercourse). Naturally, many of us wouldn’t consider the Latinate examples to be swear words at all; perhaps it was the short, blunt sounds of the Anglo-Saxon words that encouraged their adoption as taboo variants in the first place. This is an interesting thought, and one which might go some way to explaining why my mother hates it when we use the word twat, because she ‘just doesn’t like the sound of it’. (Additionally, the Romance languages—Latin and French—were used in the courts and by the gentry, while Old English was used by us peasants, again perhaps contributing to the former’s prestige and the latter’s lack thereof.)

"Is Swearing Really So Bad?" | So Long As It's Words
 


Damnhellshit, and fuck are not what an anthropologist observing us would classify as ‘taboo,’” says linguist John McWhorter, author of What Language Is: And What It Isn’t and What It Could Be, among other books. “We all say them all the time. Those words are not profane in what our modern culture is—they are, rather, salty. That’s all. Anyone who objects would be surprised to go back 50 years and try to use those words as casually as we do now and ever be asked again to parties.”

"No Offense" | By Matthew J.X. Malady | Slate.com


One of the most fascinating things about the concept of swearing is that it is a self-perpetuating taboo. ‘Obscenity lies not in words or things, but in attitudes that people have about words and things’ says Alan Walker Read—and he could not be more right. A good deal of swear words are merely used as phatic talk, expressing social relationships, or as emphatic talk, to add oomph to an utterance—yet these instances still fall under the umbrella of swearing, and thus of vulgarity. There’s a reason for this: the taboo of swearing persists because to use a word brings with it a thrill of breaking the rules, and to refrain from using it cements its taboo status. Basically, we’re fucked either way!

— "Is Swearing Really So Bad?" | So Long As It's Words


A minced oath is a euphemistic expression formed by misspelling, mispronouncing, or replacing a part of a profane, blasphemous, or taboo term to reduce the original term's objectionable characteristics. Some examples include goshdarndang, and heck.

Many languages have such expressions. In the English language, nearly all profanities have minced variants.

"Minced Oath" | Wikipedia
 

Good news! If you're not capable of censoring yourself, have I got the website for you!

I put in lyrics from "Oh My Darling Don't Cry" by Run the Jewels to show just how easy it is to clean up one's language. (Ironically, a couple of the censored lines end up rhyming in the most amusing way.)

Too bad we can't plug this thing directly into our brains. Then we could sensor everything!


As a writer, I am extremely conscious of the words I use. I appreciate the purity of language, the raw connotation of taboo. I am aware every time the word fuck crosses my lips, which is why I can switch so seamlessly to a less shocking term if I feel the situation calls for it.

Language can be offensive, but not merely the words society considers reprehensbile. I cringe every time I hear someone use the phrase "I seen." I find this grammatical no-no highly offensive, and I will make judgment calls about the individual spouting it. But what good would it do to correct them? It just makes them feel stupid, and it makes me look like an asshole. Besides, the ability to be wrong and not have to apologize for it is pretty much a Constitutional right. As is saying fuck whenever I fucking feel like it.

When it comes to swears, people seem to ask the same question they ask about everything in life: Does it make me a bad person? We all have our own ideals of right and wrong. My excessively religious mother wouldn't allow any swearing growing up, yet she frequently used what she called "Christian cuss words" with abandon. Shoot was okay, but shit would send me straight to hell. Well, I suppose if I have to spend eternity somewhere, it would at least be nice to fit in.