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Bad Words:

  • f*ck
  • sh*t
  • *ss
  • d*mn
  • b*tch
  • ...

Ok, so there's no point in listing them all. The thing I'm interested in is this: Why is it that in English we have a strong sense of a group of words that are bad, while in other languages/cultures, this distinction does not exist? Maybe this is a Western thing; for example, in Japanese they have impolite words, but these words aren't segregated into their own fixed group. Their notion is much more vague and situational. Was English always this way? Was Old English arse for example a "bad" word? When did the change happen? Did we inherit this more from an earlier language?

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I think you could do with clarifying: what is the "group" that you see here? E.g. "fuck" vs "bitch" seem to be quite different notions. –  Neil Coffey Jul 9 '11 at 19:46
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Is the assumption here correct: that all other languages are like Japanese in this respect? –  GEdgar Jul 9 '11 at 21:19
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I'm not convinced there is a clear "bright line" between "bad" words and words that are merely "impolite". I wouldn't put damn (mildly impolite) in the same category as the so-called c-word (highly likely to cause offence if used in polite society), and I certainly wouldn't class ass as "bad" - where I come from it's a zoological term. It might be rude to call someone an equus africanus asinus, but there's nothing wrong with the word itself. Of course, in other dialects the connotations are rather different, and they have also varied at different stages in the language's history. –  psmears Jul 9 '11 at 21:44
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@GEdgar - the assumption isn't that English is the only language that groups badwords. Spanish, for example seems to do this too. I'm just wondering why we have such a rigid grouping. And how far can we trace this back. –  John Berryman Jul 9 '11 at 21:55
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@psmears - Then you appear to have a looser notion of "bad words" than I do. So we're demonstrating that my assumption that among English speakers there is some variance around the notion of what "bad words" are. However, I know that I am not alone. George Carlin appears to agree with me. –  John Berryman Jul 9 '11 at 21:58

3 Answers 3

up vote 12 down vote accepted

The short answer is that cursing is much closer to being universal than the way you portray it in your question, and English is not by any means unique in its handling of taboo. The subject matter may differ (though a huge number of different cultures seem to incorporate a few fundamental taboo concepts over and over again), but the function and ubiquity of curse words occurs in every society, including Japan. From Jay (2009):

For example, a Japanese Touretter is likely to yell ancestral allusions (shit grandma!) because irreverent references to ancestors are extremely taboo in Japan.

I don't know enough Japanese to actually weigh in with my own opinion, but I understand that the idea that Japanese doesn't have "bad words" is a myth. Here is a group a reader-submitted anecdotes, many of which touch on Japanese curse words. While claims of "this language has no curse words/only one curse word" are very secondhand, I assume most of the specific references to Japanese curse words are not made up (someone with better knowledge of Japanese can weigh in there).

Cursing itself is such a fundamental act, many consider it to be extra-linguistic; from Fitch (2010):

It is quite common for aphasic patients to have severely disrupted spontaneous speech, but to still laugh, cry, and curse normally. The fact that (learned) words involved in cursing can remain unimpaired after damage to the rest of the lexicon, and tend to segregate with innate calls, is quite interesting. It suggests that the linguistic system has in some sense partially 'colonized' the older and more basic brain circuitry involved in emotional expression (Myers, 1976).

Swear words seem to be some of the few words that can operate in ways that violate fundamental rules of syntax, as well. For example, we can say "what the fuck" or "what the hell", which, grammatically, makes no sense. Dong (2007) illustrates in much more detail (and yes, this was published under a pseudonym) that fuck violates many syntactic rules in unique ways.

The function of cursing might well be to alleviate stress or pain.

Taboo words evolve in a number of ways: over time, a specific word can lose its strength, but also, shifts in taboos and the severity of taboos can have a huge impact on the severity of a curse word. For example, bastard was a much stronger curse centuries ago than it is today. On the other hand, the recent development of e.g. retard into a curse word is reflective of the shifting attitudes towards the mentally challenged (i.e. how belittling/dehumanizing them has become taboo).

So, regarding your question of whether English was always this way: I think most linguists, neuroscientists, and psychologists would say that language seems to have always been this way. I'm not sure what you mean about English curse words being segregated into a fixed group. There are a lot of ambiguities surrounding English curse words.

  • the list of words evolves and changes over time.
  • some words can be said on TV, some can't; some can be said on TV in the UK but not in the US.
  • some words are used almost exclusively as curse words ("asshole" rarely refers to the sphincter), while others are commonly used propositionally as well as emotionally (e.g. "shit").
  • some words can be used publicly with certain meanings (e.g. you can say pussy on TV as long as you are referring to a cat, but not if it is a sexual reference), so it is still contextually dependent. People can always say damn on television, but if they say "God damn", the word God will be bleeped/blanked out (and not damn): again, very contextual.
  • And so on.
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Your Dong citation reminded me of this YouTube video: youtube.com/watch?v=sHcfGJ5SwCA (warning: video contains excessive use of the word in question). –  Ben Hocking Jul 11 '11 at 0:16
    
Very interesting commentary! I think that the Japanese notion of swearing is what sparked this question. I speak Japanese poorly, however my wife is Japanese. And we've talked about the notion of swear words on several occasions. Apparently all "bad words" in Japan are in a similar class to such English words as queer, crap, and retard - words that I consider offensive, and inappropriate to say in about any social context that I can think of - but to me they aren't in the "exalted inner circle" of bad words. So in Japanese, kuso (shit) is offensive, but not set apart from other words. –  John Berryman Jul 11 '11 at 2:43
    
I guess another thing I'm seeing is how varied the concept of bad word is even among English speakers. While I feel a strong delineation between the word crap and shit, apparently not all English speakers feel this. –  John Berryman Jul 11 '11 at 2:46
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@John Berryman: I don't know if this has anything to do with it, but George Carlin popularized the specific list of the seven dirty words (as I understand it — it's before my time), which in turn was based on the words were absolutely not allowed on television by American censors. Broadcast censorship could potentially have played a role in giving certain words an "exalted" status, as it were. –  Kosmonaut Jul 11 '11 at 3:03

You may like to take a look at this talk by Steven Pinker's about swearing. According to the sources he cites, it appears that the overarching concept is triggering 'negative emotions', and that the specific categories of things denoted by swearwords (supernatural beings, diseases, disfavoured people in a group etc) are fairly universal.

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Words always begin as curse words because the sentiment they express is so rude or impolite that to say them in polite company would simply be unacceptable. For example, "bastard" was a huge insult because in the context of where the phrase originated, that was a huge insult -- it was saying that someone had no lineage. Think of any other curse word; they always express very rude things, or at least, things that were very rude at the time of the word's inception.

Some words, like THE n-word, did not necessarily start as curse words but became curse words when the sentiment they expressed suddenly BECAME unacceptably rude.

I've also heard it said that popular curse words, the f-word for example, are "satisfying" to say. That is, the f sound and ck sound are both satisfying to say, which explains their use in situations where you injure yourself or angry at someone. They bring pleasure to say.

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N.B. Words can "go the other way": what was once a perfectly normal, "polite" word over time becomes perceived as "vulgar". –  Neil Coffey Jul 9 '11 at 20:27

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