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Both of them mean to use bad words, but I don't know their differences. Please explain with some examples! Thanks!

  • 1
    No difference I can find, except that "curse" is perhaps a little bit more literary. – Colin Fine Jun 26 '15 at 9:49
8

The distinctions between curse and swear are not always recognized, because they have a clear usage overlap in the definition of foul language:

curse

verb

2.0 [NO OBJECT] Utter offensive words in anger or annoyance:
he cursed loudly as he burned his hand

2.1 [WITH OBJECT] Address with offensive words:
I cursed myself for my carelessness

swear

2 [NO OBJECT] Use offensive language, especially as an expression of anger:
Peter swore under his breath

Curse is used as foul language with or without a direct object, while the foul language meaning of swear does not normally receive an object, except in the expression swear at:

John cursed the day he was born.

Jeff swore at the umpire, before he went back to the dugout.

Any minuscule difference between curse and swear at would be limited to the connotations of the definitions that curse and swear do not share in common:

curse

verb

1.0 [WITH OBJECT] Invoke or use a curse against:
it often seemed as if the family had been cursed

1.1 (be cursed with) Be afflicted with:
many owners have been cursed with a series of bankruptcies

swear

verb ...

1 [REPORTING VERB] Make a solemn statement or promise undertaking to do something or affirming that something is the case:
[WITH CLAUSE]: Maria made me swear I would never tell anyone
I swear by all I hold dear that I had nothing to do with it again,’ she swore, ‘will I be short of money’*
[WITH OBJECT]: they were reluctant to swear allegiance

1.1 [WITH OBJECT] Take (an oath):
he forced them to swear an oath of loyalty to him

1.2 [WITH OBJECT] Take a solemn oath as to the truth of (a statement):
I asked him if he would swear a statement to this effect

1.3 [WITH OBJECT] Make (someone) promise to observe a certain course of action:
I’ve been sworn to secrecy

Curse expanded to "foul language" in the thirteenth century from pronouncing evil on others:

Old English cursian, from the source of curse (n.). Meaning "to swear profanely" is from early 13c.

late Old English curs "a prayer that evil or harm befall one," of uncertain origin, perhaps from Old French curuz "anger," or Latin cursus "course." Connection with cross is unlikely. No similar word exists in Germanic, Romance, or Celtic. Curses as a histrionic exclamation is from 1885.

etymonline

Swear expanded to "foul language" in the fifteenth century by way of profaning a solemn oath:

Old English swerian "take an oath" (class VI strong verb; past tense swor, past participle sworen), from Proto-Germanic *swarjan-, (cognates: Old Saxon swerian, Old Frisian swera, Old Norse sverja, Danish sverge, Middle Dutch swaren, Old High German swerien, German schwören, Gothic swaren "to swear"), from PIE root *swer- (1) "to speak, talk, say" (cognates: Old Church Slavonic svara "quarrel," Oscan sverrunei "to the speaker").

Also related to the second element in answer. The secondary sense of "use bad language" (early 15c.) developed from the notion of "invoke sacred names."

3

Although they are used interchangeably, for the most part, in the US we understand the difference when the speaker is obviously an immigrant - or, a member of a culture that passes it's superstitions on to each generation.

Perhaps because I am only a second-generation American, (and grew up around many relative newcomers) I know a "curse" when I see one.

In New York (melting-pot-central) we say: "I cursed him out," and "I swear to God," in a casual sense of venting frustration verbally.

But...

"I cursed him," means that the supernatural was invoked

And...

"I swear on my mother" is a blood-oath.

To avoid any misunderstanding, when the assault is merely a tongue-lashing, we say:

"I told him to go #$@! himself." (Or, "He told me to go #$@! myself.")

(The actual words used in the exchange do not alter this expression.)

  • If you must avoid profanity, you can use: "told off". For example: "Don't tell me off," "Don't you dare tell me off," "Who the hell do you think you are - telling me off?" (Various intensities). – Oldbag Jun 26 '15 at 13:35
  • "Damn it!" is an exclamation of frustration. "Damn it to hell!" is a curse. Describing "shit" as either a swear-word or a curse-word is fine, but you could just call it "profanity" - "Please don't use profanity when you are speaking to me, or I will be forced to wash your mouth out with soap." (Yeah, when I was a kid, mothers used to do that.) – Oldbag Jun 26 '15 at 13:46
  • To "tell off" can be to scold, chastise, rebuke, bluntly correct, or, to swear at. – Oldbag Jun 26 '15 at 13:52
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To my mind, the practices are similar, but "cursing" is more creative. For example, the Seven Bad Words can be called "curses" or "swears". When I picture someone swearing at their car, I envision someone muttering the typical cusses under their breath:

"Goddamn stupid piece of shit." kick

when I picture someone cursing at their car, maybe they're using the usual bad words, but maybe they're injecting some new flavors:

"Idiot car not worth the trouble gotdamshIT!" kick

When I picture someone swearing at God, I picture someone who is frustrated but still using pre-defined acceptable words. When I picture someone cursing God, I see the same thing, but they're shaking their fist, too, and tearing up with rage.

Cursing seems a little more dramatic. Maybe because it carries over the "curse" connotation.

  • There's a curse by Yeats that doesn't use a single 'swear-word': "may he wander stage by stage on the same vain pilgrimage, ...at each and every style he take may the bones within him break etc etc etc," Be creative; curse and stop swearing ! – Hugh Jun 26 '15 at 12:31
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A curse can have another meaning than swearing, i.e. merely using bad language:

“I hope you die painfully” is a curse, wishing harm to another person. So a curse does not need a swear word, to express how you wish someone to die. Also, I believe it clearly expresses the intent of the heart.

  • Welcome to SE EL&U. I've edited your answer to give it more focus on the key point you make. We usually like some evidence backing assertions, so an online dictionary extract for the usage you describe would help. Also, I don't really follow your last sentence and wonder whether it is either helpful or necessary. – David Apr 9 '17 at 17:43

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