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I'm a teenager from Chicago. During my childhood (and, presumably, that of almost all English-speaking children), I was taught that some words were "bad" words; these words were inappropriate, they were rude, children shouldn't say them, teachers wouldn't like to hear them, etc...

These words were called things like swear words, bad words, potty words, naughty words, and inappropriate words. But there's one thing I've never called them, and it seems like some other people do: swears. Essentially, in my idiolect (my personal variety of English), "swear" is never a noun - it's only a verb, or an element of the compound "swear word(s)." I think I've always understood when people have called taboo terms like the f-word "swears," but it's never registered in my mind as a totally normal thing to say. There's still doubt in my mind as to whether the noun form of swear is even completely synonymous with swear word. I feel like some people use it to refer to both phrases involving swear words as well as the words themselves, but I'm not sure about that since I never do.

Is my variety of English unique in that I use "swear word" as the standard term and only use "swear" as a verb? Is this difference divided regionally, and if so, where is each usage preferred?

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    Yes, it's not part of your/our idiolect. It sounds almost like “nursery-school” talk to me, like poo-poos. The OED says after the late 19th century the noun use is considered “colloquial”, so not part of standard or curated English anymore. But obviously something changed, and suddenly. Google Ngrams shows it exploding right after the turn of the millennium, but where it comes from I don't know. It's said that most linguistic innovation in American English starts either with pre-teen Valley Girls or with AAVE, and is slow to make its way into the heartland, so you might try looking to those.
    – tchrist
    Commented Apr 23, 2023 at 23:07
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    Some people (who, e.g., have a courthouse in the town square, 5000-acre cornfields as hobbies, and really tall livestock) just make up weird ways of saying things and then look at you like you're an alien if you don't pretend that it's the most normal thing you've ever heard in your life. They pride themselves on being normal despite being the Corn Belt. They're gonna say corny things, and you're gonna like it; it can't be helped. Commented Apr 24, 2023 at 10:47
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    @HippoSawrUs Are you suggesting that the noun form of "swear" is a feature of rural Great Plains communities? I think there may be some truth to that, although the way you explain it is quite unacademic.
    – Graham H.
    Commented Apr 24, 2023 at 14:43
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    Parents with kids use the term "swears" to mean swear words. If you don't know that, you ain't been with parents with kids (in the US). It's a shortening of "swear words".
    – Lambie
    Commented Apr 24, 2023 at 15:03
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    MHO: use of "swear" as a noun is just people being lazy and omitting "word" from "swear word"; that is, not technically correct, but not unlikely to occur in informal contexts.
    – Matthew
    Commented Apr 24, 2023 at 20:20

2 Answers 2

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That is a word I never heard nor read but it is noun of the English language, and it has two main meanings according to the SOED.

(SOED) swear n. Now colloq. mid 17th century. [f. the v.]
1 A formal or solemn oath mid 17th century
2 A profane oath, a swear-word. Also, a bout of swearing. late 19th century.

According to the Shorter Oxford Dictionary (1993), this word is known in all varieties of English (it is not regional), but in all it is colloquial. It is derived from the verb in the mid 17th century. The second meaning, which is the one that concerns the present question, came into being only in the 19th century.

"Swear-word" is the term most commonly used in AmE and in BrE; I would guess this is true in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

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  • Oh, it's regional all right, or at least foreign to some regions. It's not part of the Chicago-area regional dialect that Graham and I speak. I just don't know where it came from. But I do know when: it took off like a rocket early this millennium, no more than 25 years ago. For all I know it may have have first shown up in some wildly popular children's cartoon like Beavis and Butthead or The Simpsons or Fat Albert or South Park, and exploded into street speech from there. Check the google ngrams for this: you'll be shocked.
    – tchrist
    Commented Apr 23, 2023 at 23:09
  • Suggestive google ngram.
    – tchrist
    Commented Apr 23, 2023 at 23:21
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    @tchrist This ngram is not representative as there is the first meaning to take into account, then combinations (such as "a swear club", "a swear jar", "a swear to", "a Swear on the holy book", "put a swear on that money", …), and even false positives (A. Swear first). After 5 or 6 10-hit pages the result is not one single case of the noun meaning "swear-word".
    – LPH
    Commented Apr 23, 2023 at 23:57
  • I know the ngram isn't great, but you can find almost only examples of this from the past 25 years. I wonder whether it even began in the UK, as Joe Hanna and Hugo both used it. I honestly do not know.
    – tchrist
    Commented Apr 23, 2023 at 23:58
  • You have to look on sites/places where parents are talking about/to kids about swear words, often, called "swears". It's not easy to google.
    – Lambie
    Commented Apr 24, 2023 at 15:11
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So, I should start out by saying that this definitely isn't a complete answer- this is just my own experience coupled with my own research, and I don't mean for this to be a definitive answer.

I'm a teenager from Wisconsin, and during my childhood, I, too, was taught that certain words were "bad" words. And unlike in your experience, we did call them 'swears,' at least when we learned them. By the time we learned what they actually referred to, we had long since outgrown them. Today, I associate 'a swear' as going hand in hand with 'My mommy says' and 'I'm telling!'. It's definitely rather puerile.

However, it's certainly not unheard of; just as an example, Oxford Languages has it as a noun:

a word regarded as coarse, blasphemous, or otherwise unacceptable in polite or formal speech; a swear word.

It's also useful to look at Wiktionary's etymology for the word 'swear':

The original sense in all Germanic languages is “to take an oath”. The sense “to use bad language” developed in Middle English and is based on the Christian prohibition against swearing in general (cf. Matthew 5:33-37) and invoking God’s name in particular (i.e. frequent swearing was considered similar to the use of obscene words).

So it would make sense that 'swear word' came first, as it was a word invoked while swearing. The earliest entry I can find in a dictionary for 'swear word' is from 1891:

swear-word (swár' werd), n. A profane word; an oath. [Colloq.]
There has been in the post an immense quantity of scolding, occasionally a swear word.
Elect. Review (Amer.), XIL I. II.

Though it's definitely from much earlier. Like here, from 1804:

Members of tenants connected with my firm where, if a man used a swear word upon their premises, he would not be allowed to drink and not be allowed to enter the premises for a month.

(Etymonline falsely states that it's from 1873; there's also another snippet from 1836.)

Here are a few early examples of 'swear' as a noun:

Papa said a swear, unbuckled his sword, and then got out to crank. (1906)

I suggested we do that and Jim was nearly cross. "Look at the gauge," he muttered with his head upside down behind the radiator.
I did and it said eight gallons, but Ned already had the cushion out and the tank-valve open. There was scarcely a smear of gas in it. Jim came to look and said a swear.

"The blank, blank gauge is on the blink!" he growled and gave it a vicious poke.

(1915)

And for some early examples of 'swear word,' see Nimpo's Troubles (1880):

As soon as Anna reached home, she went to her mother. "Mother," said she, "Nimpo Rievor swears!"

"What!" exclaimed Mrs. Morris, looking up.

“Nimpo said a swear word to me to-day," Anna replied.

"What did she say?" asked Mrs. Morris. Anna repeated what she had understood Nimpo to say, and her mother was much shocked.

"Don't say it again, Anna," said she severely, "even to whisper it. And I forbid you to play with her any more. I am afraid she is getting into bad ways since her mother went away. It ain't good for young people to be left to their own devices."

(Here's the earliest I can find- 1872- I excluded it because 'Nimpo' catches the imagination really quite greatly, though 'Izzy Paul,' 'Maria,' 'Flyaway,' and 'Mrs. Morris' also come rather close.)

My guess is that since it's colloquial without being bizarre/non sequitur, 'swear' as a noun won't be too widely documented or studied.

So to go back to your questions:

Is my variety of English unique in that I use "swear word" as the standard term and only use "swear" as a verb? Is this difference divided regionally, and if so, where is each usage preferred?

No, it's not unique, and I'm quite certain that your variety is more standard, just based on the fact that 'swear word' is far more common than 'a swear,' and seems to predate it.

And as for the regional division: To be quite honest (and this is more speculation than certainty), I'm going to say that there is no regional division; American parents have quite a surplus of terms to use when referring to such words, and 'swear' just happens to be one of them. The fact that it's so often used by parents explaining stuff to kids colors it as being childish, and this means that it isn't going to be used and picked up by the type of people who popularize words. I almost exclusively use it to make fun of my friend's little brother (don't worry, he's horrid, I don't need to feel guilty). So little kids learn that 'a swear' is a bad word, then they grow up and dismiss 'a swear' as childish, and they start calling them by whatever the term in vogue is instead.

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    Were you a country teenager in Wisconsin or a city teenager in Wisconsin? What area? I definitely never heard it as a teen in the rural southeastern part of the state many generations ago.
    – tchrist
    Commented Apr 23, 2023 at 23:38
  • @tchrist - Madison - I assume that I learned it from my teachers; my parents never spoke to me about such things. I couldn't pinpoint the exact place/point where I learned it, but I do remember that my teachers in preschool were all, inexplicably/coincidentally, from the UP. I'd guess that I learned it from them, but who really remembers where they learned a word? Commented Apr 23, 2023 at 23:39
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    I don’t see swear anywhere as a standalone noun in the Nimpo’s Troubles quote; it’s a verb in “Nimpo Rievor swears!” and part of swear word in “Nimpo said a swear word to me to-day” Commented Apr 24, 2023 at 0:01
  • @TinfoilHat - good catch, thank you! I think I was too captivated by Nimpo et al to notice the mistake. I've edited and adjusted it. Commented Apr 24, 2023 at 14:13
  • Absolutely and for example: Basically, you can swear around kids. But you can’t impregnate those swears with hatred like using slurs or directing swears at a child. You can’t name call. You can’t flip out in anger and lay down a litany of foul language. sarahcottrell.medium.com/… This term is used by parents discussing the subject AND when talking to their kids.
    – Lambie
    Commented Apr 24, 2023 at 15:08

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