The power of swearing

Swearing is bad. Isn’t that what your momma always told you? Well according to The British Board of Film Classification that isn’t always the case. I came across this article on Language Log which describes how the BBFC thinks it’s okay for an 11 year-old girl in Kickass to refer to a group of men as c—s, but in a movie about Glasgow where the c-word has been used for centuries as a cynical term of endearment, it’s a no go. In the case of the 11 year-old it’s empowerment. In the case of the Glaswegians it’s denegrating so it cannot be used in that movie. And that made me wonder: why do we swear? Is it really bad? And is swearing differently across borders?

*** Disclaimer *** This post uses offensive words/ language as examples of the topics discussed. Please stop reading now if swearing makes you uncomfortable or when you are likely to be offended by such words. Reader discretion is advised.

First of all, swearing seems to come quite natural to human beings. I don’t know much Spanish, but I at least know a few swear words. Isn’t it strange that even though you don’t know how to speak a language, you often do know a few profanities? Why is it that it sticks so easily? That even in the wink of an eye it is easier to say f— when you stub your toe than to say anything differently?

According to this article, swearing is a way to relief pain and stress on the body or otherwise. It’s a way of showing emotion, which is something we do from early childhood. First in the form of crying, later on in the form of swearing. I found here that swearing is also has a social function as it allows people to create or maintain a certain identity. In his documentary Fry’s Planet Word, Stephen Fry and Brian Blessed undergo an experiment to test whether swearing indeed causes pain relief. They both stick their hand in a bucket of ice water. Once without being allowed to use expletives, once with. The second time round they last much longer than the first time. You can find the episode on BBC Iplayer by clicking here. But this is the excerpt with Brian Blessed:

That swearing is also a social and cultural thing, can be easily seen when looking at the difference in swear words between different languages and cultures. One aspect here that is interesting is the fact that pretty much all languages have 2 (or 3) categories for swear words: deitic ones (using religion) and visceral ones (using body parts or bodily functions). Words that include race or ethnicity that are used for swearing are sometimes put in a separate category. So far the similarities.

One major difference in swearing happens in Dutch. Dutch is known for being a great language for swearing. First of all, Dutch people are some of the very few on the globe that use every day swear words from another language. That’s right, Dutch uses English swear words such as sh– and f— as every day, common swear words. Of course with that unmistakeable Dutch pronunciation that gives it a bit of charm, but they’re English words nevertheless.

Another unique thing about Dutch swear words is the usage of swearing with diseases. Which brings me to the distinction between cursing (vloeken) en swearing (schelden). I think in Dutch, there is a bigger difference between the two words than in other languages. Correct me if I’m wrong, but swear words in Dutch are used to call people names, or to yell out a profanity when you stub said toe. Cursing is when you actually wish something bad happens to someone else. And in Dutch, wishing bad things upon others, is a common scheme. Those bad things are usually diseases. Most of the diseases used for swearing are old fashioned ones which do not occur in Holland anymore, apart from a few modern additions. The higher the level of the severity of the disease (the deadlier it is basically), the worse the person calling you out dislikes you. Here are a few of them:

Krijg de klere (Get cholera)

Krijg de typhus (Get typhoid fever)

Krijg de tering (Get tuberculosis)

Krijg kanker (Get cancer – modern addition)

And for men (not exactly a disease, but for men.. I don’t know 😉 ):

Krijg nou tieten (Grow a pair of boobs)

There are many more. You can wish diseases big or small onto people. Many of the more current additions are sexual transmitted infections such as syphilis and AIDS. Nice? No, but that’s not how it is intended. I have to admit that I have not heard these words much in real life. As far as I know these constructions are more prominent in Dutch urban areas such as Rotterdam and Amsterdam. Where I’m originally from and in my social circles I don’t hear this often and when I do it’s because someone is doing and imitation of some sort.

As I said in the introduction there is apparently a gradation about when swearing is bad, but also which words are bad words. And here too, there is a difference. For one, bleeping out swear words to censor songs or TV series, is not something commonly done on Dutch TV believe it or not. Profanities are all around so when I first read about the hilarity caused by one South Park episode using the word sh– more than 150 times, I wasn’t shocked by the sheer amount of swear words, but by the fact that this actually was an issue. To me as a Dutch person being used to hearing the words instead of bleeps, I never understood why English language countries bleep out the expletives. To me, it just makes the occurrence stand out more than if I were to hear the actual word.

Shortened version of South Park’s It Hits the Fan episode:

I would also like to back track to the swear word referred to at the beginning of this post. To begin with, which words are offensive changes over time. Fifty years ago, calling a boy ‘vlegel’ (bad boy) or ‘schurk’ (villain) in Dutch was the worst thing possible. Now, these words have lost their negative connotations and have been replaced by much more offensive words. See the thing is, that after a while of using a bad word, is becomes less bad: it becomes a commonality and thus another, more offensive word is needed to top the previous to still have the same effect.

The c-word is one of the most offensive words in the English language. I read some of the comments that were left at the original post on Language Log and found that especially women find it an especially offensive word due to its apparent sexist connotations. Here again I would like to bring in a difference between Dutch and English. In Dutch the literal translation of the c-word is kut. Kut is around in abundance in Holland. Everyone uses it, it seems. I personally use this as easily as an American uses fuck and a British person uses bloody hell, even though I’m a woman. Is it offensive? Yes. Does everyone appreciate you using it? Definitely not. But there is a time and place for everything and depending who you talk to you are very welcome to use it.

On that note I would like to leave you with an example of just how brilliant swearing can be:

Stephen Fry who makes swearing almost poetic:

Dutch comedian Jeroen van Merwijjk using the word ‘kut’ to refer to life in general:

Personal note: I like the complexity of swearing. I especially like people’s creativity with finding euphemisms for swear words such as fudge (Sookie in True Blood), chips (for sh– in Dutch), darn (for damn), etc. It’s just fascinating to me that something that we all have decided on is bad, is still such a big part of our daily linguistic expressions. What are your thoughts on swearing?

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