Saturday, March 23, 2013

Swearing: How Words Become Offensive

We all know of them. Some of us say them more than others and some of us are more offended than others. How do certain words, which are nothing more than a combination of letters and phonemes, get to a point where people find them repulsive, loathsome and downright unmentionable?

Initially, most curse words had religious origins. The concept of blasphemy exists in almost every religion and when it comes to disrespecting things, deities would top the list. It was such a big deal that in the UK it was punishable by death, at least until 1697.

A sign prohibiting swearing along
the boardwalk in Virginia Beach, Virginia. 
After blasphemy comes the issue of offence. Words that are considered offensive are usually those that debase someone or something. Although curse words account for less than 1% of the English vocabulary, their use and existence is of particular interest to researchers.

The reaction to curses is largely based on the individual. Some believe that they should never be uttered, while others think they are acceptable under certain circumstances. There are also those that believe that they're nothing more than phonemes and that selecting some combinations as offensive and others as inoffensive is completely ridiculous.

We believe that context plays a huge part in how offensive words are. We rarely take offense to casual swearing in cinema, music or television and as a representation of particular cultures and natural speech. We appreciate that some may take offence to words and where possible, we attempt to avoid them, unless we feel their use is appropriate or improves the sentence.

Frequently cursing can make a speaker appear to have a lower intellect and can reflect badly on them. A large vocabulary is often associated with intelligence, so if you don't want to look a fool, try using words other than the F-word, the S-word and the ever-dreaded C-word. There are even books full of alternatives if you're short on ideas.

There are a vast number of words in the English language, so why you'd need to insert profanity every other word is beyond us. Certain circumstances, such as standing on a plug with no shoes on, definitely warrant the use of whichever word you feel is appropriate. Just try not to say it in front of children since they repeat everything!