Yesterday I introduced you to some of the vocabulary, history, and the cultural context of swearing in the United States (culturally speaking how swearing and freedom of speech are sometimes linked for Americans). Today I will address some actual swear words that exist in English and how they can be used. First though, here are a few things you should know about swear words in general.
While swear words in every language are different, they generally fall into one of two categories. Swear words are usually either deistic (i.e. related to religion) or visceral (i.e. related to the human body and its functions). In fact these two categories encompass most swear words in English. Also, swear words come in a gradient of severity from weak to very strong. Different situations call for different swear words and people of different ages and cultural/religious background in the United States often use different types of swear words with different degrees of severity. For example young children use very mild swear words, like “poop”, while teenagers and adults may use more swear words and swear words with greater degrees of severity, and older adults may use some older less-used swear words or replacement swear words (I will be addressing replacement swear words in tomorrow’s post!).
Whatever type of swear words a person uses they are most often used as an instinctive response to something painful and unexpected (like accidentally hitting your foot on something) or something upsetting (like being cut off by another driver in traffic). Sometimes swear words in English are not used to express pain or being upset though, but instead they are used as an expression of surprise or used for emphasis. Here is a very interesting fact about swear words in English. Swear words are the only words in the English language that can be used as infixes! You probably know what a prefix is (a word part added to the beginning of a base word to create a word with a different meaning, e.g. refill) and what a suffix is (a word part placed after the stem of a word to add meaning to the word, e.g. dancing) but in English you may never have heard of an infix (a word/word part that is inserted within a root word). This is because they don’t exist in English like other languages, except for swear words! Swear words are used as infixes in words in English to show emphasis and emotion. They are generally used in very casual colloquial speech (not in a work setting). When a swear word is used as an infix in English it is called an “expletive infix.” Here are some examples:
un-f**king-believable = unbelievable or I can’t believe it!
ir-f**king-responsible = irresponsible or How irresponsible!
and my personal favorite:
Cinder-f**king-ella = Cinderella (a fairytale princes) = She is acting like such a princess!
The most common expletive infix in English is f**k. This is also one of the more common swear words in English too. You should know that this is generally considered a strong swear word in English. Although some people use the f-word casually and often, most people do not. Below I have listed other one-word swear words in English, like the f-word, that are often used to express pain, irritation/upset, emphasis, and surprise. Be sure to note the varying levels of strength these different words carry with them. You don’t accidentally want to use a very strong swear word in the wrong situation and with the wrong company. Also, keep in mind religious related swear words carry an extra connotation with them that may be offensive if they are used around people who have strong religious convictions. When in doubt use a less strong swear word. Tomorrow I will also give you some great swear word substitutes that English speakers use to express the same emotions as they so with swear words, just without being offensive.
Common one-word swears in English:
Very mild: d*mn, b*lls
Moderate: sh*t, *ss
Strong: f**k, *sshole
Religious: h*ll, god, Jesus, Christ
In closing, let me just say that swear words in English are not all that common, even if they do seem to be common in American movies and television. One analyses of recorded conversations among native English speakers reveal that people say around 80 swear words each day. That is 0.5% of all the words spoken in a day. People of course vary in their use of swear words from 0% to around 3%. In comparison, first-person plural pronouns (we, us, our) make up 1% of spoken words in conversation among English speakers. (This information about the prevalence of the use of swear words in English was taken from: The Utility and Ubiquity of Taboo Words, written by T. Jay in 2009 and published in Perspectives on Psychological Science.)