Swear Words in American English Posted by on Apr 2, 2012 in Culture, English Language, English Vocabulary

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
Mild: cr*p
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.)

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About the Author: Gabriele

Hi there! I am one of Transparent Language's ESL bloggers. I am a 32-year-old native English speaker who was born and raised in the United States. I am living in Washington, DC now, but I have lived all over the US and also spent many years living and working abroad. I started teaching English as a second language in 2005 after completing a Master's in Applied Linguists and a Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults' (CELTA). Since that time I have taught ESL in the United States at the community college and university level. I have also gone on to pursue my doctorate in psychology and now I also teach courses in psychology. I like to stay connected to ESL learners around the world through Transparent Languages ESL Blog. Please ask questions and leave comments on the blog and I will be sure to answer them.


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  2. Jason:

    You censored d*mn and h*ll? Why? Aren’t those said on TV? And why is cr*p listed above d*mn??? I think it’s said in Hey Arnold. It’s like saying hate or freakin’ are above d*mn.

    • Gabriele:

      @Jason Hi Jason,

      I only censored damn and hell for consistency sake in the post. There is no real need to censor them I don’t think, but since they are a form of swearing and I censored all the other swear words, I did them too. Also, here is the list of swear words from the post again:

      Very mild: d*mn, b*lls
      Mild: cr*p
      Moderate: sh*t, *ss
      Strong: f**k, *sshole

      I stand by my assessment of cr*p being a more severe swear word than damn. If you were a 5 year old and you said damn an adult might raise an eyebrow, but if a 5 year old said cr*p s/he would probably get in trouble. Also, if you were in a business meeting and said damn, that wouldn’t be too unusual, but if you said cr*p that could be seen as inappropriate by some. Cr*p is a harsher word in my opinion, regardless of where you might hear it on TV.
      I welcome other opinions on this topic though, I’d love to know what others think.

  3. Jason:

    Well, damn’s original meaning was condemnation to hell (it’s now used as an angry expression, but some religious parents and teachers, even high school teachers, wouldn’t like it because it also means Goddamn, which is taking the Lord’s name in vain). And oh, now I understand why cr*p is above damn/hell, because it’s another word for sh*t, but as a toned down alternative. Might as well include fre*kin (a euphemism for a strong swear word) and son-of-a-b*tch (if you don’t include the “son-of-a-” part, that word would even be worse), which are about on the same level as cr*p, but cr*p is barely on the same level as the other two. But *ss and even *sshole should both be in the cr*p/fre*kin-ish category, and the derogatory words (F-slur, N-word, etc) should be in the f**k category. And balls should be removed because I find it more like slang than a swear word, kinda like the word weenie or coochie.

    My suggestion:
    Very mild: d*mn, bloody (a swear word in the UK, but not in the US), piss (which, to me, isn’t a swear word at all)
    Mild: cr*p (though not very many parents would get offended by it), wh*re (my mom is really offended by this one), sl*t (same as the W-word), *ss (hole), t*ts, fre*king (I actually got in trouble for that one once).
    Moderate: sh*t, b*stard, b*tch, wh*re, d*ck
    Strong: f**k, f***ot, n****r, p**sy
    Extreme: motherf*****

    I am a religious Christian myself.

  4. Sammie Florestal:

    Hey there! I’ve been reading your site for some time now and finally got the bravery to go ahead and give you a shout out from Kingwood Texas! Just wanted to say keep up the good job!

  5. John Hulligan:

    Coming from the United Kingdom, it’s often interesting to see the difference and reaction to swear/curse/obscene words. What I have found wilst working in the Middle East!/North Africa /Pakistan pus with any other cultures is that almost ALL the usual English words and expressions are mirrored in just about ALL countries! Even the (in)famous ” You Mother-f****r has the very same words albeit in Arabic of course!! I really MUST continue reading your page?:blog?column?!! its fascinating!(I was always taught when growing up in Wales that the Welsh language-Cymreag- has NO swear or curse words and we have to “borrow” them from”The English”: IS ’tis
    true I wonder ? I thin NOT!!)🎶😊