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Swearing in English Posted by on Apr 1, 2012 in Culture, English Language, English Vocabulary

Swearing, we all know how to do it in our native languages and we all want to know how to do it in the new languages we learn.  I can vividly remember when I first traveled abroad as an exchange student in my teens how excited I was to exchanged English swear words for Spanish swear words with my friends.  We both wanted to learn the swear words in the other’s language.  These are some of the most sought after words to learn in a new language and often the hardest to learn because they are never taught in class.  This is all about to change as we are about to embark on a four part series of posts that seriously looks at swearing.  This will: first, a look at what swearing means in English/American-speaking culture; second what are the most common swear words in English and how are they used (what you really are looking for!); third, alternative swear words (the words people say when they don’t want to be impolite and swear but they want to express the same power of emotion); and finally four, how are swear words different in British-English compared to American-English.


Today we are going to look at swearing vocabulary and culture.  One thing you should know is there are almost as many names for swear words as there are actual swear words in English!  To start let’s define the word ‘swear’ and look at all of it’s synonyms.

To swear (v): To use abusive or violent speech to express strong emotion.
A swear (n): An abusive or violent word.

Synonyms for the verb “to swear”: to curse, to cuss
Synonyms for the noun “swear”: lewd speech, bad language, bad words, curse words, a cuss, profanity, foul speech, dirty words, four-letter words, filthy words, off color language, expletives…

Swear words in general are not a new phenomena.  They have been part of language for as long as there has been language.  There is a written history of swear words going back through the ages, and I’m sure they existed before they were even written down.  The history of swearing in English (and in general) is eloquently discussed in a New York Times article by Natalie Angier entitled “Almost Before We Spoke, We Swore” from the year 2005.  Here is the link to the article, which I will warn you is not an easy read.  This article is not written for ESL reader and is filled with words that are both technical as well as uncommon.  This article is written at a college level native English-speaker level.  But I encourage you to give reading this article a try.  I have summarized it below for you too.  Also, in this article you will find a fun link to a Multimedia graphic entitled “Cursing Through the Ages” which shows how swearing in English has changed over time and information about famous people and their use of swear words.
Link to article: http://www.nytimes.com/2005/09/20/science/20curs.html?_r=1&pagewanted=all
In summary this article states that swearing is a human universal.  People in every culture and in all languages swear.  Swearing is often used as a response when a person feels attacked or as outburst of anger.  Research has shown people have a physical reaction to both saying and hearing swear words, these words have an impact on us, we pay attention to them.  Also research has found women swear less than men.  Lastly, researchers looking at swear words have discovered that swear words generally become taboo (or bad) because the words are connected to fears, fixations, or topics that are not usually spoken about.

I have one last note about swearing in American culture before ending this post.  Americans highly value “freedom of speech.”  It is the first amendment to our United States Constitution, which is called The Bill of Rights.  The first Amendment states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” Americans believe saying what one wants to say, including swear words, is a right.  The free use of swear words on television and radio in fact was addressed by the US Supreme Court in 1978 (and in more recent years as well) because some people felt television and radio stations were censoring their freedom of speech!  There is a famous comedian in the United States named George Carlin has a comedic performance called “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television” that lists the swear words that television and radio considered to be too lewd to present to the public.  These are the words that television and radio stations cover or censor with a “bleep” sound when they are said out loud.  If you are interested in hearing these words you can search for this famous comedy routine on YouTube.  Or you can just read my post tomorrow when we look further at swear words in English.

P.S. Even though today is April first, April Fools Day in the United States, I’m not kidding we really will be talking about more swear words in English tomorrow!

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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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    Hi,i’m eager to have your latest issues.

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