Why do we swear?

Swear words generally are a lazy sort of shorthand, if they have any meaning at all. ‘Go fuck yourself’ can be shorthand for ‘I disagreee with you because…’, or it can mean ‘I hate you because…’ or it can be an involuntary tick, like ‘I mean’ and ‘y’know’. I walk past people who are having an ordinary conversation, but pepper it with swear words. E.g. “Fuck me! I went to the fucking shops today to buy a fucking sandwich…” You get the picture. The '‘fucking’ adds absolutely nothing to the sense or meaning of what they’re saying.

At times of extremis, they can be a necessary form of escape valve. But if that’s overused, they can become meaningless.

In other situations they can be a display as to the degree of anger or frustration being expressed. You can climb the ladder from ‘bother’ to ‘Jesus!’ to ‘crap’ to ‘fuck’ to ‘cunt’. When you’ve stubbed your toe, a reasoned discourse as to why you’re in pain and upset may be unnecessary, and a short, sharp expletive may be more suitable. But in a lot of cases, particularly here on the Dope, where the contributors are ostensibly reasonable and intelligent people (OK - I know what I’m letting myself in for), we should be above that sort of shorthand. Erudition is all, eh?

Or am I being precious, or old fashioned or elitist? Tell me what you think the purpose of swear words is and should be.

The same as any other word: communication. Sometimes that’s to communicate anger, sometimes emphasis, sometimes humor, sometimes filler. I’m sure there are more.

I guess it’s because sometimes we need to give our words more emphasis or power. Saying “that stupid son-of-a-bitch took my wallet” gets the point across much better than “that guy stole my wallet, and I’m not very happy with him right now”.

Swear words are frequently used as an “escape valve”, as the OP put; for instance, if someone said “you realize every single person in class failed the test”, I might let out a “shit” even though it’s not an extreme situation. Sometimes the words just seem to fit.

Why not?

Seriously, do we have to justify every word we use? The way we talk is shaped by our environment and upbringing, not through rational analysis.

Fucked if I know.

No, of course not. But on this board we discuss things. I thought it might be interesting if we rationally analysed why and how our environment and upbringing shapes our use of language. I wasn’t meaning to suggest that the way we talk is shaped by rational analysis.

Actually this is an interesting question. recently I discovered that I have little issue with using swears as filler, but get annoyed when they are used to express frustration a minor issue. I have no idea why it works this way for me. Perhaps it is the emotional load it carries when used this way.

Perhaps the real question here is not why we swear (there are many reasons), but why certain expressions are considered “impolite”. Why is there a “qualitative” difference between saying, say, “Rats!” and “Shit!”?

Genitalia, excrement and religion are always popular.

This is a prudish outlook. All words have multiple meanings and many “add absolutely nothing” to a sentence depending on how they’re used.

That applies to any word or idea.

If there was no need for swearwords, they would not exist. My grandparents were wrong when they trotted out the “that’s how lazy, uneducated people talk” thing - as were their grandparents when they used it. They serve a purpose. “I hurt my foot” and “Ow! Fuck! My foot!” do not mean the same thing. They convey the same information, but not in the same way. If we eliminated every word that could be expressed using another word, our language would lack variety and nuance.

Because it’s fun! And what people find fun they will damn well do!

My parents, who were not religious people, maintained that real swear ing was blasphemy.

The rest was just fuck all

I’d dispute prudish. I gave several examples where I showed where the use of swear words is beneficial.

In my OP, the example I gave of people saying "I fucking went to the fucking’…’ is an example of the word adding nothing. I said that there are other examples (‘I mean’ etc) but to say all words have multiple meanings, in this context is at least a generalisation, and, at worst, just plain inaccurate. I don’t think there are many words used where they mean or add nothing.

I say that in my OP.

When you say something is lazy, that’s usually a negative judgment. :wink:

Are you, like, sure?

Swear words are intensifiers most of the time, positive or negative. When I hear somebody throw in some curses that sound unnecessary I assume it’s an expression of frustration, but in that case the words are communicating something, so it’s not true that they add absolutely nothing.

Nor do I think Dopers are too smart to use such coarse language. That suggestion was definitely prudish. You seem to be suggesting that because we don’t have to communicate in a hurry, we don’t need to use profanity, but that’s wrong and it would leave a lot of posts neutered.

I swear for many reasons.

The escape valve. I’d rather fling a few expletives at that jackass driver, letting my frustration out, than cut him off and create a dangerous situation.

Pain relief. When I stub my toe, it seems to hurt less when I swear than if I try not to. Same with emotional wounds. The utterance needs to match the pain’s intensity or it doesn’t work.

“Code switching.” That’s not really the term, but it’s similar. When I’m at work or in a formal situation, I dress nicely, use my manners, and don’t swear. When I change into scruffy jeans, kick back with a beer, and hang out with some friends in front of the TV, I also pepper my speech with incidental and otherwise meaningless swear words. It seems to fit the vibe of the moment. Similarly, when I go out with the gay boys, I also talk like a mix between a valley girl and a black woman. It just… fits.

I’m a musician. A singer, actually. I love variety in speech sounds, rhythms, qualities. It makes life more interesting. I can say things with swear words and without. Swearing doesn’t limit my expressive palette. It expands it.

Communication of emotional state is just as valid as communication of other ideas. Using language, including swear words, to slip into a social milieu is also valid, IMO, and not reflective of limited thinking, laziness, or whatever other negative labels you want to fling at it.

When someone is not making an effort to say what they mean, but instead use a swear word, then, yes, it is lazy. In that case my negativity would be intentional. Though, it doesn’t have to be swear words; there other ways of abbreviating what you want to say. We all do it all the time. That doesn’t make it right. Our language is something to be treasured and nurtured.

Again, I used examples of that in my OP.

Again, I mentioned that in my OP.

To be honest, that was more of a reaction to a thread I was reading, where I (and others) were shocked at the profanity. I have always said that there is a time and place where profanity can be not only useful, but perhaps necessary.

So, I would still query your accusation of prudishness. My objections to it, in a nutshell, are when it is wantonly and wastefully misused.

If you keep saying you have no objection to it except when it’s misused, what’s to debate? What misuse is? I’d argue the examples you’ve posted aren’t overuse or misuse of profanity, it’s just people failing to make themselves clear. And people can do that just as well without swearing.

The MIT linguist Steven Pinker has an interesting chapter about swearing in his latest book. If I remember the gist of it, he says that swearing exists in every language as a natural consequence of taboo words, which also exist in every language.


I just like the fact that a single swear word – fuck – can be used in so many parts of speech. What other words except swear words can do this?

As an interjection:
Fuck! There’s something wrong with the car.

As an adjective:
The fucking car has a flat.

As a relative pronoun:
Whomeverthefuck slashed my tires, fess up to it!

As a verb:
Let’s fuck while we wait for a towtruck

As a noun:
Not now, you dumbfuck, everyone will see us!

And even as an obscure particle intensifier:
What the fuck should we do now?


My husband swears a lot and it’s really getting old. Shit, damn, ass and an emphatic fuck (she dreamed!) don’t bother me at all. But he CONSTANTLY uses fucker, cocksucker and motherfucker. If you say cocksucker or motherfucker when you drop a piece of bread or burn your finger, you’re tapped out. There really isn’t much worse that you can say. What if you get hit by a car, or your house burns down, or someone shoots your dog? You’ve already used up the worst words. Believe me, I can swear like a trucker IF PROVOKED, but overusing curses just makes one sound unintelligent, like you can’t think of a smart thing to say. It’s like getting into a physical fight (unless you are in danger, someone is attacking you or a loved one, etc.) Gee, I really have nothing intelligent to say, I think I’ll just punch this guy or say fucking cocksucker because my pills fell on the floor. When you swear a lot, you rob the words of their impact and you just sound like an impatient, short-fused ass. When you hear it every day, it gets old really fast.