Why do we swear?

Terry Pratchett, Guards, Guards

Swearing is like poetry or song, it has emotional content as well as information. It’s cathartic, and helps you deal with the situation that causes it.

I am with you one hundred percent of the way on this issue. Swear words are a net minus for society and we’d be better off without them. They are definitely lazy. One could, I suppose, have an academic debate of whether they’re theoretically useful for “escape valve” or “code switching” purposes. In reality, it’s gone way past that point. There are now a lot of people who spout profanity in every single sentence they use, for no reason whatever except that they can’t be bothered to speak English correctly. To take an example I recall:

“When we got to the garage there was all kinds of shit all over the place.”

People who talk like this feel perfectly happy dropping “shit” in place of any noun. Hence we have no idea what the speaker found at the garage. Car parts? Garbage? Actual excrement? Meaning has been lost. Communication has been rendered less effective. And it’s all because of addiction to swear words.

Like marijuana, swear words may or may not be useful in small quantities, but are definitely undesirable in the quantities that most people use them.

Further, of course, polite people refrain from using them because they offend, just like polite people don’t use racial slurs.

You’ve confused your definition of politeness with some vague notion of “correct.”

“Stuff,” I guess, would have been more helpful?

You’re persistent, I’ll give you that. Using swear words inserted randomly in to sentences has nothing to politeness or lack of it. They’re not using the words to swear; they’re just meaningless (like ‘I mean’ and ‘like’). They’re just not speaking English in a generally accepted correct way.

Car parts or garbage would have been more helpful.

Hmm, so are you saying is that those specific people have a problem with swearing, or are you making a sweeping generalization that all swearing is bad because some people have a problem with it? Cuz I can’t figure it out.

Well, was the statement made to exchange factual information, or was it made to express disgust? I know which one I’m guessing.

You’re honestly going to compare swear words to racial slurs? Huh? You’ve got to be kidding.

A big part of it is habit. Since swearing is forbidden for kids in most places, you get to act like “one of the big kids” by swearing. It makes you cool with your friends. Profanity has a shock value with little kids that it doesn’t have with adults. Eventually, the shock is gone and people continue to swear out of habit.

Another big part is fitting in, even if it’s not conscious. Live in the south long enough and you’ll start saying “y’all.” Hang out with people who swear constantly, and you’ll probably start swearing.

Some people swear simply to be offensive. They know that many people don’t like it, so they make a point of saying “God damn” in front of the church group or wearing a “fuck off” t-shirt to the mall. They want to be rude and obnoxious.

Marley’s comments notwithstanding, I know a lot of people who swear because they’re too lazy to figure out the right word to use. With half a million words in the English language, there’s almost always a better way to express yourself.

When used carefully, profanity can have quite an impact. I swear very little, thus when I do it, people notice. If I shouted George Carlin’s seven words every time I stubbed my toe, I wouldn’t have a way to show when I was really pissed (and I wouldn’t get invited to very many parties or events).

For the most part, I look at profanity the same way I look at filler words like um, er, ah, like, and so on. It’s all just an indication that you didn’t put any time into coming up with the right word, or that you’re filling space.

Why would you not compare them? They have the same root purpose: to shock and/or offend. That’s where they came from.

Fuckin’ A! :wink:

I was responding specifically to ITR Champion, who was using “correct” in the sense of “polite.” They’re distinct concepts that should not be confused in this discussion.

Here’s why: when the topic is politeness, that’s pretty well understood by everybody. I agree that swearing is impolite, that’s essentially the definition - not to mention the point of most profanity in the first place. “Correct” is much less clear and when you say that, you start getting into the morass of prescriptivism, which happens a lot on this board. It’s a blackhole that should be avoided.
The bottom line is this: if you convey whatever meaning you want to convey, the statement isn’t “incorrect.”

The statement isn’t supposed to be “helpful,” it’s an expression of the speaker’s frustration and confusion at finding whatever is on the floor. This lack of helpfulness is easily remedied with a followup question anyway.

How do you know that? Is it an American term that has a different meaning to that in the UK? If so, ignorance fought.

This is where I think there is a huge gap in our communication. What I, and, I think ITR Champion are talking about is when people are using swear words not as swear words; just as gibberish - in this usage they don’t have - and aren’t meant to have - meaning.


Intent is the difference, and it should be obvious. A racial slur is intended to insult a specific group, not just shock. Who is a swear word intended to insult? Yes, they can both be shocking, but swear words don’t have any other baggage coming along for the ride.

At the top of my post, I used “correct” to mean correct English. At the end of the post, I switched to the topic of politeness.

I don’t agree with that at all. I think there’s a reason why a substantial part of our education system is geared towards teaching correct English, by which I mean English in agreement with the rules established by the authorities. Any one particular lapse in conversational English has minimal effect. Pile up a long series of lapses and the language becomes incomprehensible. There are message boards out there that are allegedly in English, but where the posts are totally meaningless. I do not view it as a trivial issue. I believe that the quality of our language has an effect on the quality of our thinking. If our language becomes slapdash, that contributes to slapdash thinking.

Actually, I believe that the statement was just idle chatter, but to me it is not trivial. I’ve learned quite a bit in life from conversations that began with something trivial. I’d hate for others to lose that opportunity.

“Polite” is what’s socially acceptable in good company. “Correct” can have the same meaning, but more often it means right or true.

Ok, I do see what you’re saying. That’s just filler and it doesn’t add anything. It doesn’t subtract anything, either, but it’s irritating.

There are message boards out there you don’t understand, which isn’t the same thing at all. There’s plenty of stupid gibberish out there, no question, but if your contention is that the language is going downhill and sooner or later nobody’s going to understand each other - I’m sorry, but you’re wrong.

That’s a prim but not widely accepted theory as far as I know.

Look - the whole point of language is for people to communicate. Language isn’t going to evolve to the point where nobody can understand each other anymore. That just doesn’t make any sense.

I guess someone had to do it. Thanks for taking one for the team.

It’s fucking Chicken Town. That’s why.

Depends on the swear word. “cunt” and “cocksucker” are definitely insulting and degrading to specific groups and I find them to be way more offensive and unacceptable.

Well cunt maybe, but I see cocksucker as more gender neutral.

Oh, I love to use profanity. It is delicious. During sex, when having ‘philosophical’ debates with my husband, or when rapping along with my favorite hip-hop.

The idea that it is ‘lazy’ or means you have a ‘short vocabulary’ has been bandied about often by people, but I have always disagreed with this.

I save my juiciest ‘obscenities’ for my debates with my husband. It is always when we are trying to discuss higher ideas that we really get down and dirty.

Really? I always thought that cocksucker was a slur against gay men. Either way, I think it’s funny that any man would use it to insult someone. I’m pretty sure that men, gay or straight, enjoy cocksuckers.

It’s just weird. There’s not an insult comparable to cocksucker that incorporates the female genitalia in the same way and quite as offensively, is there? Rugmuncher or anything else like that usually elicits laughter and is not even remotely as offensive as cocksucker. Ok, I’m tired of typing cocksucker.