I will tell you a secret: I am terribly potty-mouthed.
I will tell you something else: This statement is only half true.
In German, I hardly ever swear.
In English, I swear like a builder. One of my colleagues once told me: “I only realised just how fluent you were when I heard you swear.”
This is a dubious compliment, of course, and a wonderful example of that distinctly British way of clothing a criticism in a compliment.
A quick warning: I spell some swearwords out in this article. Why? It is an article about swearing. So there is some swearing in it. And if you are a language learner, you might get the meaning of "f***!" - but you are likely to struggle with the asterisks in b******s. Please do not read this article if swearing offends you. Read my article about hedging instead. That’s about how not to offend people.
Swearing is a sensitive subject, and full of traps for language learners. An expletive can feel entirely natural in one language, but strange and even offensive in a different language context.
This is a language issue. But it is also a swearing issue.
Swearing “properly” means to understand the meaning of an expression. Of course, you might say, but this is not always a given, even in native speakers. Especially dated swear-words are a minefield even for the most educated native speaker. Look up David Cameron, Danny Dyer and “twat”, and you’ll get why one person’s perfectly acceptable angry rant is another person’s no-go.
In addition to the dictionary-meaning, you also need to grasp the emotional impact and level of offensiveness of a swear word in a given language. And that is where non-native speakers can get it terribly wrong. In a foreign language, we might happily throw around words that would have us cringe in our own language. The emotional impact is simply not the same. I learned this the hard way when I casually said “f**k” in front of my then-future mother-in-law and there was a brief but noticeable pause in the conversation. A clear sign that my faux pas had been noted but forgiven. Since we moved to Germany, things have been the other way around. When my husband swears in German, I tell him off – hypocrite that I am.
Swearing is emotional. We learn early on that certain things and words are taboo. We develop an instinctive sense of appropriate language. We shy away from certain words and can react strongly when others use them. I tell people that “I don’t swear in German because I was socialised by my mother. In English, I was socialised by Hell’s Kitchen.”
I don't swear in German because I was socialised by my mother. In English, I was socialised by Hell's Kitchen.
But because swearing is so emotional, it also has benefits. Emma Byrne, author of Swearing is Good for You: The Amazing Science of Bad Language, explained some of these in her interview with the Allusionist’s Helen Zaltzman. Swearing relieves pain. It allows us to avoid physical conflict. It connects us to our own emotions. The emotional content of swearing is so valuable that our brain creates multiple “backups” in all sorts of places. Swearwords can be the only words still accessible to people who have suffered damage to the brain. Swearing can horrify us. But it can also create bonds with other people. Your friend calls you to say that she travelled for two hours to get to a concert venue, only to find that she forgot the tickets stuck to the fridge at home? “Oh bollocks” communicates empathy much more clearly than “oh no.” You might want to think about who you are talking to, though.
How people swear, when, in what context and in front of whom, is important. It says a lot about who we think we are. Or the role we play in a certain situation. This can be deliberate, which is funny. Or accidental, which is embarrassing.
Cue: the British class system. I recently came across a piece in the Tatler about “The swearing rules according to Hugo Rifkind”. The Tatler targets “posh” people – the upper classes – as well as readers who just aspire to be “posh”. Hugo Rifkind is a journalist who specialises in satirical pieces. Here, he is playing on the cliché that posh people swear a lot. As a consequence, people who want to sound posh must also swear like posh people, right? This, however, is not easy. If done “wrong”, swearing is just vulgar – just like any other failed attempt at social climbing.
If done “wrong”, swearing is just vulgar – just like any other failed attempt at social climbing.
The text contains a lot of swearwords and is certainly not for the faint-hearted. But Rifkind makes humorous and insightful points about when it seems acceptable to use swear words (in descriptions, when used without emotion or venom) and when it is not (in anger, or when the meaning is not fully clear to the speaker).
Swearing demands that you understand a word fully, its meaning, its emotional impact, its level of offensiveness, its appropriateness in different contexts and groups. Linguists call this knowledge “pragmatic competence” (Dewaele 2018). And all that might still not be enough.
A long time ago during a residential English course in Kent, our teachers gave us the following advice: Never try to sound like a local. When I moved to Birmingham, I quickly learned that “ta” means “thanks”. But I never use it. I still don’t. Neither do I use the endearment “duckie”. The same is true for swearing: Never try to sound like you belong.
Nobody likes an impostor. Research suggests that native speakers might react negatively to swearing when it comes from non-native speakers, partly because they are outsiders (Dewaele 2018). Brummies, posh people, or any other in-group might not welcome you with open arms into their linguistic clan.So when my colleague complimented me on my expert swearing, the compliment was probably genuine. But despite being partial to a bit of potty-mouthed creativity, I very much agree with the credo: It is never wrong not to swear.
It is never wrong not to swear.
Even self-confessed “sweary” speakers agree that extensive swearing is a bit silly and anachronistic, like a grumpy old man mumbling and grumbling to himself while putting on his wellies before shouting abuse at the neighbours. But it can be a jolly good lark to engage in some good old exchanges of witty verbal abuse. With the right people. In the right context. Sparingly. See what happens, but don’t blame me. It’s not my f***ing fault.
How do you feel about swearing?
How do you feel about swearing in another language?
Create a word avalanche for your answer.
Write your answer. Put it in the comments if you feel brave.
Record your answer and discuss it with your tutor or a speaking buddy.
potty-mouthed - often uses "bad" language
expletive - a rude word
a given - something that is thought of as a fact
dated - old-fashioned, out of date
no-go - impossible
cringe - feel embarrassed and show this in your facial expressions or gestures
appropriate - acceptable or suitable
to shy away from something - if you don't want to do something (because you don't think you are able to, or brave enough) you avoid doing it
deliberate - on purpose
aspire to something - you work towards something that you have a strong desire to achieve (social status, a job...)
a local - "local" means: belong in that particular area; "my local" would be my local pub; "a local" would be a person from that particular place
endearment - an affectionate expression like "darling", "sweetheart" or similar
genuine - honest, real
partial to - If you are partial to something, you like it
a lark - something fun, and maybe a little bit naughty
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I can recommend the Allusionist interview. There is swearing, there is science, there is laughter, there is a worthwhile discussion about whether parents should teach their children to swear “properly”. And there is a transcript, which makes the whole Allusionist podcast a great resource for language learners – especially as it deals with all things language. Not just the filthy stuff.
Zaltzman, H. (2018), ‘Take a swear pill’, The Allusionist, Episode 74, Available at: https://www.theallusionist.org/allusionist/swear-pill (Accessed: 4th December 2020).
Rifkind, H. (2015) 'The swearing rules according to Hugo Rifkind', Tatler, Available at: https://www.tatler.com/article/mind-your-language (Accessed: 4th December 2020).
Dewaele, J.-M. (2018) 'Linguistic taboos in a second or foreign language', in Allen, K. (ed.) The Oxford Handbook of Taboo Words and Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.