Is Swearing Uncouth?

Photo by Delete
Photo by Delete

If you promise not to tell a soul and agree to share a red-faced moment of your own in the comments, I’ll let you in on one of my childhood humiliations.

I must have been about fourteen, and had been asked to recite a prayer at mosque. That day, all the ceremonies were being performed by children from Saturday School. It was a great honour, so our parents told us, and to refuse would be rude. More nerve-wracking still, it would take place not at our local mosque, but at the main one in Kensington, with its sweeping marble hallways, echo-filled rooms and unfamiliar faces.

There was nothing for it but to take a deep breath and try my best. A friend’s mum agreed to take us to the mosque, and for us to have a sleepover afterwards. In retrospect, I’m so glad my own mother wasn’t there.

When my name was called, I padded across the plush carpet to the podium at the front of the prayer hall, my heart hammering in my throat. I was singing a qasida, a song of prayer that comes from Persia. I began, and stumbled, realising that I had started an octave too high. I would never make the top note. And then came my reaction, loud and clear across the microphone, the beginning of an expletive, “Shhiii…!”

What had I done, and in a holy place? I made it through a few verses of the qasida, my cheeks tinged with embarrassment, and then hurried out of the hall, my only thought to change into my sleepover clothes so nobody would recognise me. They did, of course, despite me trying to blend into the walls. Cue much tutting by elders. We won’t mention the stinging slap I gave to a friend when he teased me. It quite rightly cooled our friendship. All in all, a day best forgotten.

Photo by Ashley Rose
Photo by Ashley Rose

So why do we swear? Is it because we don’t have other language to express ourselves, or because we lack education or control? Is it for extra impact, because swear words tend to be quick and harsh and can potentially lend our words more power? Or do we feel powerful simply because we are using words that we really shouldn’t? We swear to express surprise, anger and fear. It can be satisfying but is it great manners? Would you swear in front of your gran or your boss? It stands that some personalities are more prone to swearing than others. Still, it’s up to us to have the tact to find words that suit our audience.

I wear my emotions on my sleeve. I am careful around strangers, but once I am comfortable I am honest about how I feel, and if I hold back my words, my emotions inevitably filter through my body language. Swearing can be a useful tool to express emotion. My husband probably hears me swear more than anyone else. I don’t swear at him, mind (at least not often!). It’s part of the intimacy of being more comfortable with him than anyone else, that I don’t have to filter out words which might be offensive.

What is offensive differs across cultures and is tied to how we have been brought up. As a child my dad swore rarely, but most often when driving; my mum didn’t. I’d wager that Americans swear more than Brits, and that French cuss words sound less offensive than British ones. And times change. Swearing is perhaps more acceptable today than it used to be in previous generations. Bloomberg reported that millennials swear more at work than their predecessors, and in fact, within their own teams, swearing can help with bonding. It shows they are interacting with people they know well.

Rather than poverty of vocabulary, research by cognitive scientists at Marist College and the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts reveals that the more you swear, the more comprehensive your vocabulary is. If you are a fluent swearer, turns out you probably score highly in general language fluency. What is more, studies have shown that swearing can make us more persuasive, and even more able to cope with pain. So, let’s celebrate our little friends rather than washing our mouths out with soap and water. Who knows, a well-placed f-word might be doing us a world of good.

23 thoughts on “Is Swearing Uncouth?

  1. I tend to more easily trust people who drop a well-placed f-bomb, but I do agree that there’s a time and place for it. As you said:

    “… it’s up to us to have the tact to find words that suit our audience.”

    1. You know, I used ‘f-bomb’ instead of ‘f-word’ in the first draft of this post, then realised that it might put me on a dodgy list somewhere :). Am with you, I admire zen people, but most of my friends have potty-mouths at least sometimes!

  2. I had a staff sergeant in the army who was an extremely articulate man with a great vocabulary, but he swore so much that sometimes he couldn’t get through a word without doing it. Like ‘Today is the 14th of No-f*****g-venber.’ That bad! But in general, I’ve found that those who cuss the least cuss the best, because when they do it you know that they’re genuinely upset about something, and not just engaging in a familiar habit.

    1. Oh man, I know nothing about the army, beyond what I see on telly, but that sounds extreme! I wonder if he was a pussycat at home to make up for it ;). Completely agree that a well chosen odd swear word has more impact. Being sweary all the time just normalises it, n x

  3. hahahah …you should have a best friend who is a Canadian…every other word vbegins with F..and she tells me Canadians are like that! Shakespeare had a HUGE range of swear words ~ so I think we are in good company. I swear… when the occasion demands…I try not to use swear words as edverbs/adjectives though…

    1. Yeah I read somewhere that Trudeau swears quite a bit. The Shakespeare comparison is brilliant! I’m going to use that the next time someone raises their eyebrows at me. That last distinction made me smile. A very writerly thing to say :)

  4. I trained myself not to swear when I was pregnant with H, which somehow I have successfully managed to do. Mind, even though it’s the mildest of terms I did tell her last week “you bloody drive me mad sometimes!” which she thought was hilarious – “Mummy! YOU SWORE!!” because bloody was the only word that could be used. Shaun is a potty mouth though :-)

    1. Ha, that’s great. My restraint tends to ebb and flow with what happens in my environment or in the news. I don’t swear in front of the kids, but I bite my lip during what would have been the swear word, and I’m sure 7 year old realised now what I’ve ‘bleeped’ out. Hey, there are worse things. Still if she starts doing that herself at 10, I would be mortified. Might turn me into a nun overnight…

  5. I was once walking through a park with my then-90 year old gran on my arm and holding the hand of my then-5 year old cousin. I was viciously attacked by a goose (ahem…) and when it bit me, without thinking, I kicked it and shouted “f*** off!”. Not my proudest moment.

    1. I LOVE this story. I can picture it, just brilliant! Geese can be vicious. I remember being chased by one at Warwick and didn’t know whether to be scared or laugh. Would have been worse if you’d just run off and left your gran and kid cousin :)

  6. I was in the staff lounge when I was teaching in a Catholic school, trying to get the dinosaur of a copier to work. It jammed and I had to open all the doors and find the jam to clear it. While I was looking underneath, I bumped my head, and swore (in my own way): “bloody, buggering hell!”
    It turns out the principal had come into the lounge, very quietly.
    Fortunately, she erupted with laughter. She felt that swearing “like an Irish woman” was entertaining. I was mortified!

  7. I read an interesting article some time back that said that scatological swearing and good old Anglo-Saxon explicatives were not an issue in the modern world, and I think in some ways that is true. There are words my father and mother would never say around us growing up, but might say in private, that my children and I have no trouble hearing from each other. The real unspeakable words now are racial and homophobic slurs. I find that interesting. We are now less worried about being uncouth and more worried about being uncivil and demeaning. (With the exception of the Candidate Who Shall Not Be Named, God save us…) If this is true, I think it is a step up.

    1. Interesting, Paula. First, I think I might have double standards with our kids. Although I swear (rarely in front of them), I think I would flinch if they grew up and returned the favour. Second, yes, he’s jaw-droppingly crass, with no moral compass as far as I can see, but that’s great if it does follow the trajectory you say your side of the pond. Sadly, racial slurs are growing more common here in the aftermath of the Brexit vote, and there’s a sense amongst some that political correctness has gone too far.

  8. I find this subject fascinating. In particular how I’ve never sworn in school teaching…ever, despite the frustrations and anger that can rise up in the job, and yet if I get frustrated at home with the little man or about other things in front of him I’ll drop a swear word. He tells me off! But I have no idea where the automatic restraint comes from when at work or in front of other people’s kids! I conclude this marea me fairly intelligent that I can filter if I need to but with those closest even your own kids yout feel more comfortable…. thought provoking!

  9. This was such a good post.

    I grew up in a family that strictly forbade swearing. It was seen as sinful, so it wasn’t until I became an adult that I started to feel comfortable with saying “bad” words on occasion.

    There is definitely a time and a place for a well-placed swear word, though!

    1. Thanks Lydia. Our families have such a lasting impact on who we are. And even for me, there’s definitely a hierarchy of swear words. There are some I’d never use. Others have become favourites ;). Thanks for stopping by, Nillu

  10. Super interesting question, JB, about where the extra foil of restraint comes from. Think you’re right, it’s a mixture of socialisation and comfort. If we didn’t have a filter, how dangerous (or refreshing?!) that would be. Shudder to think what might escape on a bad day :)

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