How to write better (or fewer?) swear words in English

Have you ever wondered why the British seem far more relaxed about using swear words in writing and speech than people from other English-speaking nations?

Many linguists are of the opinion that because swear words are used much more commonly in English-language film and TV programmes, on live radio and TV (hopefully after the watershed), and in general conversation, the words have gradually lost their rudeness and shock-value.

is it wrong to swear in writing

Can some swearing is speech and writing be justified?

Which could be a shame, in a way. If current swear words have lost their mojos, how next can we express ourselves with vigour and shock factor? But that’s probably for another article/thought piece.

It’s true that many millennials use rude language pretty freely wherever they live within the USA, Canada, Australia and other English language areas. But if you are the wrong side of 25 years old, you may well be influenced by older values that vary wildly from country to country.

UPDATE January 27, 2018 … Just published by academic Debbie Cameron on her Debuk blog: here is an extract:

“Asking whether women should swear is a bit like asking whether women should have children out of wedlock, or weigh more than seven stone: it’s a question designed for no other purpose than to allow people to air their prejudices. And those prejudices are, in most cases, socially selective. If a single mother on benefits peppers her discourse with ‘f*ck, tw*t and b*stard’, people say she’s ignorant, unable to express herself in any other way. If a stand-up comedian who went to public (private) school uses the same words in his act, people say it’s edgy and subversive.” Seems that people have serious double standards where swearing is concerned. Read this article – as well as the rest of mine here!

Swear words ruled out in ever-so-polite Canada

As some of you know I am Canadian, and although I’ve lived mainly in the UK for many years I still have a foot in each country.

Initially I was a bit put out when some of my family members in Canada said they didn’t like my book of rude, potty-mouthed poems which has been quite a nice success in the UK since it was published in the autumn/fall of 2017.

My Canadian folks and I had some honest and very cordial conversations about it, though. Of course I know that potty-mouthed humour is not everyone’s cup of tea and I respect people for whom it is not. No hard feelings there.

Is swearing worse than smoking weed?

But I had to wonder to myself, why are older Canadians so sensitive about rude words (and my book asterisks out the two worst ones), when they, as a country, are so forward-thinking to consider legalising cannabis not only for medicinal purposes, but also for recreational ones in the near future?

The Brits may be footloose and fancy free about swearing, but don’t let a UK Police Officer catch you smoking weed even if it is for “medicinal” purposes.

It’s still illegal in the UK and at the time of writing this, at least, shows no signs of being downgraded.

An interesting divergence of cultural thinking.

NB: despite being pro-swearing amongst adults, I fully appreciate that it’s not something to teach children! To swear or not is a decision that can only properly be made in adulthood.

Origins of the North American attitude towards swear words

I remember my late father telling me off for using rude words when I was young. He was a first generation born Canadian (family originated in Scotland) and had grown up in western Canada in the first half of the 20th century.

Not exactly pioneers or Wild West, but a long way from the sophistication and urban cultures of contemporary Canada.

In the days of his youth you weren’t judged socially on how much money you had or whether you went to an expensive private school, because neither existed – especially at around that time the Great Depression was causing terrible poverty and deprivation.

Rude language in the New World: a sign of social stigma

You were judged, according to him and others of his generation, on how well you were educated. And my Dad maintained that people who used swear words and other bad language were demonstrating a poor, inadequate vocabulary. This would be seen as representative of people with no links to culture, education, or even intelligence.

Swearing in North America was seen as being common, coarse, vulgar and socially “blue collar.” And to this day it still is by many people of middle-age and beyond.

Is this why Canadians are universally recognised as very polite people?

Canadians, more than other North Americans, are known to be extremely polite and considerate.

“The stereotype of the “polite Canadian” may be cliché, but it does have some basis in reality. Canada is a nation with fairly strong conventions of social etiquette, and properly obeying and understanding these rules is an important way to “fit in” to broader Canadian society,” says The Canada Guide. “In general, Canadians are a mostly friendly, unpretentious people who value honesty, sensitivity, empathy and humility in their relationships with friends and strangers, as well as respect for the privacy and individualism of others. While obviously many Canadians fail at honouring these lofty principles, such values nevertheless provide the essence of “good manners” in mainstream Canadian society.

I love the way that Canadians preserve our earlier heritage and culture of being loyal and faithful to each other, and maintaining courteous relationships no matter what. Long may other nations learn from this.

OK. But do Americans swear as much as the Brits?

It would be very easy to write cynically about the USA right now considering that even the President, Donald Trump, recently has been quoted as using the word “sh*thole” to describe some Central American and African developing countries.

Thankfully Trump’s vocabulary does not represent that of the whole of the USA. And although Americans – depending on which state they live in – may not be as “polite” as Canadians, it seems many of them – especially of the older generations – feel the same way Canadians do about rude language.

“Folks here (in the USA) tend to dismiss cursing as coarse and vulgar whereas, for Brits, it can signify affection or a well-rounded sense of humor,” said Ruth Margolis in her article on the BBC America website back in 2013.

And Erin Moore, in an article on in 2015, agreed. “No matter what age they start, the British seem far more fluent at swearing than Americans. They are more likely to link colourful language with having a sense of humour than with coarseness or vulgarity.”

Can some swearing be justified?

Well, as we all know humour is healthy, even if it is a little “blue.” Laughter has had scientists crawling all over it in recent years and its beneficial effects are now known in chemical terms as well as anecdotal ones.

But as we all know, it is possible to enjoy humour that’s clean and swear word free. A very good example of this is the wonderful, North Carolina based Jeanne Robertson – a superb example of hilarious comedy without a rude word in the script. Here’s one of my favourite examples of Jeanne in action…

Interestingly enough, NYC based Lindsay Holmes, Senior Wellness Editor at HuffPost, believes that swearing – whether humorous or not – is good for your health.

“While swearing may have once been considered an unsavory habit, research has found there are some benefits to using more colorful language. Not only does cursing come with some mental and physical health perks, it also could positively affect how you converse with others. In other words, it’s pretty darn good for your overall well-being.”

“By swearing, we not only communicate the meaning of a sentence, but also our emotional response to the meaning — our emotional reaction to something. It also allows us to express anger, disgust or pain, or indicate to someone that they need to back off, without having to resort to physical violence.

“A study published in 2011 found that swearing can increase your ability to withstand pain. Researchers hypothesized that cursing can activate your body’s release of natural, pain-relieving chemicals that have a similar soothing effect to drugs like morphine, Time reported.”

Do read Lindsay ‘s whole article: she makes a number of other points on the benefits of being potty-mouthed, all of which are very interesting.

People who say and write swear words are more intelligent. Really?

Yes, according to Richard Stephens, Senior Lecturer in Psychology, Keele University in an article on back in February 2017.

“Psychologists interested in when and why people swear try to look past the stereotype that swearing is the language of the unintelligent and illiterate. In fact, a study by psychologists from Marist College found links between how fluent a person is in the English language and how fluent they are in swearing.”

“…swearing appears to be a feature of language that an articulate speaker can use in order to communicate with maximum effectiveness. And actually, some uses of swearing go beyond just communication.”

Once again, do read the article in full if you have time. It’s fascinating.

So: to swear or not to swear?

What do you think? Should it remain a social taboo as it is in middle class North America? Or should its literal meanings fade as we become a more tolerant society, and instead allow us to express ourselves in a more colourful, potty-mouthed and potentially healthier way?

Please share your views!

Further reading:

Some of the following contradict each other, but in the interest of fair journalism I have included examples of both arguments! Sz