The Linguistics of Swearing


Not much has changed since George Carlin’s infamous 1972 Seven Words You Can Never Say On Television bit.  For the young’uns or those who need a refresher, those words were (and are): shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker and tits.  And by the way, if there truly are any young’uns reading this blog, please stop.  Don’t make me tell your mom.

All adults here now?  Good.  Let’s continue.  For some reason, I enjoy theorizing about why certain words or phrases cause such a visceral reaction in some people.  Obscenity is fertile ground for exploring this concept, since the vast majority of swear words have inoffensive synonyms.  Why, for instance, is every word for defecation deemed TV-appropriate except for shit?  Sexual content can be downright graphic, too, as long as those engaging in such televised discussions refrain from uttering the words fuck, dick or cunt.  And then there are the “mild” swear words that are generally okay on prime-time broadcasts: bitch, bastard, screw, damn, crap, etc.  Again, most of these have a verbotin equivalent on Carlin’s list.

Well, I think I have it figured out.  The reason those 7 words still elicit offense from seniors, prudes and puritans (and even some people who are none of those things) is due to their being composed of hard consonant sounds.  That’s it.  Parse each of our taboo “four letter words” and you’ll find that all of them have 3 hard consonants and one soft vowel sound.  This configuration of letters creates a word that actually sounds violent.  Piercing.  Harsh.  FFFFUUUUCCCCKKKK!  Right?

So there you have it.  Since the sound of our “offensive” words will never change, I am guessing that there will always be a sizeable amount of people who will take offense upon hearing them.  And therein lies their efficacy.  I, for one, don’t ever want those 7 words to become universally acceptable.  Offending the easily offended is my raison d’etre.

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