Swear words bark, they won’t bite


What is it about swear words that rile so many people up? There are variations of abuses, of course, a large proportion of which by being targeted at individuals, even peoples, are insults that can be genuinely demeaning. For these, one can resort to libel, anti-hate speech laws and, ironically, ‘counter’-insults. But there are other dirty words that have take on a more abstract form in the expletive. These words – in any language – when taken literally can sound damning, insulting. But what they happen to be are forms of extreme expression – anger, frustration, irritation, awe, even admiration – that have taken on a life of their own, decontextualised from their original, taboo-breaking origins. They bark, they don’t bite.

For abuses to turn into ‘pure’ expletives, one has to understand context and chronology, which keep changing with time and cultural mores. In English, for instance, the now benign ‘goddammit’ arising from ‘god damn it’ was once considered blasphemous by all those who modelled their language according to Victorian semantics. Today, it’s an indulgent expression of frustration whose original power to shock has become vestigial. The same holds true in most, usually informal, contexts for the once-dreaded ‘f’ word. New obscenities come, age and settle down in mainstream-use dotage. We shouldn’t get bloody het up about them.



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