Effing and Blinding: Exploring Expletives


Somehow, although this collection of characters contains no actual letters, it’s an expletive. A curse, a swear word, a naughty word. Most people who are even vaguely internet savvy will recognize this keyboard smash as a censored swear word, though you’ll have to have a guess at which of the multitude of four letter words I’m thinking about. Since I’ve covered it up, it doesn’t matter that it’s not a very nice word… does it?

And even if it does, is it possible to never swear? One alternative would be to replace the curse word, but then we’re left to question if you shout “Sugar!” when you drop something, does it still count as swearing? Or is it all fine and dandy, because sugar tastes nice, whereas the word it’s replacing does not? It’s still being used for the same purpose, to express frustration and/or surprise and is usually used to replace the ruder word the speaker is no doubt really thinking. If you insult someone by calling them a “donut”, the intended insult is still there, even if “donut” isn’t generally a very offensive word. Of course, there are times when swearing usually isn’t appropriate, but to throw out rude words altogether seems a bit drastic.

For God’s Sake

The words that are considered unmentionable have changed throughout the course of history. Today, the big ones in the English language are associated with the body – mostly sex and defecating, because there’s nothing more disgusting than humans. In Medieval England, however, many of these words were commonplace, whereas taking God’s name in vain would have been much more than just a little rude. As matters of the body became more private, mentioning them became less acceptable. In the late 18th and early 19th century, the word “trousers” was considered too shocking to say, presumably because it would lead to people imagining what was underneath them.

The Science-y Bit

swear2I’m a strong believer in swear words being an extremely useful part of language, if they’re used sparingly. They’re like the word ‘love’ – if you throw them around indiscriminately, they begin to lose all meaning and have no real effect when you need them most. Research shows that expletives seem to be associated with parts of the brain connected to emotions. And there’s nothing like a good swear word when you’re frustrated, angry, miserable, scared or even when you’re unbelievably happy. There are times when “flipping heck” just won’t cut it.

Studies have even shown that letting out a stream of dirty words can actually help to reduce pain. So next time you stub your toe, don’t hold in those curses that are desperate to get out; have a good old shout. Please judge for yourself whether you are in an appropriate setting or not; don’t go cursing in playgrounds and blaming it on me. This is most effective for people who don’t pepper their everyday language with expletives though – keep the swear words for when they’re most needed.

What do you think? Should swearing be eradicated, or is it a fact of life and here to stay?