#@&*! – The Linguistics of Profanity

Warning: As you may have guessed from the title, this post will include foul language.The profanities in this post will be used in a rather clinical way and without any intention to offend, but I understand that not everyone wants to have uncensored profanity visible on their screens, whether due to kids reading, work, or personal sensibilities. 

If you’re like me and started learning foreign languages as a preteen, the first things you may have tried to learn after hello, how are you, or “the pig is eating bread” (if you’re using Duolingo) were a few choice four-letter words. Swearing, oaths, obscenities, and the like are a cross-cultural, cross-linguistics phenomenon; according to the linguist Magnus Ljung (2011), profanities share common features across languages:

Taboo meaning/subject matter – think about the swear words we use in English and what they tend to refer to: sex (fuck and its derivatives, dick, prick, tits, twat), bodily functions (shit), religion (damn/goddamn, hell), or a person’s intrinsic qualities such as race or ethnicity.

Interestingly enough, many languages, including English, Russian, Mandarin Chinese, and Spanish, have grand traditions of profanities and insults centered around one’s mother. Yo momma, indeed.

Emotive meaning (Ljung 2011, ix) – Ljung (2011) says, in concurrence with other linguistics, that we assign non-literal meanings to profanities. While this is certainly true, I disagree with the idea that non-literal meaning must be a criterion to define a word or phrase as profanity. We can use “shit” to refer to literal excrement, for instance. That said, when we use the word “shit” as opposed to excrement, manure, poop, caca, number two, et cetera, it indicates our social and emotional context: perhaps anger, or comfort with our interlocutor to the point of using informal, impolite language without consequence.

Specific Functions – Related to Emotive meaning, swearing has clearly denoted functions in communication. Profanity is an emotional exclamation (“Dammit!”), an unfriendly or hostile way to address someone (“Go fuck yourself!”), or a way to emphasize an utterance (“Un-be-fucking-lievable”).

Formulaicity – According to Ljung (2011), profanities can only be plugged into sentences in certain ways and have a lot of grammatical constraints – they are often fixed phrases. Though I personally wonder if this can vary in some languages more than others.

Just as in any linguistic phenomenon, we choose swear words from our linguistic repertoires based on social and emotional context. When we choose whether or not to swear, we’re making judgments on what is or isn’t offensive or taboo in a given context (and whether or not we want to offend or say something taboo). This, of course, varies from culture to culture. For example, I remember a YouTube reviewer of bad movies who found it funny and odd that a German animated film marketed for children used the phrase “what the hell is going on here?” — hell is not as taboo in certain countries as it often is in American English.

We may choose to swear because we feel that it wouldn’t be offensive (saying “what the hell” in a children’s movie aimed at a market with fewer hang-ups about religion-related swearing) or because we want to offend and transgress (take your pick for examples). Of course, that takes us into the sticky territory of what actually is or isn’t offensive. Ljung’s (2011) list of general trends (sex, bodily functions, race/ethnicity/gender, religion) is helpful, but as we saw in the “what the hell” example, your offensive mileage may vary.

This dovetails with my earlier point about Emotive meaning and how positive and negative emotions can spur one to swear — I think I might call this positive swearing and negative swearing, though I’m sure that there are other names for this sort of thing that people far smarter than I have come up with and written about at length. Positive swearing is the use of profanity to indicate familiarity or intimacy, and certainty that one is not offending or transgressing social boundaries. Negative swearing is the use of profanity to violate a social norm, or to indicate contempt or anger. In both cases, profanity is a way to denote a lack of concern for social distance or propriety in a given context.

Profanity is, just like T-V distinction, language choice, or use of slang, a way to establish and define relationships. More broadly, like any linguistic phenomenon, profanity is a collection and culmination of a series of choices, both conscious and unconscious.



Ljung, M. (2011). Swearing: A Cross-Cultural Linguistic Study. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.



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