The goal of this paper is to conduct a series of research on curse words, their meanings, and a brief history of profanity. I also intend to show that curse words are deemed acceptable in certain social situations in the American culture. To begin we must define semantic. Semantics is a branch of linguistics that deals with the study of meaning, changes in meaning, and the principles that govern the relationship between sentences or words and their meanings (Weinreich, Labov, & Weinreich, (1980).
It can also be referred to as the study of the relationships between signs and symbols and what they represent. But presently, does the meaning of the curse word matter anymore or is it the way we portray these bad words in a specific social situation? Ambiguity and Curse Words Currently there is no exact theory to explain why humans curse or why we chose the words we use to define these curse words. Psychologists, linguists, speech pathologists and a number of other researchers have been pondering on such an explanation for some time.
According to Jay, (2000), cursing is an essential element of language in linguistics and psycholinguistics that refers to multiple uses of offensive speech. The term cursing is subjected to many ambiguous words such as swearing, obscenity, name calling, insulting, ethnic-racial slurs, vulgarity and slang, (Jay, 2000).
People sometimes play games with words. People may also recite or memorise lists of words, for example when trying to learn the words of another language or to remember technical terms. And they may occasionally leaf through a dictionary looking at words more or less randomly. These are legitimate activities, enjoyable or useful as they may be. But they are not typical uses of words. Typically, ...
These terms will be used interchangeably throughout the paper. Thanks to research conducted by Timothy Jay in 1992, it was quite simple to distinguish between the use of cursing and its many ambiguous terms.
For starters, cursing is more than name calling. In fact, to curse is to call upon divine or supernatural power in order to cause harm to another, (Jay, 2000).
The intent behind cursing is to cause physical harm on another through the use of words and phrases. Most Americans use cursing in short phrases, out of anger and frustration to get their point across with strong emphasis of the portrayed emotion, (Jay, 2000).
Swearing is the use of any word or phrase that is likely to cause offense when used in middle class polite conversation (McEnery, 2005).
Swearing originally meant to take an oath legally or religiously until a second meaning allowed the term to take on the use of offensive language (Hughes, 2006).
Initially, swearing seemed to induce positivity in sentences as it replaced violent actions as a means of expressing anger (Jay, 1992) and still considered to be a synonym to the closely related word curse. To the American culture, obscenity is viewed as sexual in nature (Jay, 1992).
Obscene language may consist of words such as “fuck” “cunt,” or “motherfucker. ” According to Jay (1992), to label a word as obscene is technically restricting that word to free speech.
This means such a word cannot be used freely and can be subjected to restrictions or punishment from the head governing body. It is the American culture which gives obscene words the relation to sexual content and imagery. For this reason, courts deem obscenity as offensive and not to be freely uttered, especially in the media, books, and other forms of public entertainment (Jay, 1992).
Written in The Mother Tongue, English and How it Got That Way (Bryson, 1996), it is mandatory that a film or motion picture be rated R using certain explicit words.
The Federal Communications Commission, (FCC), attempted to exclude seven bad words from broadcast television; these consisted of “shit,” “piss,” “fuck,” “cunt,” “cocksucker,” “motherfucker,” and “tits,” (Sapolsky and Kaye, 2005).
David Trask once said, commenting on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby that “The Great Gatsby is about many things, but it is inescapably a general critique of the ‘American Dream’ and also of the ‘agrarian myth’ – a powerful demonstration of their invalidity for Americans of Fitzgerald’s generation and after.” Fitzgerald defiantly breaks down ...
Even though Americans can be intolerant of swearing, some swearing does occur on U. S. television (Sapolsky and Kaye, 2005) such as South Park (Grimm, 2003).
Producing several successful seasons, South Park used milder bad words like, “hell,” “ass,” “screw you,” “bitch,” bastard”, and “son-of-bitch,” for example (Sapolsky and Kaye, 2005).
Insults and slurs can be considered other forms of curse words, or bad words in general. They take on a similar meaning as curse words in their similar usage to cause harm to another individual. Although insults and slurs consist of different bad words, they are both forms of verbal attacks. While slurs deal with social background, race, and ethnicity indicating stereotypes, insults denote physical, mental, or psychological qualities (Jay, 1992).
Lastly, scatology was a new word for me which refers to the use of human waste products, (Jay, 1992).
Americans often hear the use of scatology amongst young adults and children more than older individuals. This is probably because the consept of human waste is humorous to the younger crowd. For example, my son, Aiden, likes to refer to his wet underwear as “pissy,” when he has an accident (which originated from his grandmother).
Other words in scatology include “shit,” “ass,” “crap,” or “ka ka. ” The classification of bad words is quite vital for the purposes of semantic evaluation. This allows linguists to define the different type of meanings these utterances employ on the human language (Jay, 1992).
Some of these classifications, as there are more than what I have listed above, may overlap a lot. According to Bryson, (1996) in order to know the actual meaning behind a curse word, the listener must know the intent and evaluate the structure in which the curse word is being used. For example, Whitney tells her best friend to “shut the fuck up” as they are laughing hysterically opposed to Whitney telling her friend to “shut the fuck up! ” as they are arguing over pizza. The example shows two different scenarios with the same word usage but different emotional intent behind them.
I am a real American fight for the rights of every man I am a real American fight for your life. When it comes crashing down and it hurts in side. Ya got to take a stand you don’t have to hide. If you hurt my friends you hurt me pride I got to be a man I got to slide. I am a real American fight for the rights of every man I am a real American fight for your life. I feel strong about right and ...
In order for the listener to interpret the two scenarios differently they must pay attention and evaluate how Whitney is communicating in each sentence. As put by Dewaele (2004), the perceived strength behind curse words matters rather than reasoned on the basis of word semantics. Curse Words in their Proper Setting Although, mainly found offensive, curse words are not always used to cause harm. For example, in a jokingly conversation between two friends, one may utter the statement “kiss my ass” which may be found humorous to the other friend.
Yet, still individuals do not always find curse words funny, such as when one is being told to “fuck off” during a disagreement. The use of cursing serves to exaggerate or put emphasis on the emotions of the speaker which also drags attention to the listener (Jay, 2000).
For this reason some people curse to show how strongly they feel about the topic they may be speaking on. For example, in my experience, when an argument breaks out the audience will hear name calling, such as “bitch,” “whore,” etc. Behind the name calling is direct intent to harm the other person being argued with.
Even though this is a bad example to show a positive use for curse words, it demonstrates the emotional anger and frustration that the two arguers are trying to convey through the use of name calling, or the term more widely accepted by the American public, curse words (Jay, 1992).
It seems to be mutual knowledge that curse words are bad “pursue,” yet they are still commonly used depending on the situation or demographics. For example, most parents know not to use curse words around young children. So, when is it okay to use cursing terms and why is it situational based?
Not only does the situation matter but the choice of curse words and culture makes a difference. Bryson (1996) provides a list of words found most offensive in certain cultures. Some of these bad words could be classified under slurs because they employ racial, social class and ethnic offense to a certain group of people. In Norwegian it is highly offensive to call someone a “devil” (Bryson, 1996), which is equivalent to the American “fucker. ” Some cultures however do not swear at all as their native language does not contain swear/curse words.
These cultures include the Japanese, Malayans, and most Polynesians and Native American Indians (Bryson, 1996).
... actually do feel better when we swear. Swearing and cursing are modes of speech existing in all human languages. They perform certain social and ... in use between genders for instance: is girls using less bad words than boys? It has come to my attention through the ...
Despite the small number of countries that do not condone to cursing, most cultures curse and have been doing so for a very long time (Bryson 1996).
A study on Romans, done by Dr. J. N. Adams of Manchester University in England, found an estimated 800 bad words in their vocabulary. These findings are outstanding, compared to the English language containing roughly around twenty depending on how they are being used (Bryson, 1996).
In an essay exploring the use of swear words during stand-up comedy, Susan Seizer found it appropriate to use such obscenity and vulgar words despite the Supreme Court censorship rulings. Siezer (2011), uses swear/curse words in an idiomatic, non-denotational, and non-referential way to promote humor and laughter for the audience. Her goal, in this study, was to use words such as “fuck” or “holy shit” to promote something other than sexual or excretory images to the public.
She also intends to further the effect of freeing Americans from these referential and denotational word uses in an attempt to open up poetic pleasures of word play (Seizer, 2011).
Seizer’s hypothesis was confirmed concluding her study. Through her examples and experiment she proved that the comedic use of dirty words can be illustrated in a non-denotational manner for the sake of comedy and humor. By using obscenity this way a shift in the audiences expectations and moved away from sexual vulgarity to sorts of pleasure (Seizer, 2011).
Obscenity throughout the experiment heightened and intensified the expressions of the speaker’s perspective and comical experiences which also put the audience at ease as the free play with words allow the comedian to open up and heighten the states of hilarity (Seizer, 2011).
Seizer’s study promoted the idea that curse words are not always seen as a bad thing but more situational based. Depending on the environment, it seems to be okay to freely play with words such as “dick,” “fuck,” “pussy,” and “shit,” as Susan used in her experiment.
Apparently, if it is humorous to the audience, freedom of speech is accepted anywhere. As reported by Andersson and Trudgill (1992), swearing may occur in jokes for humorous intent and many jokes depend on the shock value of swear words for humor; inversely relating curse words and comedy. Not only are curse words deemed acceptable through comedy but for entertainment purposes as well. Take pornography for example. Swear or bad words are used in porn to heightened erotic behavior between two actors. Coates (2003) also reported the use of swearing in social situations.
A person’s language is often connected to his or her social status. A person from a higher status will have a different dialect of the same language than someone from lower status. People brought up in poor surroundings or poverty are keen to swearing and have little concern to speaking properly as their language was intended. People from high society are the opposite. They are very much concerned ...
According to Coates (2003), Adolescents may express their identity of being cool through curse words or to display closeness in friendships and popular group settings. Brief History in Profanity After searching through several articles and multiple books I came to realize that curse words has never had a scientific historian. Mencken, (1944) reports bad words, or profanity as he terms it in his article, came to America from England during the Seventeenth Century. In this age of time the use of curse words was not socially accepted.
Mencken (1944) goes on to write about John Adams. In 1755, John Adams established rules for the Navy of the United Colonies in terms of profanity. Sailors who chose to speak profanely were authorized to wear a wooden collar or a shameful badge (Mencken, 1944).
John Adams was not the only man in history to punish citizens for the use of profanity. One year prior to Adam’s rules, George Washington employed his own set of rules for soldiers in order to decrease the use of swearing or profane cursing (Mencken, 1944).
Unfortunately, these rules did not hold many years.
Near the end of the century Richard Parkinson stated the words “damned” and “hell” as a new phrase used by many Republicans. Parkinson pointed out that men in high power used profane language as well, including George Washington (Mencken, 1944).
Accepting Curse Words Similar to our day in age, the restriction of cursing, profanity, and swearing was not successful and still widely used at the discretion of the public. Written in the North American Review of 1934, and cited in Mencken’s article (1944), Burges Johnson declared that American profanity was losing its” punch”.
By that he means the severity of curse words has diminished over time. As we can see, the practice of curse words is becoming more socially accepted and used to express identities for some people while emphasizing the intent behind speech for others. Hinduja and Patchin (2008) reported the extent to which teens swear on social networks. Their research data on swearing and Myspace showed 19. 2 percent of participant’s personal profiles contained swearing and 32. 8 percent of participants swearing on their friends profile.
The use of curse words have become part of male and female’s everyday language. No longer is it uncommon to hear a person use an offensive word to express their emotions. Not only is it unusual to hear in general, but it has become normal to hear obscene/profane words come from a female’s mouth as well. It has come to my attention through the media and listening or participating in everyday ...
Cursing has evolved and become a necessary part of language (Jay, 2000).
Mentioned in Jay’s book (2000), a comprehensive theory of cursing must be incorporated into human linguistics and psychological models of language because it captures the emotional aspects of language along with the emphasized, offensive intent behind the speaker. This theory of cursing must be accepted and incorporated into human linguistics because human language does not exist without human emotion which cannot be separated from emotional reactions in the use of language.