“Bad” Language

Swearing, cursing, “bad” language, taboo language – we have a lot of names for this. You’re told not to use it as a child, but then you start noticing it all around. Like slang, it can be a powerful way to create in-group solidarity: if our group agrees that it’s okay to use this type of language (among friends or teammates, in our virtual world, whatever), then that sets our group apart from the rest of the world, and every time we use the “bad” language with each other, we reinforce our group solidarity. Also like slang, however, it means something else entirely when used across group lines, with great social risks involved.

Note that some indirect expressions known as euphemisms are designed to help you avoid “bad” language and/or uncomfortable topics, like saying you need to “visit the ladies’/gents’ room” which avoids the mention of bodily functions entirely, let alone the crude language that can be associated. Other such expressions, which are more technically described as dysphemisms, are actually intended to disconcert, and thus function the same way as swearing, e.g. “to blow chunks” for vomit.

Functions of Swearing

Swearing can be used for different purposes (and, of course, sometimes multi-functionally, simultaneously serving more than one purpose):

  • to vent negative feelings that are not directed towards the listener: e.g., “Oh! Shit! I forgot to pay my credit card bill!”
  • to show special intensity: e.g., If I say (non-sarcastically) that someone is “fucking brilliant,” the emotion is positive, but I want you to understand how extremely brilliant they are, and how strongly I feel about it.
  • to express anger directed towards the listener: and/or to directly insult the listener,  e.g. “Are you fucking crazy?” or “You bastard.”
  • to assert one’s own personal sense of power (by showing that you don’t have to follow your parents’ rules, the school’s rules, society’s rules, etc.)
  • It can even be used to fit in with a peer group: Like slang, swearing can be a positive politeness strategy, appealing to group solidarity – as long as swearing is a group norm.

Our emotional reactions and our judgment of the speaker will be influenced by how we interpret the function of the swearing.

Personal Differences in Use of Swearing

Some people swear a lot and think nothing of it – it’s just part of their personal style and doesn’t even indicate particular intensity when used with other members of the same group. Close friends may even call each other “bad” names in a friendly, teasing way. Some people will casually use taboo language when talking about sex or bodily functions (after all, if you’re willing to talk openly about these subjects, does it really matter which words you use?), but would never think of insulting someone by calling them a “bad” name. Other people seldom swear, so when they do, it’s shocking, and you know they’re really feeling strongly. Some (particularly those brought up to be very religious) never swear, no matter how angry they may get.

Wishy-Washy Advice

 In general, it requires a fairly sensitive ear to social nuances to understand how those around you are likely to respond to swearing. If you are part of a group that does curse a lot, and you wish to mirror that usage to express solidarity with the group, start slow, and do not swear at a member of the group or call anyone bad names – just use swearing in its (least objectionable) venting and intensifying functions. If you have social communication challenges, you’re better off avoiding swearing outside of close relationships and/or across group lines altogether unless it is your intention to be hostile and to offend, as the risk is great that it will.


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