31 January 2010

On swearing

I wanted to jot down a few unscientific observations on a linguistic area that I've been pondering for a while now: the differences I've observed in the use of swear words by citizens of the UK and by those of this part of Canada. I'm sure there are whole theses and many articles and other blog posts on the subject, but I've avoided reading about them so far.

I informally polled co-workers last week at the library (ranging in age from late teens to late 50s) to help me work out how they see some of these words. I also interrogated my children, as their language is actively being formed at school by listening to the usage of others. They also get corrected when they use words that their teachers or friends think are inappropriate; people don't tend to do that when you're a grown-up!

I'm breaking my discoveries down into three main types of swearing:

Regular swearing

Most of the swear-words in this section are used in both countries, although the teenager I spoke to said that she liked using the word 'bollocks', which she saw as a British swear word. Most of the usual swear words are the same, with the exception of 'pants' and 'bloody', which are much more specific to British, rather than Canadian English.*

Religious swearing

The first difference I noticed on moving here was the greater sensitivity to religious swearing. I didn't ask the women at the library about the use of the word 'God' (will have to do that next week!), but we did discuss 'damn' and 'Hell'. Neither of these last two words seems particularly taboo to me, but they are looked upon that way by my interviewees. I was fascinated to discover from my colleagues that 'Hell' is considered the worse word of the two. Which seems odd to me, as really it's just a place name. If I say "Bloody hell", then to me it's the 'bloody' bit that makes it more rude. It was interesting that the eldest of the women in the library managed to avoid saying 'Hell' even while we were discussing it, such was her aversion to the word. I guess teenagers here would not be given Paradise Lost to read, like we were.**

Swearing that isn't swearing

The day after my discussion with the library folk, I had a visit to the dentist's. There's a lovely hygienist there and we had a good chat while she was working on my teeth. Which isn't easy, as you know. One thing we talked about was the prevalence of fighting in hockey, which she described as 'stupid'.
"But I don't use that word to my son," she added.
This was a new one to me, but I asked my children about it and they confirmed that 'stupid' is another word that they are told not to use at school. My library informants told me that 'shut up' is also fairly taboo, which is interesting, given its recent change of use as an expression of incredulity in Valspeak. I'm now wondering how many other relatively inoffensive words I've been using turn out to be rude here.


I'm not someone who swears a lot.† Not in public anyway. But what I've come to realise over the last week or so is that I probably have been swearing (to other people's ears) without even knowing it. I'm sure my observations so far are only scratching the surface!

*'Bloody' may technically be a religious swear word, but I don't think that's common knowledge (and there seems to be some debate about whether it is or not).
**Well, only the first two books, if I'm honest.
†Except where tomato hornworms are concerned


Kevin Ashley said...

It's certainly a difficult area. I suspect "bloody" would be seen as much less offensive by Australian-English speakers, for instance. The greater sensitivity to religious words is widespread in North America in my experience. I've certainly observed folk in Texas flinching at things I thought mild. (Though I would have avoided exclamations such as "Christ on a bike" and its occasional partner "going backwards up a hill" both because it's very British and somewhat dated.)

Children are a whole different area of inventiveness. They're capable of continually turning the inoffensive into an insult. Witness how the term "special" became an insult in school playgrounds in the past 10 years. "You're special, you are" now implies that you are mentally impaired, physically disabled or both, and certainly isn't said with kindness. Not a swear word, but certainly rude.

Meredith said...

I'm still giggling over the whole pants thing. I had no idea.

"Bloody" just sounds exotic to me, very Harry Potter. ;)

And they're not taking away "stupid" from my vocabulary. How on earth would one have conversations about religion or politics in this corner of the world? (I'm living in the belt buckle of the Bible Belt.)

Very thought-provoking post!

Emily said...

Occasionally a student in my first grade class will tattle that someone else said the 's-word'. The first time this happened I was shocked. But I've come to find that they mean someone has said 'stupid.' Calling stupid a swear comes from their parents not me!

Perovskia said...

Meredith...living in that area, do you find you have to say less, that people are more sensitive? I stayed there for some time, but with some very unconventional people, so the words flew around in that house :)

Linda said...

This was really interesting to me as a linguist by training. I'm constantly made aware by my children that what I think is swearing they don't, and vice versa. Fascinating to learn about the Canadian variants of this age divide.

Diana Studer said...

Was it Noel Coward who said 'two peoples divided by a common language'?

Amanda said...

Elephant's Eye - it was George Bernard Shaw and I only know that because there's a great blog by the same name, written by an American linguist who lives in the UK.

Esther Montgomery said...

Theoretically I'm here to thank you for your Christmas Greetings but I'm a bit late (when am I not?) so I'll wish you a happy February instead.

(Did you do 'Pinch, Punch, first day of month' at school?)

(Oh. It's the second.)

Swearing. I can't bring myself to say certain words, even for the sake of academic discussion. I can't even write them down either. (So it turns out I share the inhibitions of your colleagues.) It makes it difficult to have conversations with children about what may and what shouldn't be said because I can't illustrate these recommendations with examples. It's uncomfortable having to face up to being a prudish person but I suppose this proves I am.

I do say 'damn' though. Don't know why. And not often. Another thing about it I don't understand is that children are shocked when I say it - though they say things which I consider much worse without blushing.

'Shut up!' - my mother used to get very uptight, angry and offended if ever we said this but nowadays, I would say much depends on tone of voice. In our family it can be said in warm terms of humour and affection - but with anger too, when it can seem very offensive.

'Stupid' - I wonder if that's because everyone is encouraged to be affirming and it's got a bit out of hand. I would say to a family member 'that's stupid' about something they have done but not tell someone they are stupid. I would also complain loudly that something I have read in the paper is 'stupid' - and expect everyone to agree with me, not be shocked.

I think sexual swearing is disrespectful about human relationships in general and anti-women in particular.

Finally - I am shocked that people use the words 'God' and 'Jesus' as swear words. I'm also shocked that it has become an acceptable thing to do. There is debate about what OMG stands for in blog / text speak but I would never use it because one explanation is that the 'G' is for 'God' and I really don't think that's acceptable. Again, it's surprising how commonly it is used and by whom.

I feel I've destroyed my reputation for ever now!

Happy Christmas


Amanda said...

Esther - thanks for your views on this. Just goes to show that swearing is an intensely personal thing (both in tolerance of particular words and in use of them). I'm intrigued by the overall cultural differences but it is hard to make generalisations when people's views vary so much.

Happy February to you, too!