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Language Warning: Are There Any Powerful Swear Words Left?

by Rebecca Roache
04 November 2015
At the Festival of Dangerous Ideas, The Ethics Centre’s interactive art installation asked, what do you wish we could talk more about? One question asked “are there any powerful swear words left”? Rebecca Roache thinks that’s bullshit.
Despite its usefulness after locking your keys in the house, forgetting about a crucial meeting or tripping on your child’s toy, people object to swearing for a range of reasons. These reasons are usually moral, or quasi-moral. We’re often told swearing is disrespectful, impolite, aggressive, intimidating, insulting and so on.
It is also common to hear a pragmatic objection to swearing. We risk wearing out swear words by saying them too often. If overused, swear words will lose their power to shock. Too much swearing will result in a bland, emotionally inert vocabulary.
Is this true? Is it already happening?
This pragmatic worry is well-founded. Philosopher Joel Feinberg remarked that swear words “acquire their strong expressive power in virtue of an almost paradoxical tension between powerful taboo and universal readiness to disobey”. We need the taboo in order to have powerful swear words in the first place. And we need to break the taboo in order to make use of their power.
If we are too eager to disobey a taboo then we risk losing the taboo. This frequently happens in other areas of life, often for the better. Public displays of homosexuality were shocking twenty years ago but – at least in the UK and many other countries – not now, largely thanks to increasing visibility and openness about sexuality.
It is reasonable to worry that this might be happening with swearing too. There are more opportunities to encounter swearing than there once were due to increasingly liberal attitudes and the proliferation of uncensored discussion on the internet. A report by the BBC and the ASA (the Advertising Standards Authority) found that “fuck” – once close to the pinnacle of offensiveness – is less shocking than it used to be.
We probably have a few years to go before the Queen uses her Christmas Day speech to report that she has had a “fucking shit year”.

But this worry underestimates the complexity of how we shock people by swearing. Whilst “fuck” is pretty ubiquitous in some contexts, there remains a strong taboo against using it in other contexts. We probably have a few years to go before the Queen uses her Christmas Day speech to report that she has had a “fucking shit year” rather than an annus horribilis. It will be a while before your doctor breaks news of your terminal illness by saying, in a most sympathetic voice, “You are totally fucked”.
And even in contexts where we can swear more freely, much depends on how we swear. Your Facebook friends may not bat an eyelid at your Saturday night status update, “Fucking wasted again”.
You might, however, put a few noses out of joint if you respond to their cheerful birthday wishes with a “Fuck you!” Being able to use swearing to shock is not purely a matter of the availability of shocking words.
In any case, even if “fuck” really were to lose its shock value we still have plenty of other powerful expressions to choose from. Many people who don’t mind “fuck” still draw the line at “cunt”. If you really want to capture someone’s attention in these enlightened times you could try swearing with a racist or homophobic slur. The offensiveness of this sort of language has increased at the same time as the offensiveness of “fuck” has decreased.
There are persuasive moral reasons why you shouldn’t use prejudicial language but the issue here is not the ethics of offensive language, but whether we have any powerful swear words left. The availability of shocking words tracks what people find offensive. As long as we remain offended by something or other we will have the capacity to offend people by referring to it in certain ways. And if offensive ways to refer to it don’t exist, we can invent them.
If you are looking for a way to shock and offend, to express anger or to help you cope with the pain of stepping barefoot on a piece of Lego, you don’t need to resort to hate speech. You don’t need to swear either. Just break a few taboos.
Go on Facebook and tell your best friend his new baby is ugly. Tell your boss she’s put on weight. Loudly summarise your preferred masturbation techniques for the benefit of everyone in your train carriage.
Hell, you don’t even need to use language. Give your colleagues the middle finger. Turn up to work naked. Take a dump in the aisle during a church service. Write an online essay replete with swear words and disconcerting examples.
With a little imagination we can find limitless and powerful ways to offend people if that’s what we want to do. We don’t need to give a fuck about whether our favourite swear words are declining in their capacity to shock.
Rebecca Roache is a lecturer in philosophy at Royal Holloway, University of London. You can visit her blog here and follow her on Twitter @rebecca_roache. Image: Jonathon Rolande.