Strong language is common to most cultures, but what makes a word profane, and how does cursing vary from place to place? James Harbeck explains.

Warning: This article contains very strong language that may offend some readers.

Devil! Cancer-sufferer! Chalice of tabernacle!

The reason I can say this is because I am writing in English, not Finnish, Dutch, or Québécois French.

You might think that the definition of ‘bad’ words would be similar around the world. You wouldn’t be entirely right. Strong language – swearing, profanity, whatever you want to call it – is special.

If everyday language is like the earth’s crust and the soil we garden our lives in, strong language is like volcanoes and geysers erupting through it from the mantle below. Our social traditions determine which parts of the crust are the thin points. It’s not enough to feel strongly about something; it has to have a dominating societal power and control structure attached to it. Strong language often involves naming things you desire but aren’t supposed to desire; at the very least, it aims to upset power structures that may seem a bit too arbitrary.

We tend to think of swear words as one entity, but they actually serve several distinct functions. Steven Pinker, in The Stuff of Thought, lists five different ways we can swear: “descriptively (Let’s fuck), idiomatically (It’s fucked up), abusively (Fuck you…!), emphatically (This is fucking amazing), and cathartically (Fuck!!!).” None of these functions require swearwords. In Bikol (a language of the Philippines), there’s a special anger vocabulary – many words have alternative words that refer to just the same thing but also mean you’re angry. In Luganda (an African language), you can make a word insulting just by changing its noun class prefix – from a class for persons to a class for certain kinds of objects, for instance. In Japanese, you can insult someone badly just by using an inappropriate form of ‘you’.

Not all taboo language counts as swear words. Some taboo language is still strong language, even if we don’t think of it as ‘swearing’ – racial epithets, insults based on disabilities and sexual orientation – but some relates to things you avoid naming because of their power. Our word ‘bear’ comes from a word for ‘brown’ that was used in place of the ‘true’ name of the animal; nobody wanted to say its name lest it appear. In southern Africa, some cultures have a ‘respect’ speech that is imposed on women in regard to their in-laws: for instance, their father-in-law’s name is taboo, as is any word that sounds like it – but that doesn’t turn the father-in-law’s name into an expletive they shout when they hurt themselves.


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