Profanity is socially offensive language, which may also be called swear words, curse words, cuss words, bad language, strong language, offensive language, crude language, coarse language, foul language, bad words, oaths, blasphemous language, vulgar language, lewd language, choice words, or expletives. The use of such language is called swearing, cursing, or cussing.
Used in this sense, profanity is a subset of a language's lexicon that is generally considered to be strongly impolite, rude or offensive. It can show a debasement of someone or something, or show intense emotion. Linguistically, profanity takes the form of words or verbal expressions that fall into the category of formulaic language.
In its older, more literal sense, "profanity" refers to a lack of respect for things that are held to be sacred, which implies anything inspiring deserving of reverence, as well as behaviour showing similar disrespect or causing religious offense.
The term "profane" originates from classical Latin "profanus", literally "before (outside) the temple". It carried the meaning of either "desecrating what is holy" or "with a secular purpose" as early as the 1450s. Profanity represented secular indifference to religion or religious figures, while blasphemy was a more offensive attack on religion and religious figures, considered sinful, and a direct violation of The Ten Commandments. Moreover, many Bible verses speak against swearing.
Profanities, in the original meaning of blasphemous profanity, are part of the ancient tradition of the comic cults which laughed and scoffed at the deity or deities. An example from Gargantua and Pantagruel is "Christ, look ye, its Mere de ... merde ... shit, Mother of God."
In English, swear words and curse words tend to have Germanic, rather than Latin etymology. "Shit" has a Germanic root, as, likely, does "fuck". The more technical alternatives are often Latin in origin, such as "defecate" or "excrete" and "fornicate" or "copulate" respectively.
Analyses of recorded conversations reveal that an average of roughly 80–90 words that a person speaks each day – 0.5% to 0.7% of all words – are swear words, with usage varying from 0% to 3.4%. In comparison, first-person plural pronouns (we, us, our) make up 1% of spoken words.
A three-country poll conducted by Angus Reid Public Opinion in July 2010 found that Canadians swear more often than Americans and British when talking to friends, while Britons are more likely than Canadians and Americans to hear strangers swear during a conversation.
Swearing performs certain psychological functions, and uses particular linguistic and neurological mechanisms; all these are avenues of research. Functionally similar behavior can be observed in chimpanzees, and may contribute to our understanding, notes New York Times author Natalie Angier. Angier also notes that swearing is a widespread but perhaps underappreciated anger management technique; that "Men generally curse more than women, unless said women are in a sorority, and that university provosts swear more than librarians or the staff members of the university day care center".
Keele University researchers Stephens, Atkins, and Kingston found that swearing relieves the effects of physical pain. Stephens said "I would advise people, if they hurt themselves, to swear". However, the overuse of swear words tends to diminish this effect. The Keele team won the Ig Nobel Peace Prize in 2010 for their research.
A team of neurologists and psychologists at the UCLA Easton Center for Alzheimer's Disease Research suggested that swearing may help differentiate Alzheimer's disease from frontotemporal dementia.
A group of researchers from Wright State University studied why people swear in the online world by collecting tweets posted on Twitter. They found that cursing is associated with negative emotions such as sadness (21.83%) and anger (16.79%) thus showing people in the online world mainly use curse words to express their sadness and anger towards others.
An interdisciplinary team of researchers from the University of Warsaw investigated bilingual swearing: why is it easier to swear in a foreign language? Their finding that bilinguals strengthen the offensiveness of profanities when they switch into their second language, but soften it when they switch into their first tongue, but do both statistically significantly only in the case of ethnophaulisms (ethnic slurs) led the scientist to the conclusion that switching into the second language exempts bilinguals from the social norms and constraints (whether own or socially imposed) such as political correctness, and makes them more prone to swearing and offending others.
The relative severity of various British profanities, as perceived by the public, was studied on behalf of the British Broadcasting Standards Commission, the ITC, the BBC, and the Advertising Standards Authority; the results of this jointly commissioned research were published in December 2000 in a paper called "Delete expletives?". It listed the profanities in order of decreasing severity.
A similar survey was carried out in 2009 by New Zealand's Broadcasting Standards Authority. The results were published in March 2010, in a report called "What Not to Swear". According to the Authority, the findings "measured how acceptable the public finds the use of swear words, blasphemies, and other expletives in broadcasting".
Types by purpose
- Abusive swearing, intended to offend, intimidate or otherwise cause emotional or psychological harm
- Cathartic swearing, used in response to pain or misfortune
- Dysphemistic swearing, used to convey that the speaker thinks negatively of the subject matter, and to make the listener do the same
- Emphatic swearing, intended to draw additional attention to what is considered to be worth paying attention to
- Idiomatic swearing, used for no other particular purpose, but as a sign that the conversation and relationship between speaker and listener is informal
Three Australian states (New South Wales, Queensland, and Victoria) have laws against using "offensive language" in public. These offences are classed as a summary offence. However, if the court is satisfied that the individual concerned had "a reasonable excuse to behave in such a manner", no offence is committed. In Australia's remaining states and territories, swearing is not illegal per se, but depending on circumstances may constitute disorderly conduct or a breach of the peace.
In Brazil, the Penal Code does not contain any penalties for profanity in public in a direct manner. However, direct offenses against one can be considered a crime against honor, with penalty of imprisonment of one to three months or a fine. The analysis of the offense is considered "subjective", depending on the context of the discussion and the relationship between the parts.
Section 175 of Canada's Criminal Code makes it a criminal offence to "cause a disturbance in or near a public place" by "swearing […] or using insulting or obscene language". Provinces and municipalities may also have their own laws against swearing in public. For instance, the Municipal Code of Toronto bars "profane or abusive language" in public parks. In June 2016, a man in Halifax, Nova Scotia, was arrested for using profane language at a protest against Bill C-51.
In New Zealand, the Summary Offences Act 1981 makes it illegal to use "indecent or obscene words in or within hearing of any public place". However, if the defendant has "reasonable grounds for believing that his words would not be overheard" then no offence is committed. Also, "the court shall have regard to all the circumstances pertaining at the material time, including whether the defendant had reasonable grounds for believing that the person to whom the words were addressed, or any person by whom they might be overheard, would not be offended".
- In public
Swearing, in and of itself, is not usually a criminal offence in the United Kingdom although in context may constitute a component of a crime. However, it may be a criminal offence in Salford Quays under a Public Space Protection Order which outlaws the use of "foul and abusive language" without specifying any further component to the offence, although it appears to be unclear as to whether all and every instance of swearing is covered. Salford City Council claims that the defence of "reasonable excuse" allows all the circumstances to be taken into account. In England and Wales, swearing in public where it is seen to cause harassment, alarm or distress may constitute an offence under section 5(1) and (6) of the Public Order Act 1986. In Scotland, a similar common law offence of breach of the peace covers issues causing public alarm and distress.
- In the workplace
In the United Kingdom, swearing in the workplace can be an act of gross misconduct under certain circumstances. In particular, this is the case when swearing accompanies insubordination against a superior or humiliation of a subordinate employee. However, in other cases it may not be grounds for instant dismissal. According to a UK site on work etiquette, the "fact that swearing is a part of everyday life means that we need to navigate a way through a day in the office without offending anyone, while still appreciating that people do swear. Of course, there are different types of swearing and, without spelling it out, you really ought to avoid the 'worst words' regardless of who you’re talking to". With respect to swearing between colleagues, the site explains that "although it may sound strange, the appropriateness [of] swearing [...] is influenced largely by the industry you are in and the individuals you work with". The site continues to explain that, even in a workplace in which swearing is the norm, there is no need to participate in it. The site stresses that swearing is, in general, more problematic in asymmetric situations, such as in the presence of senior management or clients, but it also mentions that a "holier than thou" attitude towards clients may be problematic.
The Guardian reported that "36% of the 308 UK senior managers and directors having responded to a survey accepted swearing as part of workplace culture", but warned about specific inappropriate uses of swearing such as when it is discriminatory or part of bullying behaviour. The article ends with a quotation from Ben Wilmott (Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development): "Employers can ensure professional language in the workplace by having a well drafted policy on bullying and harassment that emphasises how bad language has potential to amount to harassment or bullying."
In the United States, courts have generally ruled that the government does not have the right to prosecute someone solely for the use of an expletive, which would be a violation of their right to free speech enshrined in the First Amendment. On the other hand, they have upheld convictions of people who used profanity to incite riots, harass people, or disturb the peace. In 2011, a North Carolina statute that made it illegal to use "indecent or profane language" in a "loud and boisterous manner" within earshot of two or more people on any public road or highway was struck down as unconstitutional.
Minced oaths are euphemistic expressions made by altering or clipping profane words and expressions to make them less objectionable. Although minced oaths are often acceptable in situations where profanity is not (including the radio), some people still consider them profanity. In 1941, a judge threatened a lawyer with contempt of court for using the word "darn".
In popular culture
- Ulysses by James Joyce, whose characters swear freely
- The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger was controversial for its use of the word "fuck".
- Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw (for the use of bloody)
- Gone with the Wind, 1939 film based on the novel by Margaret Mitchell includes the line "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn". This has been wrongly asserted to be among the first uses of profanity in a major American film. In fact, films produced in America prior to 1935 occasionally used strong language and gestures.
- Winnebago Man, documentary starring Jack Rebney
- Seven Dirty Words – a 1972 comedy monologue by George Carlin, in which he named the seven words that, he said, must never be used in a television broadcast.
- The British film director Ken Loach is known for his use of authentic language, which has led many of his films to include a large amount of profanity. His early films were amongst the first cases of swearing on the BBC, and the sensitivity of profanity was explored in the dialogue of his 1977 film The Price of Coal. In 2002, the film Sweet Sixteen generated some media debate as it was given an 18 certificate for the very large amount of profanity, and not for any violent or sexual content. Loach argued that the language used was typical of the working-classes in Greenock in Scotland and that the BBFC censors had a "London-centric view".
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- Damasio, Antonio (1994) Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain. ISBN 978-0-399-13894-2
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- Pinker, Steven (2007) The Stuff of Thought. Viking Press. ISBN 978-0-670-06327-7
- Swearing in Public is Against the Law (Really) – FindLaw Australia
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- "Calúnia, difamação e injúria: os crimes contra a honra". Blog de Wellington Saraiva (in Portuguese). 2013-06-12. Retrieved 2018-05-11.
- Canada’s weirdest laws: it’s illegal to swear in a Toronto park, FindLaw Canada.
- Nova Scotia man facing trial for swearing in public, thestar.com.
- "Summary Offences Act 1981 No 113 (as at 01 March 2017), Public Act – New Zealand Legislation". www.legislation.govt.nz.
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Another perennial target, J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye, was challenged in Maine because of the "f" word.
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- Pygmalion, Act III. Eliza's "Walk? Not bloody likely!"
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- BBFC Case Studies – Sweet Sixteen. bbfc.co.uk
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- Most vulgar words in The Online Slang Dictionary (as voted by visitors)
- Francis Grose (1811). Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue at Project Gutenberg