Friday, February 25, 2011

Bad Words

As a teacher, I used to get a lot of interest when I told my classes that we would be discussing swearwords. In the first place, I don't think the students thought I knew any. In the second place, most kids don't think much about where such words come from.
Swearing is ancient. It's addressed in the Ten Commandments. (In case you weren't paying attention, it's frowned upon.) People have apparently always had an urge to call other people something really, really bad when they're mad at them. What's interesting is what we consider bad.
Using terms for the Creator "in vain" was and still is to many people the worst sort of language. Oddly, some Christian cultures see it differently: the German "Mein Gott" and the French "Mon Dieu" are seen as expressions, not swearing. We've gone a long way in that direction. Even those nice game shows on TV don't bother to bleep the "Oh, my God" repetitions from joyful contestants anymore.
In addition to terms concerning the Deity, there are lots of other "bad" words, including words that demean another person. In an earlier post, I mentioned that some words did not start out to be insults, like "wench" and "villain". They were terms for the lower class and, since there were only two classes, the upper class took offense when those terms were applied to them.
Different cultures insult each other in different ways. European and Asian insults often liken a person to an animal, like calling someone a "goat" or a "buffalo". The Japanese tend to insult a person by implying that he does not act logically, and they also drag vegetables into it, perhaps calling someone an "irrational carrot". An interesting Jewish insult seems like a compliment on the surface. If a traditional Jew says "may a child be named after you", don't get all warm and fuzzy. In their tradition, children are not named after living people. So he's wishing...well, you get it.
American insults tend to be sexual, which probably stems from our Puritan roots, i.e., sex is bad, so people are insulted by referring to their sexual behavior. Generally, we insult a woman by saying that she sleeps around. Oddly enough, you really can't insult a man that way: “gigolo” just doesn’t have the hurting power of “whore”. You can, however, insult a man’s MOTHER’s sexuality, and the circumstances of his birth. Those are usually fighting words.
Terms that indicate sexual perversion are favorites for insults among males. They come and go rapidly, creating confusion for the uninitiated. I worked with a teacher who went ballistic if students used the word “bugger”. Her background was English, and to her it was a very nasty word. The kids would come to me in genuine confusion to ask why she got so upset. To them, and to most speakers of American English, it was a pretty innocuous word.
Research in some tribal areas in the South Seas found that our worst sexually-based insults seemed humorous to the people living there. The idea that a man would sleep with his mother brought laughter, since it was so far out of their experience. Conversely, a terrible insult in the Maori culture is something like "cooked head", which we don't get at all. (Maybe we don’t want to consider whence that one came!)
It's interesting to note that when so-called "swear words" are over-used, they lose their original potency and even their meaning. Used as adjectives to modify any noun, even nouns the speaker has nothing against, they become brain stutters, fillers thrown into some people’s speech without insult or even intent. The speakers seem unaware of them, but they might insult listeners who object either to the word choice or to the constant repetition. There are frequent arguments among readers and writers about how much swearing is enough or too much in books. For me, language helps to establish characters, and I don’t mind swearing that does that. Craig Johnson’s Moretti, for example, is real to me because she is the perfect example of the unconscious swearer. Foul-mouthed, yes. A bad person? Hardly.
I suppose it comes down to what a person has been taught is insulting.
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The Pitch: THE DEAD DETECTIVE AGENCY, First in The Dead Detective Mysteries, paranormal mystery. Tori Van Camp wakes in a stateroom on a cruise ship with no memory of booking a cruise, but she does have a vivid recollection of being shot in the chest. Determined to find out what happened and why, Tori enlists the help of an odd detective named Seamus. Together they embark on an investigation like nothing she’s ever experienced. Death is all around her, and unless they act quickly, two people she cares about are prime candidates for murder. Read more about this book and the author at or buy the book at
The Perpetrator: Peg Herring writes historical and contemporary mysteries. She loves everything about publishing, even editing (most days). Peg’s historical series, The Simon and Elizabeth Mysteries, debuted in 2010 to great reviews. The second in the series will be available in November from Five Star.


Maryannwrites said...

Enjoyed getting some history on swear words. It is interesting to note how different cultures have different reactions to the same words. And I agree that I do not want to know the details of "cooked head." LOL

Author Peg Herring said...

I will admit to, at times, being very much like an irrational carrot. :>