Swearing can be funny, descriptive, or make your blood boil but there happens to be a key theme running through most curse words in the English language. Of the most commonly used swear-words, only one that came to mind was not relevant to sex or genitalia, which reveals the Puritanical roots of swearing. Swearing, and people’s reactions to it, is a profoundly political act and I put it to you that those who protest most vociferously to ‘foul language’ are endeavouring to maintain a social conservatism that the overwhelming majority of people feel is rooted in the 1950s. To illustrate my point let’s look at the most frequently used swear-words and analyse their literal meaning to establish why these collections of letters are looked upon so scornfully.
Sexual intercourse is a fact of life and, I would argue, a necessity of existence. However much of the language of swearing is using vocabulary that are describing sex itself, or people that participate in sex. Although not really swearing ‘slut’ and ‘slag’ are misogynistic slurs to insult women that choose to have ‘a lot’ of sex, even though the same behaviour from men is often seen by wider society as a positive characteristic. In addition my favourite swear-word, ‘fuck’, when used as a verb refers specifically to having sex, yet it is also seen as one of the most severe swear-words even though having sex is natural both among humans and other animals.
Furthermore ‘whore’ is often dolled out as the ‘go to’ insult for men that wish to criticise women for having lots of sex, however what this insult does, as all of these three do, is expose how these men have been indoctrinated into viewing women in a certain way. These men have been told, either directly or indirectly, that women are to be sexually passive or inactive and that females who don’t conform to this sexist standard are somehow dirty or impure.
The term ‘bastard’ is used to describe men whose parents had procreated outside of wedlock, however in the 21st Century deviating from the traditional nuclear family that was encouraged by social conservatives is no longer met with social stigmatisation thus blunting the literal meaning of the term. People now acknowledge that parents that are not married can be just as good at raising children as those that are; as a consequence ‘bastard’ is no longer seen in as offensive a light as it had among previous generations.
As well as what could be called ‘orthodox sex’, swear-words relating to masturbation are also common. In the UK ‘wanker’ is used to pejoratively refer to someone that is disliked however the most literal meaning of the word is ‘a man who masturbates’, and has become part of British vernacular. This is fascinating as it points to the religiosity of previous generations, and the residual impact of conservative religious attitudes has resulted in the stigmatisation of sexual acts that are, let’s be honest, common. In the United States the same applies with the insults ‘jack-off’ and ‘jerk-off’, which, although not as harsh, reflect the same ingrained sexism in Western culture.
As I have said crude synonyms for genitalia are some of the most frequently used swear-words. References to the male genital organ are incredibly common when referring to people pejoratively; ‘cock’, ‘dick’, and ‘prick’ are all used to denote, often a man, who has ruined a situation or is acting in a way that is opposed by that social group. Similarly references to vagina, like ‘cunt’ and ‘twat’, are much more aggressive than references to penises. It would seem therefore that this linguistic double-standard is a result of both historic squeamishness regarding female sexual activity, and the institutionalised sexism of Western culture.
If we were to look scientifically at the two sets of sexual organs we would see no reason for a value judgement to be made, yet our collective response to language associated with these two differs greatly between being called a ‘prick’, which is often shrugged off by the recipient of the insult, or being called a ‘cunt’ which is seen in a more serious light with the person using the word often criticised for obscenity.
Swearing, like all language, is an expression of people’s culture and heritage however it is important to understand the fixation that swear-words have on sex and on genitalia. Swearing reflects the culture that it is spawned from and the disparity between the offence taken from references to penises and references to vaginas is so wide that inherent, institutionalised sexism is the only logical explanation. Being consciously aware of this disparity means that we, as English speakers, can have the pleasure of coming up with new imaginative swear-words that make us appear like comedic geniuses.