What is the Point of Swearing if Not to Give Offense?
An acquaintance shared this on Facebook recently. It is a striking image, if not an original thought.
But it seems to me to entirely miss the point of swearing. Why swear at all if not to give offense? What on earth is the point of swearing otherwise? Indeed, how do we decide that a word is a swear word except by its intent to offend?
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There are, of course, people whose speech is peppered with f-bombs and s-bombs, thrown off so casually that you might claim that they cannot possibly mean to give offense by every one of them. But I don’t think that’s true. We can be certain that no one who speaks like that is entirely unaware that they are swearing, and that swearing offends people. After all, no one would create or share a graphic like the above if they were not aware that people find swearing offensive. They would not partially obscure the offensive word it contains if you did not think it would give offence. And if you say something that you know offends people, you are intending the effect. You are, in short, being deliberately offensive.
Now I don’t think it is always wrong to do or say something you know others will find offensive. We live in an age that has turned taking offence into a high political art. Sometimes one has to offend merely to speak the truth where the truth needs to be spoken. It is an old trick of the ideologue to demand acquiescence to a lie as the price of not giving offense, and this is too high a price to pay. But this hardly applies to swearing. Certainly not to most of it.
Not every exclamation is a swear word. We do like to exclaim in moments of strong emotion. It is part of how we express our emotions, and there are plenty of words that are generally accepted as innocent exclamations, like darn, and heck, and yippee. And then there are former swearwords now considered so mild that many people may use them without realizing that there are still some who find them offensive. Examples include h—l and d—n. (I’m eliding these not to be precious, but to avoid creating a shibboleth to limit who can participate in this discussion.) We can therefore disagree about what is and is not a swearword, but if you use a word you understand to be a swear word, your intent is to offend.
Swearing is a kind of shibboleth. It is designed to carve out a bit of the world for a group or class of people by creating an atmosphere hostile to outsiders. Swearing is both a form of aggression used to ward off outsiders and a kind of mating cry to attract others of their own kind.
We can see this clearly enough when we meet the perpetual pottymouth outside their element. In church or a doctor’s office, for example, all the swearwords disappear from their speech and they become deeply apologetic if they let one slip through. Like a dog off its home territory, their tails are down and their posture is submissive. The swearing resumes the moment they feel themselves back on their own ground, in their own crowd.
This distinction between swearing places and non-swearing places is also the basis of performative swearing. This is most commonly practiced by f-bomb comedians, but you will find novelists and other types of performers doing it too. Saying that one does not find swearing offensive is just another kind of performance. It is not a claim that swearing is not offensive. It is a claim that the speaker is a kind of sophisticate. It is the distinction they are after, the distinction between the weak and simpering masses who are offended and their bold and sophisticated selves who are not. If swearing actually were not offensive, if there were no non-swearing places, then the distinction would disappear and their claim of sophistication and boldness with it. Swearing draws a line, it makes a distinction, that is the point.
There are, of course, the sociopaths who never feel themselves off their own ground and will swear anywhere. But they are fully aware of the effect that this has and they fully intend it. Of course they mean their swearing to be offensive. And if a word lost its offense over time (there are vast dictionaries of retired swearwords available: words that would evoke puzzlement rather than offence today) they would find another that was still or newly offensive, because offense is the whole point.
The question of whether and how to deal with swearing in fiction is a longstanding one. And it hangs on these two things: its capacity to give offense, and its capacity to act as a shibboleth. These two capacities are, of course, two side of the same coin: swearing only acts as a shibboleth because it is offensive. It excludes those who will not say it or will blush to hear it. It includes and gives comfort to those who will say it and will not blush to hear it. The problem for the author arises when they want to portray characters of the second type to readers of the first type. To include the character’s swearing is to risk offending the reader. To omit it is to risk misrepresenting the character.
A large part of the answer to this is to focus on the function of swearing: to give offence and, thereby, to create shibboleths. A writer can avoid swearing in their story by having their characters give offence and erect shibboleths in other ways, or by using other words.
If you are an historical novelist, particularly one of the authenticity-above-all-else school, you can buy one of those dictionaries of retired swearwords and use the ones appropriate to your period. If you are writing science fiction, you can make up your own, like Red Dwarf’s “smeg” and Battlestar Gallactica’s “frac” and “feldercarb.”
If, like me, you are writing about a time where people spoke a now-dead language, you can borrow words from it that might have been quite innocent at the time. Thus when Elswyth in The Wistful and the Good wants to be particularly offensive, she uses the word “swiv,” which was the Anglo-Saxon word for making the beast with two backs.
Actually, “swiv” shows something interesting about swearwords. It is entirely clear from the context of the novel what Elswyth is saying when she says “swiv” and what word a contemporary young woman would use in the same context. And yet no one has ever expressed any offense at it. When to comes to swearing, it is the word itself that gives offence, not the meaning. (By the way, I have no idea if the Anglo-Saxons would have considered swiv a swearword or not. I claim poetic license on that one.)
This illustrates all the more that the sole intent of swearing is to give offense. If it is the word that offends, and not the meaning, then the only content that the word possesses is the offense it gives. And this perhaps explains those vast dictionaries of retired swearwords. Once a swearword loses its power to offend, it has no other function. It becomes an antique, a curiosity.
This is perhaps because making a word a swearword robs it of all meaning save the offense it gives. The f-word was once an inoffensive Anglo-Saxon word meaning to strike (not to swiv). Today, it’s association with the sex act is actually somewhat diminished, as it is used in all kinds of contexts where there is no implication of intercourse, only the intent to hurt or offend.
All of which gives us clues as to how to handle a character who intends to give offence or to create shibboleths to exclude others. Focusing on the intent to offend or to exclude, rather than the specific means by which it is accomplished, allows you to create the full effect in the story without the unintended side-effect of offending or alienating the reader.
This is much easier for historical novelists and science fiction and fantasy writers, who have easy recourse to alternate words. Those writing contemporary works will have a hard time making alternate swearwords not sound precious or ridiculous. The alternative, and one that writers have used in past times where swearing would not have got past the editors or the censors, is to find other ways for characters to give offence and erect barriers. And this will often make for better stories, since it will force the writer to delve deeper into the nature of the characters and the more subtle and particular ways in which they can offend and exclude each other.
Unless, of course, their intended reader demands the use of swearwords as a condition of reading the book. The audience, in other words, may have shibboleths of their own by which they exclude books and authors who will not speak their shibboleths. In that case, the author will have to swear to be accepted. But if that is the audience they want to reach, I doubt this issue worries them much at all.
Speaking of swearing, you probably won’t find much of it in the promo that I am currently participating in on Book Funnel. This one is for Christian authors, and some of you may find that off-putting. I find it a little off-putting myself, because I hate books that preach. I’m not opposed to preaching, but its not what novels are for. That's not the kind of books I write and its not the kind of book that the promoter of this promo asked for. He asked for mainstream novels by Christian authors of all denominations, including Catholic (which is what I am). I don't know if that's what he got from other participants. It is what he got from me. But it helps my reputation on Book Funnel if you click through, and you can also pick up a preview excerpt of my forthcoming fairy-tale fantasy novel, Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight. Thanks for your support.
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I strongly disagree with the assumption that the primary purpose of swearing is to give offense.
There are situations where the only honest reaction is the f-bomb. Or s--t.
A car breakdown. Chainsaw chain coming off the saw bar. Something isn't working right, so swearing at it (probably closer to the older notion of cursing than anything else) is to some degree a form of sympathetic magic intended to make it work right.
Swearing, at least to me, is more about expressing anger or frustration with a situation. A punctuation mark.
But to give offense to someone? Nope, not even on the radar. I don't swear at people to offend them. If I do swear at someone, it's because they have crossed a personal boundary and I'm frustrated or angry with them. Period. Giving offense isn't even in the picture. And if they think that all I'm doing is attempting to offend them, well, they are waaaay off the mark.
I agree with much of what Joyce says below. I was going to say something along those lines as well. I think swearing (or as I grew up calling it, "cursing" is complicated. Sometimes it is definitely intended to give offense, especially when used as a slur (calling someone the c-word, etc.) But very often in verbal conflicts between people, objects, and events, swear words are employed as curses--consciously or unconsciously. The words are held so strictly in reserve by society and kept taboo in order to amplify their power when called upon. Whether shouted as an exclamation (d_mn it!) in a moment of anger or danger, or called out to a rival (go __ yourself! eat __ and die!) these are clearly patterned on traditional curses. I think we like to forget this because of the magical and superstitious connotations, but we're creatures of habit, and cursing is cathartic (and gives a sense of action when none is possible.)
Of course, some people have also taken this language and become more creative with it as it has entered their daily speech. This removes or lessens the taboo for those who become casual adopters of swears, so that the "curses" don't have the same effect on them. I grew up in a working class environment where swearing was elevated to an art form, and we were immunized against "offensive" language--probably by design. It was even used affectionately. There's not a word you could say to me that would ever shock or upset me. I consider this a gift. It's like spiritual armor.
As far as writing fiction goes, this is a sound guide, and I think authors are wise to consider their stories and the kinds of audiences they expect to be reading their them. My own books contain (historically accurate) things like headhunting, scalping, and human sacrifice. I'm assuming if my readers can handle that, they're probably not going to begrudge me a little rough language.