Swearing. Cursing. Cussing. Profanity. There are certain times and certain states of mind that call out for an F-bomb or other kind of “rude word.” Over at The Conversation, Michael Adams, professor of English at Indiana University in Bloomington, and author of the book In Praise of Profanity asks, “Do we swear too much?”
Before I tell you more about what he’s saying, let me relate an anecdote. Once upon a time, right at the beginning of the century, at a media company in Cape Town where I worked as an editor, I had a designer colleague who used to drop some form of the word “fuck” into – literally – every sentence. At a minimum. An early morning, “Howzit?” would invariably get “Fucken A” as a response. Things weren’t just “lekker” or “kiff”, they were “fucken lekker” or “fucken kiff.” Something wasn’t just broken or badly done, it was “fucken fucked.” It happened sometimes that “This fucken thing’s fucken fucked.” *
Back then it was still a relatively new company, and most of the time we worked quite closely – and this kind of thing went on all day. All. Bloody. Day. After a while, I suppose, when I talking with him I picked up some of this habit and my language took on a more severely profane character – but I didn’t think I needed to tell the CEO, about paying advertisers sending us their advertising material, that “These fucken clients must get their shit in now.” … Anyway, the designer guy has since got married, settled down, and become a dad. He doesn’t swear so much anymore.
It’s this kind of thing that Adams is interested in when he asks, “Do we swear too much?” Adams references cursing expert Timothy Jay to the effect that “profanity amounts to roughly 0.5 percent of the average speaker’s daily verbal output.” On average, that’s one out of every 200 words – not a lot. Moreover, compared to how slang proliferates, the actual core vocabulary of profanity is small, with new forms usually based on established words.
There’s some interesting historical background as to when the swearwords we still use today first entered the English language. While “shit” was already present in Old English, “fuck” is only found in English from the late 15th century. “Oh, shit!” is much later, from the middle of the 1800s. Similarly, “bitch” is found in English early, from around 1400, but “son of a bitch” only shows up 300 years later.
Adams’ primary point is that it’s precisely because most people don’t swear so much that profanity is not going away. Rather, he claims, it is central to human experience.
* In Adams’ article, the swearwords are not written out in full. Instead “fuck,” for example, is written “f-k”. It’s not clear whether this is the author’s preference, or The Conversation’s editorial policy. I haven’t felt the need to engage in this kind of distraction – I hope you’re not offended.