English Swearwords: Interview with Prof. Timothy Jay

 In Imparare l'Inglese Magazine, Interviste

Taboo words, swear words, bad words … There are different definitions to describe the expressions and phrases one should never use. Who decides what can or cannot be said? Why? And how many English taboo words are there? Come Imparare l’Inglese has interviewed Timothy Jay, Professor of Psychology at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts and a world-renowned expert in profanity.

Parolacce Inglesi

Parolacce Inglesi

Is swearing common to all languages or is it a peculiar trait of only certain languages? Speaking about English, how many swear words can we list?

In all languages there are taboo words normally connected with sex, religion, body parts and animal names. As far as the English language is concerned, we find that in the US, for instance, most of them are related to sex and religion. To give an idea of the numbers, if we also include infrequent swear words we can count hundreds. However, the amount goes down to 70 to 80 with an even smaller set of about ten words from which most of the swearing in daily conversation comes.

 Where does prohibition against foul language come from?

Hundreds of years ago it predominantly came from religious authorities. Nowadays, there are also other institutions deciding which words can or cannot be considered acceptable: it is the media, the court, the school, the family or religion again. Actually, if you want to find out who exercises authority over language, you just have to go out in public and break a rule. Those who will censor your language will be the same people who exercise their authority over it.

 Do taboo words change in accordance to different times and locations?

Society and taboos are interconnected. For instance, in places like Italy or most Southern American countries, where the Catholic religion still has a strong influence, religious blasphemy is considered the most offensive form of swearing. On the contrary, the worst words in Anglo-Saxon countries are related to sex.

Time is a variable, too. In English, the ten words that I previously mentioned have been around for a long time, whereas other slang terms come in and out. A good example is the verb to suck, meaning “to be bad”, which today is much less offensive than when I was a kid. A few decades ago even the word pregnant couldn’t be used, and the legacy of a very prudish era such as Victorianism was also very influential in England, as words like ball or cock, meaning “rooster”, were not allowed even in contexts where it could have been possible to use them. Things have changed, though, and when compared to the past our society speaks more freely about sex today, which means that lots of words are no longer taboos.

 How frequent are swear words in daily conversations? Is filthy language common to people from all walks of life?

The result of our research showed that the daily number of taboo words used by the people we recorded went from 0 to 300, with an average of 80. Considering that during the day we normally use from 10,000 to 15,000 words, this means that the amount of swearing was less than 1%. This may seem a small figure, but in fact the rate is significant and even higher than that of very common words such as subject pronouns, for example.

In addition to this, the figure increases or decreases according to the surrounding environment. It’s quite obvious that if you’re at the stadium the use of swear words is likely to be higher than in a church.

 Swearing: is it healthy? Can it be considered as a sort of relief?

It can be cathartic. Most of the people we interviewed during our research claimed that it makes them feel better when they feel frustrated. Swearing at someone who has offended you is a way of getting even, while the use of taboo words after you have got hurt is an attempt to soothe the physical pain.

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