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Whoop-Dee-Fuckin-Doo: All About Cursing

By Brian Bosen

All About Cursing!One of the quickest ways to offend someone is by using a curse word around them. Swearing, or cursing, is a socially taboo yet permanent part of language, and there are times when using curse words is appropriate, and times when it is not. Certain speech communities and certain social situations that are considered casual, and among friends, are fine times for swearing. It is when we are in formal settings or around authority figures that we have to watch our language. This is slowly changing in some social situations, and it is most notable in the college classroom. We should embrace the phenomenon that the use of curse words is becoming less taboo because how we use and how we think about these words is changing.

The ways we use words usually depend on what their definitions are. With swearing, this is not always the case. Steven Pinker defines swearing as “using language as a weapon to force a listener to think an unpleasant or emotionally charged thought” (Open Culture). That being said, we swear for many different reasons. We swear to feel good, in the sense of cathartic swearing such as, “Hell ya, we won!” and we swear using phrases like, “get your shit together” or “don’t be a pain in the ass” in the case of idiomatic swearing. Here, the definitions of the curse words do not seem to carry any meaning at all. They are purely to show informality or express emotion.

Formal settings force us to use a version of our language that is appropriate for that speech community. We often use euphemisms to skirt around using a “bad” word as to not offend anyone in these situations. Rather than call our boss an “asshole” or a “total bitch,” we might say something like, “so-and-so is really on edge today.” These same euphemisms would sound out of place in a casual setting amongst friends, but in formal settings or in a speech community that involves an authority figure, swearing is avoided.

Curse words are often used to add emphasis to what we are saying. This emphasis creates a stimulating atmosphere, which is why the use of swearing works so comfortably in casual atmospheres; people in a casual situation may be having a great time without having to worry about offending anyone or committing as many linguistic crimes. In this case, emphatic swearing such as, “I am so damn tired” or “woop-dee-fuckin-doo” does not feel out of place or inappropriate. The curse word simply emphasizes the phrase that would otherwise say the same thing.

When someone uses emphatic swearing during formal setting, it immediately becomes obvious. We care about this because those taboo rules are set deeply in our culture and the social ramifications of them are well understood by all. When Vice President Joe Biden was congratulating President Barak Obama on the passage of health care reform back in May of 2010, he is recorded by a nearby microphone saying, “this is a big fucking deal!” (Huffington Post). Another example of this is when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was forced to enact the Clean Airwaves Act in December of 2003 in response to the singer of the band U2, Bono, saying, “this is really, really, fucking brilliant” in his acceptance speech at the Golden Globes earlier that year (Capitol Words). Although the network was ultimately not fined for this, the reaction was the Act mentioned above in hopes that the next time something like this happened, the network could be fined. Fine or no fine, we as listeners remember it well. The link between taboo words and memory “has been predominantly attributed to the emotionally arousing effects of swearing” (Generous).

The formal settings as examples mentioned earlier (the political event; the awards ceremony) are places where swearing is still inappropriate, but in the college classroom, we are starting to change our minds about their offensiveness. In a recent study of how students respond to an instructor using curse words in the classroom, Generous, Houser, and Frei have learned that students’ reactions are remarkably positive. The majority of students seem to approve or even encourage the thought having an instructor swear in class with responses ranging from it being “humorous” and “entertaining” to “helpful” (Generous). In the classroom, having a swearword be entertaining rather than offensive is only going to help the student remember the discussion in a positive way rather than a negative way as well as sticking stronger to the memory because of the use of a taboo word.

Teachers should use swearing as a tool for teaching rather than avoid them as taboo. If students have a positive reaction to culturally taboo language, it makes sense to apply that to the classroom. There is also the idea that the classroom is a safe place for challenging ourselves to grow and part of this is challenging what is accepted as taboo. Adding to this, Miriam Sobre-Denton says that “profanity creates a safe place for rebellion” and if this is the case, it should fit nicely into an academic setting where students are already “safely” challenging or “rebelling against” the social norms of our society. Linguistic rebellion is a useful tool we use in our society and the classroom should view all of language as a tool for teaching (Sobre-Denton).

Curse words carry emotionally-charged meaning as much as they carry a dictionary definition, and perhaps much more so. This can cause a negative reaction in the sense that swearing is considered taboo or inappropriate, but it can also be positive when our memories attach to these taboo words and force a stronger connection to the context in which they were used. Formal environments and speech communities that contain an authority figure are slow to allow swearing into their world, but in some formal settings, such as the college classroom, this is already happening, and with positive results. As students and teachers, we should embrace language for all of its tools and use swearing as a way to encourage thought, discussion, and memory.

Works Cited

Capitol words. “Introduction of the Clean Airwaves Act.” Web. November 12, 2015.

Generous, Mark A., Marian L. Houser, and Seth S. Frei. “Exploring College Students’ Emotional Responses to Instructor Swearing.” Communication Research Reports. Vol. 32, No. 3, July-September 2015, pp. 216-224.

Huffington Post. “A Big F---ing Deal’: Biden’s Health Care Reform F-Bomb on Life TV.” Web. November 11, 2015. Open Culture. “Steven Pinker Explains the Neuroscience of Swearing.” Web. November 11, 2015.

Sobre-Denton, Miriam., Jana Simonis. “Do You Talk to Your Teacher with That Mouth? F*uck: A Documentary and Profanity as a Teaching Tool in the Communication Classroom.” Communication Teacher. Vol 26, No. 3, July 2012, pp. 178-193.



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