What makes a word “bad”?

Neal Whitman, Writing for
Episode #235

Today’s episode is about swearing.

Swearing has been in the news a lot lately, especially since a U.S. Court of Appeals struck down the longstanding FCC ban on vulgar language on radio and network television. Reader Michael Oberdacker wonders what makes a word vulgar. He wrote in an e-mail, “Who decides that? I mean it’s just a word like any other; who has the authority to say it’s not polite to say [it] in public, or polite company?”

Swearing Packs an Emotional Punch

Strange as it may seem, as speakers of any language intuitively know, a swear word is NOT just “a word like any other.” People who suffer a loss of speech because of damage to the language-processing parts of their brain often retain the ability to curse, for example, because swear words are processed in the brain’s limbic system, the area responsible for emotions.

Experiments have shown that hearing or reading dirty words affects people emotionally, as indicated by an increase in their Galvanic skin response. Obscenity or profanity truly does have the power to shock people at an emotional level.

Taboo Is the Source of Swearing's Power

Swearing gets its power from society's taboos.

What gives swearing this power? In short, a society’s taboos. “Taboo” in this sense covers not just the forbidden, but any domain of activity or social interaction where social norms regulate behavior (4, 5). Whatever a society deems taboo is a wellspring of words deemed obscene or profane—as well as euphemisms for those words.

Changing Taboos: Religion

Taboos vary over time, and as they change, so do the words that are considered socially unacceptable. Several hundred years ago, the strongest taboos among English-speakers were religious in nature (6). During Shakespeare’s times, expressions like “Zounds!” were considered vulgar, because they were shortened versions of (in this case) “God’s wounds.” If you wonder why saying “God’s wounds” would have been offensive, that just shows how much more secular English-speaking society is today than it was back then. This taboo weakened further even in the 20th century, with words like “hell” and “damn” losing their offensiveness only in the past generation or so (although they are still offensive to older or more religious speakers).

From the Victorian Era: Taboos on Sex and Bodily Functions

In the Victorian Era, sex and bodily functions of elimination became strong taboos. The taboos were strengthened in the United States by the self-imposed restrictions in the movie industry in the 1930s and ‘40s (7). The bodily-function taboos have been weakening over the last few decades, though, and more recently, so has the sex taboo. In the introduction to his book The F Word, lexicographer Jesse Sheidlower devotes almost a dozen pages to tracing the weakening of the taboo against this word in virtually every medium.

Even so, other sexual taboo words are still considered extremely offensive. In particular, the word commonly referred to as the C-word is considered so offensive in English that when the movie Kick-Ass came out in May, it generated controversy not so much because of its title, or even its abundance of violence, but for having 13-year-old actor Chloe Grace Moretz say that word.

Different Cultures, Different Types of Swearing

Taboos also vary from culture to culture. For example, in French- and Spanish-speaking countries, where the Catholic church has had a strong influence, religion-based swearing packs more of a punch than it does in English (8). In contrast, their equivalent of the C-word is only mildly offensive.

The Most Powerful Current Swear Words

These days, the truly potent taboos in American society concern traits that have been the basis of prejudice and discrimination: disability, race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. Last August, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel used “retarded” (along with the F-word) in a private meeting, but when his comments became public, there were calls for his resignation.

[[AdMiddle]Actor and director Mel Gibson’s latest tirade, in which he used the N-word, coupled with his remarks about Jews in 2006, have some predicting the end of his career.

In 2007, Isaiah Washington lost his role on the TV show Grey’s Anatomy after calling a fellow castmember an offensive term for homosexual.

Swearing in Your Writing

With all this in mind, here is my Quick and Dirty guide for deciding whether to use obscenity or profanity in your writing.

The first question, for any kind of writing, is “Will my audience appreciate this kind of language?” Actually, this goes for speaking, too. Relaxing taboos can be a sign of closeness and camaraderie, but if the atmosphere isn’t right, it’s just awkward. So if the answer is no, then don’t use vulgar language. If yes, continue to the next questions.

Second: Is swearing part of your voice, or your character’s voice if you’re writing fiction? (Check the article on “Understanding Voice and Tone in Writing” for more on this.) If no, then don’t use it. If yes, continue to the next question.

Third: Are you writing fiction or nonfiction? If you’re writing fiction, use obscenity or profanity only if it will sound stranger for your character to avoid it than to say it. I've had editors tell me that a common mistake new fiction writers make is to use too much swearing, and that it’s very off-putting.

If you’re writing nonfiction, use a swear word only if the emotion you’re conveying is strong enough to merit violating a taboo. Otherwise, you weaken its power for other situations.

If you need to quote someone else’s vulgar language, follow the style sheet for your employer or client, whether it calls for an “expletive deleted,” dashes, deleted vowels, or a creative circumlocution. Although readers will probably figure out what the word is, most understand that this is a compromise that allows everyone to respect societal norms.

Literal Minded and Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing

This article was written by Neal Whitman, who has a doctoral degree in linguistics and blogs at literalminded.wordpress.com. The article was edited and read in the podcast by Mignon Fogarty, author of the New York Times bestseller Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.

Related Articles

Swear Words in Text

Is Swearing Bad Manners?

I Swear! How to Get Your Kids to Stop Swearing

Understanding Voice and Tone in Writing


1. Wyatt, Edward. July 1, 2010. “F.C.C. indecency policy rejected on appeal.” The New York Times, July 1, 2010.

2. Allan, Keith, and Kate Burridge. 2006. Forbidden Words: Taboo and the Censoring of Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 246-247.

3. Allan, Keith, and Kate Burridge. 2006. Forbidden Words: Taboo and the Censoring of Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 244-245.

4. Allan, Keith, and Kate Burridge. 2006. Forbidden Words: Taboo and the Censoring of Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 1.

5. Culicover, Peter, and Elizabeth Hume. 2010. Basics of Language for Language Learners. Ohio State University Press. p. 210.

6. Sheidlower, Jesse. 2009. The F Word. Oxford University Press. p. xvii.

7. Culicover, Peter, and Elizabeth Hume. 2010. Basics of Language for Language Learners. Ohio State University Press. pp. 211-212.

8. Culicover, Peter, and Elizabeth Hume. 2010. Basics of Language for Language Learners. Ohio State University Press. pp. 212-213.


Virginia Beach no-bad-behavior sign image, Ben Schumin at Wikimedia Commons. CC BY SA-3.0.

About the Author

Neal Whitman, Writing for Grammar Girl

Neal Whitman PhD is an independent writer and consultant specializing in language and grammar and a member of the Reynoldsburg school board. You an find him at literalminded.wordpress.com.

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