What Is A Swear?

by: hawkgrrrl

October 29, 2013

Goodness Gracious!

A recent Meridian Magazine article asks the titular question:  “Is “Crap” a Swear?”  Yes, you heard it here first.  “Swear” is being used as a noun.  According to the dictionary, it is strictly a verb, and yet I have heard it used as a noun before (only in Utah or Mormon culture), a practice that seems a bit cutesy to me.  It made me think of some of the other Utah words that are unique to that great state, often to replace a word or phrase considered objectionable.

People do this elsewhere, too.  For example, we don’t pray to “Gosh” the Father whose son’s name is not “Jeez” (nor is it Jeez Louise).  We don’t “darn” people to “heck.”  Even in fiction, we sometimes refer to villains as “he who must not be named.”  Humans like being oblique.  In case you are unfamiliar with some of these unique words, here’s a starter list of some from my own experience:

From my time in Pennsylvania:

Cuss (v.) a rural bastardization of the word “curse”

From my time in Utah:

Swear (n.)  a profane word, including but not limited to actual profane words

Soft Swear (n.) non-swear word; basically any English word with Germanic roots not already included in “swears”

Way (adj.) very; similar to “wicked” in Boston (as in “She’s way/wicked smart”)

Gad (n.) one of the Twelve Tribes; possibly a North Dakotan way to say “God,” as in “Don’t take the name of Gad in vain.”

Fetch (n.)  A soft swear in Utah; elsewhere something that is never going to happen.

Flip (n.)  Similar to “fetch.”  Also not going to happen.

“Oh My Heck!” innocuous phrase invented in Utah to replace OMG because nobody anywhere has ever said “Oh My Hell!” unless it was to replace the phrase “Oh My Heck!” that was invented in Utah

From talking to Brits and Aussies:

Fanny (n.) girly bits; to Americans, your derriere (how’s that for a fancy French euphemism?), also used with the word “pack” to mean a belt-purse worn by senior citizens at Disneyland.  Try using the term “fanny pack” in Sydney or London if you want to shock people’s sensibilities.

Thong (n.) flip flop; to Americans, underwear that doesn’t cover your butt cheeks

Bum (n.) butt; to Americans, a vagrant

I have been taken to task twice for using the word “crap”:  once by a fellow student at BYU who had crashed our Sunday dinner and then boorishly explained to me that the word wasn’t ladylike (believe me, a few stronger ones came to mind as he lectured), and the other time by a neighbor boy who said “crap” was a swear word in their home (I’m not sure he had heard an adult say it conversationally before).  I explained that as a person with a German mother, you’d have to say much worse to raise my eyebrows.

Keep those swear words bottled up!

My sister’s family declared certain other words “swear words”:  telling someone to “shut up,” and using the word “stupid.”  I tend to think these are a little more on point as to what is actually objectionable in speech.  Why do people swear after all?  From church talks, I’ve heard all of the following reasons:

  • They lack creativity.  “Golly” is no more creative than “God”–just significantly goofier.
  • They are uneducated.  Highly educated people swear, and lower educated people sometimes do not.  Ned Flanders is no scholar.
  • They lack self-control.  Some who swear habitually do struggle to avoid swearing (hence “swear jars” in which you have to put money if you use a swear word).  Certainly this doesn’t apply to all people in all circumstances.
  • Negative attitude.  The problem with this idea is that not all swearing is negative.
  • Irreverence.  Those who dislike swearing often refer to taking the name of God in vain as treating something holy as unholy; likewise, they decry using the shorter Germanic words for scatalogical and sexual functions rather than their more flowery French counterparts.  There is a deep bias in the English language, dating to the Norman conquest of 1066.
  • Anger.  Clearly, not all swearing is done in anger, but when it is this could be a valid criticism.  Even the Bible says that you are in danger of hell fire for calling someone a fool in anger.  Is the objective not to feel anger, not to express it or not to direct it at another person?  Depending on your answer, that would change your swearing boundaries.

Clearly, these are just words.  According to psychologists, these are not the reasons we swear.  It’s a more nuanced business, one that requires context to understand.  Here are some reasons not listed above:

  • Familiarity.  We don’t swear in situations where the crowd is general, mixed company that we don’t know, or relationships are superficial or purely professional.  Swearing may connote comfort and relational closeness.  According to John Grohol, PsyD:  “We make choices about which word to use depending upon the company we’re in, and what our relationship is to that company, as well as the social setting. We’re more apt to use less offensive terms in mixed company or in settings where more offensive swear words might result in recrimination.”
  • Convey Emotion.  Swear words inject a direct, emotional component to a thought we convey.  This can be a more accurate way to portray our feelings about something, and it adds nuance to the thought being conveyed.  Likewise, people often use swearing to convey positive emotion, to give emphasis to how good something is.
  • Catharsis.  Sometimes profanity is used to vent anger, releasing a feeling of frustration.  For example, if you are cut off in traffic, you may use a swear word to diffuse your anger or fear.  This is a better alternative than ramming the offending vehicle repeatedly, although that might be cathartic as well.
  • Social Success.  Believe it or not, swearing correlates more with Type A personalities as well as the extraverted.  A person who swears is also more likely to stand up for him or herself rather than to be treated poorly.

Given these psychological reasons for swearing, do those who object to swearing object to these motives also?  Is the anti-swearing diatribe really against:  familiarity and comfort, authenticity (letting your hair down), expressing emotions (vs. being calm all the time), releasing strong feelings (vs. bottling them up), and being passive, even when that means others may take advantage of you?

  • Does decrying profanity correlate with promoting passive-aggressive behavior?
  • Does swearing create negative consequences in social situations?
  • Is the use of substitute profanity better than using actual profanity?  Why or why not?


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13 Responses to What Is A Swear?

  1. Will on October 29, 2013 at 6:13 AM


    Love this.

    I never take the name of God in vain (the simplistic way) by using his name or the name of his son out of anger or irritation or casually. Actually, invoking Gods name for evil purposes, like Terrorists frequently do, is what it really means to take his name in vain. To a lesser extent one could also be guilty invoking his name trying to win an argument over a spiritual matter ….because God says.

    Putting that aside, I use Store High In Transit (S.H.I.T — the British sailors would put this on their burlap bags of human feces so methane gas would not puddle on the ships under decking and create an explosion hazard), Damn & Hell to help communicate clearly at times and if I really need to provide motivation to the right crowd I will drop the f bomb.

    I think heck, gad, darn, crap and the like say the same thing but are more appropriate around small ears or in some social settings, like PEC, for instance.

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  2. MB on October 29, 2013 at 7:26 AM

    I think it’s important to discern the difference between swearing by the name of deity, using strong/vulgar words, and using general, non-specific expletives. All three are used in situations of familiarity or to convey emotion or as a form of catharsis and all three work equally well in those roles. The real question is, which do you choose to use? And why?

    I choose not to use the the words God, Allah, Dios, Jesus, Buddha or other holy names as expletives out of respect for them and because of my respect for listeners who revere those names.

    I chose not to use words that have scatological or sexual meanings because those meanings change the subject I’m discussing or reacting to to an unrelated topic that I don’t want or need to change it to. If I say “shit”, I’ve brought feces into the conversation and into my own mind. And that’s a distraction, a rather smelly distraction. I don’t like derailing conversation with unrelated scatological or sexual topics. When I do, I have a clear sense of having done something selfish; seeking catharsis for myself with no concern for the sensibilities of those around me.

    For verbal catharsis or to express emotion I do use expletives that do not have scatalogical or sexual meanings to those who hear me. In different parts of the country that set of expletives is different. For example, in one place where I lived, “suck” means oral sex. In another it doesn’t.

    I think it’s charitable to be aware of people’s sensibilities and of the nature of the derailing of conversation that happens with the use of certain words. Charity is always a good thing.

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  3. Kullervo on October 29, 2013 at 8:32 AM

    I found, in basic training and infantry school at Fort Benning, that I was actually unable to meaningfully communicate with my fellow trainees because I tried not to swear. This became a particular issue when I was put in a leadership position. So I started dropping f-bombs and it made an immense difference.

    As an officer and a gentleman in the military, you can get away with refined language. As a junior enlisted guy trying to lead other junior enlisted guys, you just can’t.

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  4. Hedgehog on October 29, 2013 at 9:52 AM

    “Try using the term “fanny pack” in Sydney or London..”
    We call it a “bum bag”. How does that come across in the US?

    Another term to be aware of in Britain: fag = cigarette, a term commonly used by youths, especially when requesting a cigarette. A “pack of fags” is a box of cigarettes.

    Also, hell and damn are tamer here, and not usually replaced with the softer words. I have been known to use “damn it” (always “it”, never “you” etc.) when irritated, and “oh hell”, when I realise I’ve forgotten something important, or something has just gone badly wrong.

    But I never use the names of deity, and also avoid scatalogical and sexual terms.

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  5. Nate on October 29, 2013 at 2:35 PM

    Does decrying profanity correlate with promoting passive-aggressive behavior?

    No, not generally. Decrying profanity is part of all cultures, each which have their own set of taboos relating to subjects of deity, excrement, and sex. These taboos reflect a collective awareness that our two unruly members, the tongue, and the penis, cannot be wholly left to their own devices, or it wrecks terrible havoc. Of course, the promoting of these taboos can be done in a passive-aggressive way, and the taboos themselves may be meaningless outside of their particular cultural context, but having some taboos relating to speech and sex is essential in the cultivation of society.

    Does swearing create negative consequences in social situations?

    It depends upon the social situation. I would love to use the power of profanity as a means of communication in some situations, like the ones Will noted, and very occasionally, I do. But when I swear, I betray my nature, and LDS identity. It gives the wrong impression of who I am, and where I come from, and the values I am committed to.

    However, I like to hear the swearing of others and feel it’s power, and I sometimes swear in my mind, as a way of regulating my passions. It creates a sense of catharsis, like Hawkgrrrl quotes from the psychologists. LDS people have an advantage, because of the intensity of the taboo, profanity is especially powerful generator of emotion for Mormons. When Mormons hear the F-word, it commands immediate, aggressive attention and is rife with emotions, fears, and prejudice.

    Is the use of substitute profanity better than using actual profanity? Why or why not?

    It’s good, because it serves to reinforce the taboo of the words substituted. It gives the words more power when they are used or heard. I used substitute profanity growing up and rarely heard real profanity, and every time I did, I felt intensely dirty. I remember once my parents saw a Rated-R movie on an airplane, and decided it was perfectly harmless, so they rented it for the kids to watch. They didn’t realize the airplane version had edited out all the profanity. I still remember the feeling of defilement and the intense guilt, for having watched a Rated-R movie, and having heard those words. Once I embraced my own fallen state, I began to see the value in the both observing the taboo, and appreciating the power of seeing it broken.

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  6. TH on October 29, 2013 at 6:20 PM

    When my mother ( now 80) got to the point that she used the word “damn” we all she was at her limit. LOL.

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  7. Will on October 29, 2013 at 7:49 PM

    In an effort to combine several different posts in the past few days — Obama Care roll out, Senator Lee and swearing I thought the following observation was applicable.

    The number to sign up for Obama Care is is 1-800-318-2596 or if you use corresponding letters, it is 1-800-F1UCKYO . If you take out 1, which does not have any letters corresponding to it on the dialer..,,well you get the picture.

    I think Obama is sending us a subliminal message.

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  8. Douglas on October 29, 2013 at 8:31 PM

    On my mission, while doing “splits” with a guy from Hawaii, gave me some sage perspective on profanity – please keep in mind he was as kind-hearted and dedicated a missionary as I’ve ever known. “Elder, what comes out of a cow’s ocolle (sp?) isn’t crap, or dung, or manure, it is (excrement, but he needed only four letters that ‘fit’)!!

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  9. Douglas on October 29, 2013 at 10:44 PM

    #7 – Hilarious! That should go viral….

    There’s nothing ‘subtle’ about being taxed to death in the guise of kindness. The new inmates of Auschwitz were serenaded by a fine orchestra. Or as the fictional Charlie Harper’s housekeeper, Berta, said, “you can roll it in powdered sugar, but that won’t make it a jelly doughnut”.

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  10. Geoff - A on October 30, 2013 at 12:41 AM

    My mother, an Australian, once in a Canadian RS meeting was asked how she was and replied “knocked Up” which in Australia means tired. I gather it means something different in North America, and created some consternation.

    On my mission I tried to explain to the American missionaries that flip was not used where we were and was close enough to another F word that that’s what the locals would think they were saying. I think it is just a word to say when you want to say the F word anyway.

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  11. hawkgrrrl on October 30, 2013 at 9:25 PM

    Geoff A – my Australian colleagues used to say “touch wood” as a superstitious wish for luck. To my American ears (used to the phrase “knock wood” and the word “touch” having been used in an almost exclusively sexual connotation for a long time), it sounded wrong.

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  12. nuovoiconoclast on November 15, 2013 at 9:33 AM

    “they decry using the shorter Germanic words for scatalogical and sexual functions rather than their more flowery French counterparts. There is a deep bias in the English language, dating to the Norman conquest of 1066”

    My kids refer to this notion as “Dad’s ‘Anglo-Saxon Monosyllable’ Lecture.” Winston Churchill felt himself to be a much more effective speaker because he used the plain English words rather than the high-falutin’ French. You have no idea how pleased I am to have my lecture validated by the world-renowned Hawkgrrl. I shall inform the children – er, uh, tell the kids. :)

    There are studies that show a genuine cathartic effect – a reduction in stress and blood pressure – when a person uses profanity in a stressful situation, when banging the finger with a hammer, for instance. Using a euphemism doesn’t produce the same effect.

    You can take the boy out of the Marine Corps, but it’s a lot harder to take the Corps out of the boy. I never blaspheme, but I am frequently profane.

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  13. Eric on December 3, 2013 at 11:24 PM

    Use of “swear” as synonym for curse word, and some cool maps to boot: http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/12/congratulations-ohio-you-are-the-sweariest-state-in-the-union/281988/

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