What Is A Swear?By: hawkgrrrl
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.
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?