That fucken article

by Karen Jeynes

This piece first appeared in the 2013 Sax Appeal magazine.

“People say it’s limited vocabulary that makes you swear well I don’t think so. Cause my vocabulary I know at least ohh one hundred and twenty seven words. And I still prefer fuck.” So says the great Billy Connolly, and he’s not alone. As editor of ThatWordSite we recently asked people for their favourite words, and “fuck” was the clear winner.

The average person knows roughly 12000 words, and it is estimated that 0.5% of words are swear words. This would give an average vocabulary of sixty swear words, which sounds more than adequate. But why do we need swear words, and why do we get so much pleasure from them?

One of the first times many of us encounter swearing is when a grown up in our presence causes themselves severe pain. The classic stereotype of dad whacking his thumb with a hammer may hold up to scientific scrutiny. In 2009 a team of psychologists at Keele University in the UK found that swearing increases our body’s resistance to pain. Volunteers immersed their hands in icy water, and chanted either a neutral word or a swear word while holding their hand there for as long as possible. The swearers could withstand the pain an average of 40 seconds longer.  They found a neurological response to swearing, our amygdalae “light up” when we encounter a swear word.

But pain is just one of several triggers for swearing. Other reasons we swear are anger, frustration, humour, a sense of belonging to a social group, or the expression of any extreme emotion. And, for some people I know, I’d add “boredom” to that list. Teachers of language often recommend learning the swear words of a language as a way of feeling more comfortable with it.

The power of swearing rests almost entirely in the fact that it is considered taboo – words that were shocking to society decades ago, like heck and darn are now considered mildly silly. Of course, what constitutes “swearing” will depend largely on the culture in which you are raised. Ozzy Osbourne’s kids might not have many taboo words to choose from.

Throughout history and in every language, the way we swear breaks down into five basic categories:

  1. Blaspheming – Jesus H Christ being a particular linguistic oddity here, with some theories saying the “H” comes from “our father which art in heaven, Harold be thy name”, and others pointing to the Greek “Jesus Hominem Salvator” – Jesus, saviour of man. There are also several “minced” versions of blaspheming, jeepers, jissus, jislaaik and yikes, to name a few. Hell also finds its home here, and Holy Moses and Mary get a few shout outs.
  2. Bodily functions – shit springs to mind here, or the perhaps more expressive kak. Other versions like crap, shite (why does that “e” make so much difference?) and poop are also in use. Piss gets the occasional look in, as well as bloody and puke.
  3. Insults – sadly, humans excel at finding ways to insult people based on their nationality, language, race, gender, ability, and sexual preference. These retain some of the highest potency as swear words, and are some of the only ones legislated against. They also are often debated when people try and “reclaim” them, which some consider empowering and others feel only gives them a longer lifespan. Kaffir, nigger, hottentot, dyke, faggot, bitch, retard – personally, I hate them all.
  4. Sexual innuendo – ah yes, the motherlode of swearwords, arse, bugger, wanker, ass, cock, cocktonsil, jerk, whore, balls, screw, shagging, pussy, fuck, twat, and that which is frequently deemed the most offensive of all swearwords, cunt. Cunt has become quite a feminist issue, with some finding it offensive, and others delighting in it.
  5. Casting aspersions on people’s mothers – this last is of course a cultural stalwart of Capetonians, with perhaps the most arresting version I’ve ever heard yelled down the street at me “Jou ma se poes was so besig jy was uit sy gat gebore”.

Fuck may deserve a category of its own, as not only did it make our number one spot, but several variations of it were nominated too – fucknuckle, fucktonsil, fucksticks, to name a few. It is also a spectacularly versatile word, being used as almost every part of speech – oh fuck, you fucking idiot, for fuck’s sake, fuck off, get a fucking grip, you fucker, get fucked.

So I’m with Billy on this one – I love words, I know many thousand, but sometimes, only one will do. On a recent frustrating Friday I found myself muttering “for fuck’s fucking sake” on at least forty occasions – an action I will now attribute to a natural painkiller, a sort of linguistic panado if you will. And I didn’t need to see the doctor in the morning.


Karen Jeynes

About Karen Jeynes

Karen Jeynes (@karenjeynes) is a playwright, dramaturg, wordsmith, proponent of the Oxford comma, and collector of words. She has been known to rub her hands with girlish glee on discovering a new one. She experiences high levels of angst over misplaced apostrophes, sometimes having to have a bit of a lie down. She is perilously partial to puns. And also alliteration.


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