Chapter 6


In this chapter, I want to raise some more general implications for the study of swearing which follow from my study of individual swearwords, and to suggest some areas of refinement and further research.


6.1.1 What is swearing?

This study opened with a discussion of the difficulties involved in defining swearing, and held out the promise of an improved definition at its conclusion. While a full definition would require data from a number of explications, a definition of swearing in the Australian context will be provided, in two differing ways.

In terms of the general speech act of swearing, the definition proposed by Wierzbicka (1987:252-253) and reproduced in Section 1.1.3 has much to recommend it. Its principle problem lies in its component (f), reproduced below:

(1) I imagine that by saying these words I could caus something bad to happen to something

In none of the explications proposed here has the notion of causing something bad to happen to someone been proposed as part of the illocutionary purpose, and only for a few (e.g. to kick/punch the shit out of someone) is it an important part of the concept. Certain elements of this definition also differ from the general structure of swearing as proposed here. Accordingly, I would recast the definition as follows:

(2) swearing

(a) I'm thinking about something

(b) I feel something bad because of this

(c) I say: [#@!?*!]

(d) People would say these are bad things to say

(e) I say this because I want to show what I feel

(f) I imagine that by saying these words I could cause myself to feel better

6.1.2 What is a swearword?

Based on the explications proposed here, two elements seem common to swearwords: the consciousness of surface form reflected in the phonetic component, and the inclusion of the social judgemental element "People would say . . .". The following components might hence be seen as the prototypical defining characteristic of swearwords:

(3) (i) I say: {...}

(ii) People would say this is a bad thing to say

These are only prototypical components, since many swearwords explicated here have a slightly different version of (ii). The version chosen has been selected as encompassing the other possible variants (what people will say, they will think, and the notion of bad is involved in the notion of very bad). These components represent more precisely the defining characteristics of the swearword by virtue of being grounded in in-depth semantic research rather than mere speculation.

6.1.3 Reference and emotion revisited

An important result of this study is that the distinction between referential and emotive meanings does appear to apply in all of the commonly used swearwords studied. The meaning expressed by an exclamatory swearword is not related to that expressed by its referential counterpart in any straightforward way. What such terms have in common semantically is an explicitly recognised surface form and a social meaning which can be expressed by a component something like

(4) People would say/think this is a (very) bad thing to say

This remains true for present-day speakers even if a demonstrable historical derivation is available. This suggests very strongly that future studies of swearing would do better paying attention to current usage rather than slavishly studying etymological matters.

6.1.4 Generality in meaning

In Section 1.3 it was pointed out that swearwords show a high degree of combinability with each other. We have also seen (for instance with the exclamations Shit! and Fuck!) how different swearwords can be applied to the same situation. The generality of the explications proposed here, and their frequent use of components such as "Something has happened" which do not have a high degree of specificity with respect to events in the "real world" helps to explain this widespread phenomenon. The frequent recourse which has been had to prototypical frames to adequately capture the meanings of particular terms gives many terms an even wider applicability.

Swearwords do not exclusively partition off part of the conceptual universe. Rather, they express a particular meaning and a particular attitude towards some person, event or object. The possibility of expressing a slightly different attitude is not excluded by such expression (as, for instance, describing an object as yellow precludes us from describing it as purple). The repeated use of swearwords is entirely possible. Since such words have a number of components in common, always including a social prohibition and frequently including the component "I say this because I want to say how I feel", it is not surprising that they are able to be combined so freely.


The explications presented have a number of implications for the social value of swearing. Above all, the possibility of studying swearing meaningfully without the need for an exhaustive specification of social context is itself worthy of note.

The diversity of age and gender among the speakers who produced the examples presented here has hopefully impressed upon the reader the fact that the meanings of swearwords are independent of the social categories to which the speaker belongs. This is not to deny the existence of social prohibitions such as "Women shouldn't swear" within Australian society. However, such prohibitions are not a part of the semantic structure of a given word, but follow from the use of such a meaning in certain contexts.

Interestingly, none of the swearwords examined here has deliberately isolated a particular social group. This does not mean that such swearwords do not exist; derogatory terms for different racial, gender or social groups proliferate in large numbers. Swearwords involving shit, fuck and cunt do not appear to belong to this group, however.

Such terms can be used for "in-group" swearing, however. This occurs with swearwords which include a component of the form:

(5) Other people would say this is a bad thing to say

Here, a "them and us" distinction does serve as an important part of the meaning of the word. It should be noted, however, that such social boundaries are far more flexible than those of age or gender. Group exclusion or inclusion through language can be carried out as an ongoing process, rather than as an all-or-nothing distinction.


Given the paucity of swearing research to date, the list of potential topics for future study is enormous. I will restrict myself to research issues arising directly from the work undertaken here, and areas where improvements might be made.

6.3.1 The role of the phonetic component

All of the explications presented in this work have included what I will call for convenience a "phonetic component", that is a component of the form

(6) I say: {Shit!}

This component provides a reference point for the illocutionary component "I say this because . . .". While the phonetic component can thus be justified on straightforward semantic grounds, its other effect is perhaps the most interesting. As has been remarked in previous chapters, confusion over the meaning of swearwords frequently arises because of the differing meanings shared by similar or identical phonetic forms. If two separate lexemes both include an identical component such as (6) above, then the explication reflects this potential for confusion. Further work is perhaps needed to refine the use of the phonetic component as an element in a larger sentence, which has been represented here as

(7) I say: {. . . shit . . .}

Such examples do not share the same degree of phonetic identity as, say, shit (referential) and Shit!, and hence the possibility for confusion is not so adequately explained. Nonethless, the consciousness of surface form is clearly an important aspect of the meaning of swearwords. The use of a phonetic component is a useful device to capture this insight, but it perhaps requires refinement.

6.3.2 Swearing with a positive meaning

One recurrent problem in the analyses presented here is how to account for the phenomenon of swearwords which appear most plausibly represented as evoking "bad feelings" but which appear to also sometimes be used to express more positive attitudes such as amazement or wonder. This problem is particularly apparent with Shit!, Fuck! and cunt (insult). In each case, a prototype analysis has been proposed, which to some extent alleviates the problem; since the reaction is described in terms of similarity rather than identity, some deviation from the stereotypical meaning is possible.

Since, however, this phenomenon is found with many swearwords, it is perhaps not a feature of the semantics of individual lexemes but due to a pragmatic convention regarding the positive use of swearwords. While the precise details of such a convention and its application cannot be discussed here, the basic underlying idea would appear to be something like this:

(8) (a) sometimes people think something good about something

(b) and feel something good because of this

(c) they don't say something good because of this

(d) they say something that people would say is a bad thing to say

(e) they think: people will know I feel something good

6.3.3 The application of prototypes

The generality of meaning which most swearwords have is reflected in the use of a prototype schema to represent some of their meanings here. The use of a prototypical component of the form

(9) I feel something like this now

does not mean that any feeling vaguely resembling that felt under the listed circumstances can evoke the swearword in question. Presumably, there are limits which apply to ascribing identity between two emotional reactions. Such limits might usefully be studied, although this is perhaps a question for the psychologist as much as the semanticist. On this interpretation, the NSM analysis of swearing is similar to that of emotions, which are also frequently analysed as a feeling akin to that brought on by a certain set of thoughts (cf. Wierzbicka 1992a:Chs. 3-4, 1992b).

6.3.4 Further explications

An obvious way of extending the research carried out here would be to produce further explications. While there are still many meanings associated with shit, fuck and cunt which have not been examined here, a more interesting line of research might be to explore other swearwords with similar meanings to those explored here. For instance, the exclamations Shit! and Fuck! might usefully be contrasted with Damn!, Hell!, or Gosh! to see how the semantic structures of these terms differ and match.

A second area where research might prove particularly revealing is in the meanings of similar constructions in other varieties of English. Given the differences already noted between American and Australian English, it seems obvious that many more explications would be required before any semantic universals of swearing in English emerge. Contrastive studies with similar terms in other languages could be conducted.

6.3.5 Further testing of the explications

While additional explications would provide useful semantic information, the sceptic might be more interested in assessing the accuracy of the definitions already provided. Several possibilities suggest themselves in this regard. The most straightforward involves the testing of the explications against new data. Computer-accessible text corpora, for instance, could readily produce large numbers of authentic utterances involving swearwords; these examples could then be examined to see if the meaning conveyed by the swearword is captured by the explications. Another useful source of such information is literary and broadcast sources. While one-off idiosyncracies found in these media might not provide conclusive evidence, on-going usages might either confirm the definitions presented here or lead to refinements.

The other method of testing explications involves their examination by fluent speakers, although practice in reading explications might well be necessary before this could be done productively. Two methodologies can be used: either test subjects can be asked to directly criticise explications, or else definitions can be presented anonymously (with the word they are explicated removed from the heading and phonetic component), and subjects asked to guess what word has been explicated. This latter method has the advantage of minimising speaker preconceptions regarding the meanings of individial terms.

Few NSM explications ever approach a level where they are beyond criticism. For this reason testing and criticism is to be welcomed. However, the fundamental structures underlying the explications here, the basic prototypes for meaning, and the general conclusions concerning the meaning of swearwords, seem to me to be well justified and largely correct. They also demonstrate once more the productivity of the NSM approach.


A strategy sometimes employed by Australian parents to control swearing in their offspring involves an appeal to the child's reasoning capacity. A child who says Fuck! for instance, is asked if they know what the word means. Upon giving a suitable reply, usually relating to the referential meaning, the child is asked to justify the use of such a meaning in a context which has no relation to it. A stunned or confused silence usually follows. This imposition of semantic superiority by the parent may or may not be effective in the long term, but it captures neatly a common attitude to swearwords and their meaning.

Such tactics are convenient for the parent, allowing them to control undesirable behaviour in their children. They hold, however, no semantic truth. The meaning of swearwords is not an ill-defined area of vague badness deriving from unpleasant physical referents, but a complex structure of carefully differentiated meanings. Fuck! means something different to fuck. Competent speakers can expertly, if subconsciously, exploit these distinctions. Their representation is not an easy task for the linguist, but it is a rewarding one, showing all the complexity and subtlety of any other area of language.

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