- Swearing has been a part of the English language for centuries
- Using swear words can be ‘cathartic’ in terms of easing pain
- Teenagers could be encouraged to consider the difference between casual cursing and deeply offensive language
There are good reasons for ‘bad language’ to be discussed at school, a linguistics expert at Aston University has suggested.
Dr Robbie Love said having open discussion about swearing may help students to better understand the difference between casual, everyday curse words and “very offensive” language such as racial slurs.
The lecturer in English Language at the School of Social Sciences and Humanities was speaking about his research on swearing in the latest episode of the 'Society matters' podcast series, presented by journalist Steve Dyson.
Dr Love, who is also director of Aston University’s undergraduate English programmes, said: “I’m not proposing that we should go into schools and tell English teachers that they should have lessons about ‘these are all the swear words, and this is how to use them’”.
“That said, maybe a bit of input around how there are swear words you are likely to encounter and hear people using, whether it’s your own friends or older people you know or on the TV and in films. And here’s how to understand the difference between those swear words that are generally harmless if you’re just using them in casual conversation, and those words that are potentially very offensive.”
He said there are similarities with current relationships and sex education: “Those lessons are not teaching young people how to have sex; it’s about responsible education. Similarly, I don’t see that much of a difference with swearing.”
Dr Love said that swearing is already discussed on some A-level English courses but that this could go further, arguing that since swearing is very common among teenagers, “why not help them to understand what it all means a bit better?”
In the podcast episode, sub-titled ‘Swear words – and why we use them in day-to-day conversations’, Dr Love explained how swearing has been around for centuries and is now a common part of the English language.
He said not all swearing is about causing offence or abusing someone, adding: “Much of it is about social bonding, humour, using swear words to maintain relationships between people who are highly familiar to each other”.
It can also be “cathartic”, not just in saying a swear word when you’re not supposed to, but it can also help people “process pain” and get through difficult moments. He said: “The classic example is when you stub your toe and swear.”
Dr Love said research has shown that different areas of the brain “light up” when we swear, while electrodermal studies found people “literally sweat a little bit more”. Some modern-day swear words go back centuries, whereas others are now considered “archaic”.
For example, in the 18th century play The Rivals, Richard Sheridan used “great old swear words” like ‘zounds’, which stems from ‘God’s wounds’ in relation to crucifixion. This was also a favourite of William Shakespeare.
“Generally, swear words get weaker over time because you get used to hearing them and they lose their strength.”
But there are also words, not necessarily swear words, that remain highly taboo in many contexts, for instance racial slurs, or those that relate to sexuality or gender identity.
“We are talking about minoritised groups within a particular society. They are potentially very, very offensive words that are still so taboo and inappropriate.”
Dr Love will be giving a talk on ‘The Science of Swearing’ at Café Artum, Hockley Social Club, on 30 March as part of Aston University’s Society Matters Live series.
- Notes to Editors
About Aston University
Founded in 1895 and a university since 1966, Aston is a long established university led by its three main beneficiary groups – students, business and the professions, and the West Midlands region and wider society. Located in Birmingham at the heart of a vibrant city, the campus houses all the University’s academic, social and accommodation facilities for our students. Professor Aleks Subic is the Vice-Chancellor & Chief Executive.
Aston University is ranked 22nd in the UK in the Guardian University Guide, based on measures including entry standards, student satisfaction, research quality and graduate prospects. The Aston Business School MBA programme was ranked in the top 100 in the world in the Economist MBA 2021 ranking.
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