Kristy Beers FägerstenKaryn Stapleton
Table of contents

Most people have a general idea of what “swearing” and “swear words” refer to, if not an intimate knowledge of or even personal affinity for some particular examples. In very basic terms, swearing refers to the use of language that has “the potential to be offensive, inappropriate, objectionable, or unacceptable in any given social context” (Beers Fägersten 2012: 3). However, any list of terms and phrases that may cause such offense or judgements of inappropriateness is not only subjective, but would surely include words that would not be generally identified as swear words. For this reason, there is a tendency within the linguistic approach to swearing to focus mainly on distinctly offensive words, responding, perhaps, to the many lexeme-based references to swearing as the use of bad words, curse words, cuss words, dirty words, four-letter words, or even nasty words (totalling nine, according to McWhorter 2021). Even such labels as expletives, epithets, or obscenities suggest that the act of swearing hinges on the use of particular words. Most obvious in linguistic research on swearing is that this singular focus on a swearing lexicon has, lamentably, resulted in a category of studies which extract swear words from their interactional and social context. However, language use can first be deemed offensive, inappropriate, etc., only within a social context in which speaker, listener, setting, topic, and other variables – particularly participant reactions – are taken into consideration. This inherent variability and its corresponding subjectivity are precisely what make swearing a fascinating social behaviour, both amenable to and demanding of in-depth pragmatic study. In this chapter, we will explore the interpersonal and pragmatic aspects of Swearing with reference to existing research and theorising. Section 2 details the approaches and criteria used to define and delineate swearing as a linguistic category and activity. In Section 3, we consider methods that have been used to investigate swearing, with a focus on two main strands: Frequency counts and Offensiveness ratings. Section 4 provides a detailed account of the functions of swearing, taking an explicitly pragmatic perspective and considering both positive and negative interpersonal purposes and outcomes. In Section 5, we identify future directions for research inquiry.

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