Swearwords reinterpreted: New variants and uses by young Chinese netizens on social media platforms

Bin Li,1 Yan Dou,2 Yingting Cui3 and Yuqi Sheng45

Abstract

Swearwords are common on the Internet nowadays. In addition to traditional forms and functions, new features and uses have been created as disguises and hedges, or even as deviants from insults. Focusing on the ‘new swearwords’ prevalent in Chinese social media, we identified the most commonly used novel swearwords developed and favoured by the young Chinese netizens, and analysed their linguistic features and uses on a Chinese social network site. We discovered that certain swearwords have undergone linguistic transformation to take up new grammatical and pragmatic functions. The invention and prevalence of these new swearwords raise interesting points on the roles played by the Internet and social media in bringing netizens together and in enabling them to create web content in their speech community.

Keywords:
Publication history
Table of contents

1.Introduction

Dad:
Hi. I am fairly new to Facebook. Mind accepting my friend request?
Kid:
You made a Facebook? WTF!!
Dad:
What does “WTF” mean?
Kid:
Oh, it means “Welcome to Facebook”!
(‘Welcome to Facebook, Dad!’ 2010Welcome to Facebook, Dad!’ 2010, December 2. reface.me. Retrieved April 11, 2018, from http://​reface​.me​/humor​/wtf​-welcome​-to​-facebook/)

This text message exchange between a dad and his kid contains notable sociolinguistic points. Astonished that his dad had joined Facebook, the kid blurted out ‘WTF’, which is the acronym of ‘what the fuck’. Though this usage may be a common practice of the young and seemingly unknown to dad, the kid realised the potential disaster immediately and rendered a harmless interpretation. The kid’s quick-witted remedy of a blunder raises an interesting point: generational variations in attitudes and uses of swearwords. It is also to be noted how the f-word takes on a disguise and thus helps the child get away with it.

The above exchange is a specimen of how traditional swearwords could occur with new meanings and usages in the digital age. Recent decades have seen an increasing body of research on swearing in world languages from a variety of perspectives, including the semantic, grammatical and/or affective dimensions of swearing (Adams 2005Adams, Michael 2005 “Meaningful Interposing: A Countervalent Form.” American Speech 80(4): 437–441. CrossrefGoogle Scholar; Jay and Danks 1977Jay, Timothy B. and Danks, Joseph H. 1977 “Ordering of Taboo Adjectives.” Bulletin of the Psychonomic Society 9(6): 405–408. CrossrefGoogle Scholar; Vingerhoets et al. 2013Vingerhoets, Ad J., Bylsma, Lauren M. and de Vlam, Cornells 2013 “Swearing: A Biopsychosocial Perspective.” Psihologijske Teme 22 (2): 287–304.Google Scholar), the pragmatic functions of swearing (Jay and Janschewitz 2008Jay, Timothy B. and Janschewitz, Kristin 2008 “The Pragmatics of Swearing.” Journal of Politeness Research 4(2): 267–288. CrossrefGoogle Scholar), its correlation with sociolinguistic variables such as gender and context (Bayard and Krishnayya 2001Bayard, Donn and Krishnayya, Sateesh 2001 “Gender, Expletive Use, and Context: Male and Female Expletive Use in Structured and Unstructured Conversation among New Zealand University Students.” Women and Language 24 (1): 1–15.Google Scholar; Beers-Fägersten 2007Beers-Fägersten, Kristy 2007 “A Sociolinguistic Analysis of Swear Word Offensiveness.” Saarland Working Papers in Linguistics (SWPL) 1: 14–37. CrossrefGoogle Scholar), its relation to bilingualism and education (Dewaele 2004Dewaele, Jean M. 2004 “The Emotional Force of Swearwords and Taboo Words in the Speech of Multilinguals.” Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development 25(2–3): 204–222. CrossrefGoogle Scholar), its neurolinguistic or cognitive bases (Van Lancker and Cummings 1999Van Lancker, Diana and Cummings, Jeffrey L. 1999 “Expletives: Neurolinguistic and Neurobehavioral Perspectives on Swearing.” Brain Research Reviews 31(1): 83–104. CrossrefGoogle Scholar), etc. While studies on swearing or swearwords in English are relatively abundant and multi-faceted, intercultural and interdisciplinary approaches to the study of swearing have been exemplified, yet are still called for, in research relevant to swearing in recent years (e.g. Goddard 2015Goddard, Cliff 2015 “ ‘Swear Words’ and ‘Curse Words’ in Australian (and American) English. At the Crossroads of Pragmatics, Semantics and Sociolinguistics.” Intercultural Pragmatics 12(2): 189–218. CrossrefGoogle Scholar; Ljung 2010Ljung, Magnus 2010Swearing: A Cross-Cultural Linguistic Study. New York: Palgrave MacMillan. CrossrefGoogle Scholar). A number of studies have been conducted on swearwords in other languages such as French (Jaffe 2017Jaffe, Alexandra 2017 “Fuck in French: Evidence of ‘other-language’ swearing in France and Québec.” In Advances in Swearing Research: New Languages and New Contexts, ed. by Kristy Beers-Fägersten and Karyn Stapleton, 87–106. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. CrossrefGoogle Scholar), Italian (Di Cristodaro and McEnery 2017Di Cristofaro, Matteo and McEnery, Tony 2017 “Swearing in Italian: A redefinition of the notions of dysphemism and euphemism.” In Advances in Swearing Research: New Languages and New Contexts, ed. by Kristy Beers-Fägersten and Karyn Stapleton, 183–212. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. CrossrefGoogle Scholar), Chinese (Li et al. 2018Li, Bin, Dou, Yan, Sheng, Yuqi and Liu, Yan 2018 “New Forms and Functions of Swearwords on Mobile Social Network.” In Digitized Teaching of Chinese as a Foreign Language, ed. by Xiaoqi Li, Jianrong Sun and Juan Xu, 420–426. Beijing: Tsinghua University Press.Google Scholar; Moore et al. 2010Moore, Robert L., Bindler, Eric and Pandich, David 2010RESEARCH NOTE: Language with Attitude: American Slang and Chinese Lǐyǔ. Journal of Sociolinguistics 14(4): 524–538. CrossrefGoogle Scholar; Wang 2013Wang, Na 2013 “An Analysis of the Pragmatic Functions of ‘Swearing’ in Interpersonal Talk.” Griffith Working Papers in Pragmatics and Intercultural Communication 6: 71–79.Google Scholar) and Serbian (Halupka-Rešetar and Radić 2003Halupka-Rešetar, Sabina and Radić, Biljana 2003 “Animal Names Used in Addressing People in Serbian.” Journal of Pragmatics 35(12): 1891–1902. CrossrefGoogle Scholar) to enrich the literature of swearing research.

With the rise of Web 2.0 in the new media age, connections and interactions among different Internet users have been made possible (Gruber 2008Gruber, Helmut 2008 “Analyzing Communication in the New Media.” In Qualitative Discourse Analysis in the Social Sciences, ed. by Ruth Wodak and Michał Krzyżanowski, 54–76. New York: Palgrave MacMillan. CrossrefGoogle Scholar, 54; O’Reilly 2010O’Reilly, Tim 2010 “What is Web 2.0?” In Online Communication and Collaboration: A Reader, ed. by Helen Donelan, Karen Kear and Magnus Ramage. London: Routledge.Google Scholar, 225). Netizens11.A ‘netizen’ is defined as an active participant in the online community of the Internet (The online Merriam-Webster Dictionary, https://​www​.merriam​-webster​.com​/dictionary​/netizen, accessed on September 5 2019). have had more opportunities to participate in the creation and circulation of media content. Given the informal nature of social network interactions, the language used in such online platforms tends to be informal and involve unusual writing styles (Thelwall 2008Thelwall, Mike 2008 “Fk Yea I Swear: Cursing and Gender in MySpace.” Corpora 3 (1): 83–107. CrossrefGoogle Scholar, 4). In light of this, it is noted by an increasing number of scholars that swearing on new media platforms has taken on new roles through new linguistic features and functions. Words that contain profanity or swearwords would sometimes appear with a disguise, like p.i.s.s. for piss, in order to avoid censorship (Mogollón, Pinzón, and Rojas-Galeano 2016Mogollón Pinzón, Christian and Rojas-Galeano, Sergio 2016 “A Web-Forum Free of Disguised Profanity by Means of Sequence Alignment.” Ingeniería y Universidad 20(2): 239–265. CrossrefGoogle Scholar, 240). Swearing has also been found to be used in certain online contexts as a tool to enhance solidarity with readers and peers (Beers-Fägersten 2017 2017 “The Role of Swearing in Creating an Online Persona: The Case of YouTuber PewDiePie.” Discourse, Context and Media 18: 1–10. CrossrefGoogle Scholar; Dynel 2012Dynel, Marta 2012 “Swearing Methodologically: the (Im)politeness of Expletives in Anonymous Commentaries on YouTube.” Journal of English Studies 10: 25–50. CrossrefGoogle Scholar).

Studies on Chinese swearwords have been receiving scholarly interest for decades, despite a relative paucity of ontological research.22.Related etymological studies are scarce, and swearwords are generally excluded from the majority of Chinese corpora available. It is extremely challenging, if not impossible, to track and confirm the exact time when a swearword appeared in literary works, on the Internet or in other media. Moreover, very few swearwords and their variants are collected in dictionaries (Jing-Schmidt 2019Jing-Schmidt, Zhuo 2019 “Cursing, taboo and euphemism.” In Routledge Handbook of Chinese Applied Linguistics, ed. by Chu-Ren Huang, Zhuo Jing-Schmidt and Barbara Meisterernst, 391–406. London: Routledge. CrossrefGoogle Scholar), most of which only include prototypical forms of traditional swearwords. Chen (1992)Chen, Weiwu 1992 “Discussion on Swearing and Chinese Swearwords.” Journal of Sun Yat-sen University (Social Science Edition) 4: 114–123.Google Scholar discussed the psychological mechanisms behind, and the cognitive values of, Chinese swearwords. Zhou (2000)Zhou, Rong 2000A Study of Chinese Swearwords (Published master’s thesis). Beijing Language and Culture University, Beijing, China.Google Scholar provided an overview of traditional Chinese swearwords in terms of their categorisation, formation, and function. Delinzhuoga (2005)Delinzhuoga 2005A Study of Swearwords of Modern Mandarin Dictionary. (Published master’s thesis). Soochow University, Suzhou, China.Google Scholar revealed the basic syllabic structures and semantic formations of the swearwords collected in the Modern Chinese Dictionary (2002 edition). As pointed out by some scholars, certain Chinese swearwords have always been written in disguised forms due to their taboo nature, such as using (niǎo/bird) to refer to a man’s private parts (Cao 2006Cao, Dehe 2006 “The Culturalization of Insulting Words: On the Evolution of Pronunciation, Meaning and Character of Words as niao.” Journal of the History of the Chinese Language 6: 214–222.Google Scholar). In recent years, with the popularity of new media, an increasing number of researchers have taken note of the new features revealed by non-traditional swearwords in online settings, including their sometimes idiosyncratic written forms and non-insult-oriented uses. For example, TMD is a phonetic abbreviation of the phrase 他妈的 (tāmāde/his mom’s, clipped from ‘his mom’s private part’), and 你妹 (nǐmèi/your younger sister, a hedged substitute of ‘fuck your mom’). Both examples can be traced to the archaic and most offensive swearing 肏他妈的屄 (cào tāmāde bī/fuck his mom’s pussy), but no longer contains explicit referents of the action or the recipient. Shen (2016)Shen, Yang 2016 “Evaluation on Newly Emerging Foul and Abusive Language in Chinese from the Perspective of Language Standardization.” Chinese Journal of Language Policy and Planning 1 (3): 70–75.Google Scholar termed such phenomenon ‘newly emerging foul and abusive language in Chinese’. Jing-Schmidt and Hsieh (2019)Jing-Schmidt, Zhuo and Hsieh, Shu-Kai 2019 “Chinese neologisms.” In Routledge Handbook of Chinese Applied Linguistics, ed. by Chu-Ren Huang, Zhuo Jing-Schmidt and Barbara Meisterernst, 514–534. London: Routledge. CrossrefGoogle Scholar, in their review of Chinese neologisms, proposed that ‘[n]eologisms include not just new words, but also new constructional patterns, morphological patterns, and innovated parts of speech’. As our data include both new uses of traditional Chinese swearwords and new forms derived from them, we shall adopt the concept of Chinese neologisms for a working definition of ‘new swearwords’ in our present study, taking into account those swearwords that have been emerging in online domains.

This paper examines the repertoire of new swearwords favoured by young Chinese netizens situated in the ‘local’ as well as ‘global’ contexts, so as to investigate the emergence and functionality of the new swearing expressions. ‘Local’ contexts in this paper refer to the online text where a word of focus is used, and ‘global’ ones involve broader, non-linguistic factors such as social and cultural contexts in which a discourse is situated. In what follows, we begin with a classification of the new swearwords according to their semantic meanings. We will then explore what (new) linguistic features they exhibit and what (new) pragmatic functions they perform in such online contexts. We intend to paint the new landscape of swearwords in Chinese, recreated by the young netizens for their use on online social media platforms. New forms and meanings have been given to old expressions, which assume new functions in various linguistic aspects. Thus, our study reinterprets and reimages Chinese swearwords flourishing in Chinese social media in the late 2010s.

2.Methodology

At the beginning of this study, we conducted interviews with 20 university students in China whose average age was 23.5, including 14 females and 6 males. We provided them with some typical new swearwords including 尼玛 (nímǎ/near homophones of ‘you’ and ‘mom’; your mom), 我草 (wǒcǎo/I and near homophone of ‘fuck’; I fuck), and 逗比 (dòubǐ/funny and near homophone of ‘pussy’; a riot), and asked them: (1) if they had seen this word, and if so, where; (2) if they knew what it means; (3) if they had used this word, and if so, where; (4) to give similar words, and as many as possible. Our interviews recorded the 26 most frequently used swearwords and variants by these young people (Appendix 1). All items are related to sex to varying degrees, and many were included in recent studies on new trends of foul language in Chinese (Li et al. 2018Li, Bin, Dou, Yan, Sheng, Yuqi and Liu, Yan 2018 “New Forms and Functions of Swearwords on Mobile Social Network.” In Digitized Teaching of Chinese as a Foreign Language, ed. by Xiaoqi Li, Jianrong Sun and Juan Xu, 420–426. Beijing: Tsinghua University Press.Google Scholar; Shen 2016Shen, Yang 2016 “Evaluation on Newly Emerging Foul and Abusive Language in Chinese from the Perspective of Language Standardization.” Chinese Journal of Language Policy and Planning 1 (3): 70–75.Google Scholar). In general, our list contains representatives of the most commonly used swearwords in contemporary Chinese media. Furthermore, our informants named a few social networking sites such as Douban, Zhihu and WeChat as the places where they most often used or encountered such swearwords.

We then used the keywords identified above to retrieve and collect texts on a chosen social media called ‘Douban’. It is an epitome of popular Chinese social media frequented by young netizens aged between 18–35 (Yecies et al. 2016Yecies, Brian, Yang, Jie, Shim, Ae-Gyung, Soh, Kai Ruo and Berryman, Matthew J. 2016 “The Douban Online Social Media Barometer and the Chinese Reception of Korean Popular Culture Flows.” Journal of Audience and Reception Studies 13 (1): 114–138.Google Scholar, 117). Douban welcomes posts on hobbies, films, books, music and the like, and consequently attracts large numbers of young netizens to publish posts and exchange ideas in self-organised social groups (Kong 2014Kong, Shuyu 2014Popular Media, Social Emotion and Public Discourse in Contemporary China (Vol. 117). London: Routledge. CrossrefGoogle Scholar). As of June 2017, it ranked fourth among all of the most frequently used social media apps in China (CNNIC 2017Chinese Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC) 2017The 40th China Statistical Report on Internet Development. Retrieved April 11, 2018, from http://​www​.cnnic​.net​.cn​/hlwfzyj​/hlwxzbg​/hlwtjbg​/201708​/P020170807351923262153​.pdf). Its phone app, Douban Moments, is one of the subordinate platforms of Douban,33.Douban Moments was suspended in August 2017 by its parent company as a business strategic move. which is used daily to push 10–15 popular posts or articles based on its algorithm involving hit rates and readers’ ratings. This study selected Douban and Douban Moments as the major sources of research data due to their popularity among young adult readers and their diversity in content and reader groups. It was expected that the number and use of swearwords and their variants would be high and diverse, which is most desirable for our focus of study.

For more comprehensive understanding of the keywords’ use in discourse, information relating to the host posts was also retrieved and collected: category of content, pen name of post owner, date of posting, hyperlinks. Restricted by privacy setting, authors’ genders and ages were neither explicitly known nor accessible. Our tool of data retrieval was a Chrome extension tool that analysed the host server and API to generate corresponding API. Due to the app’s restriction on data mining, only posts up to May 2015 were retrievable. Constrained by the platform’s regulation on the amount of information an external party is allowed to retrieve and download, this study collected posts published between May 2015 and December 2016.

3.Results

We collected 14,435 posts by 4,453 authors, covering 23 categories or themes that ranged from book reviews to gossips about beauty products and celebrities. Among the posts retrieved, we identified 3,162 tokens of targeted new swearwords. Frequency of occurrence for all targeted swearwords is listed in Appendix 1. Our analysis and discussion were centred around the words per se and also on the contexts in which they were situated.

3.1Categorization of new swearwords

A quick glimpse of the new swearwords suggested that most items, to varying extents, are related to sex, which is a common theme in swearwords in world languages (Fernández 2008Fernández, Eliecer C. 2008 “Sex-Related Euphemism and Dysphemism: An Analysis in Terms of Conceptual Metaphor Theory.” Atlantis 95–110.Google Scholar). Focusing on the actions/verb event involved in the words, we propose that our pool of new swearwords fall into three categories: recipient of sexual behaviour, type of sexual behaviour, and sexual organ. We attempted hypothetical deduction on the formation of these expressions based on their meaning and structure, due to a lack of relevant etymological studies (see Schuessler 2007Schuessler, Axel 2007ABC Etymological Dictionary of Old Chinese. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.Google Scholar). Despite this, the proposed composition methods suggest that the formation of the variants is anything but random, and that some patterns and methods are likely to be general across other swearwords.

Table 1.Classification of swearwords based on semantic referents
a.Recipient of sexual behaviour
Item Compositions Literal meaning Actual meaning
他妈的 tāmāde Clipped from 肏他妈的屄 cào tāmāde bī ‘fuck his mom’s pussy’ his mom’s fuck/fucking
特么(的) tèmede a near homophone of 他妈的 no literal meaning freaking/goddamn

TM/TMD

tāmā/tāmāde

Abbreviation of tāmā(de) 他妈的 ‘his mom’s’ his mom(’s) fuck/fucking
你妈的 nǐmāde Clipped from 肏你妈的屄 cào nǐmāde bī ‘fuck your mom’s pussy’ your mom’s fuck/fucking

尼玛

nímǎ

a near homophone of nǐmā 你妈 ‘your mom’ no literal meaning freaking/goddamn

你妹

nǐmèi

a near homophone of, and close in meaning to, nǐmā 你妈 your younger sister my foot/my ass
b.Type of sexual behaviour
Item Compositions Literal meaning Actual meaning
我操 wǒcāo a near homophone of wǒcào 我肏 ‘I fuck’* I grasp fuck
我靠 wǒkào Ditto I lean fuck
我擦 wǒcā Ditto I wipe fuck
我草 wǒcǎo Ditto I grass fuck
我艹 wǒcǎo ‘艹’ is the radical of cǎo ‘grass’ I ‘head of cǎo’ fuck
卧槽 wòcáo a near homophone of wǒcào 我肏 crouching at a trough fuck/holy shit
草泥马 cǎonímǎ a near homophone of càonǐmā 肏你妈 ‘fuck your mom’ grass mud horse fuck/damn
*Etymologically, the original written form of ‘wǒcào’ in Chinese is likely to be 我肏 , the meaning of which is close to ‘I fuck’ in English. is the singular first-person pronoun meaning ‘I’, and is the archaic verb meaning ‘fuck’.
c.Sexual organs
Item Compositions Literal meaning Actual meaning
装逼zhuāngbī zhuāng ‘to pretend’ + bī ‘pussy’ to pretend pussy to act ostentatiously
撕逼sībī sī ‘to rip’ + bī ‘pussy’ to rip pussy to have a catfight/to fall out with someone
二逼èrbī (èr ‘two’, vernacular saying of ‘stupid’) + bī ‘pussy’ stupid pussy an asshole
煞笔shābǐ a near homophone of 傻逼 shǎbī ‘a sucker’, shǎ ‘silly’ + bī ‘pussy’ stupid pussy a sucker, a stupid person
逼格bīgé bī (a homophone of bī,’pussy’) + gé (from 格调 gédiào, ‘style/class’) pussy level swag; style
逗比dòubǐ dòu ‘funny’ + bǐ (a homophone of 屄bī ‘pussy’) funny pussy a riot, a funny person

傻X

shǎbī/shǎchā

The cross (chā) is a mask for bī in 傻逼 shǎbī stupid X a sucker, a stupid cunt

装X

zhuāngbī/ zhuāngchā

The cross (chā) is a mask for bī in 装逼 zhuāngbī to pretend X to act ostentatiously

装B

zhuāngbī

The Roman letter B substitutes bī in 装逼 zhuāngbī to pretend B to act ostentatiously

B格

bīgé

The Roman letter B substitutes bī in 逼格 bīgé B style/level swag; style

装13

zhuāngshísān

13 is a horizontally dismantled B to pretend thirteen to act ostentatiously

low逼

lōubī

Code mixing of ‘low’ and ‘ bī’ low pussy someone with poor taste

From Tables 1 (a)(c), it can be seen that our targeted items derive from sex-related roots, but have evolved into variants with varying degrees of connection with the original swearwords through processes like homophonic substitution, clipping or coinage. For example, 他妈的 (tāmāde/his mom’s) and 你妈的 (nǐmāde/your mom’s) are among the more traditional forms, from which new forms (as shown in the sub-categories) are derived. Some variants still carry strong emotional forces, such as 我操 (wǒcāo/I fuck) and 你妈的 (nǐmāde/your mom’s), while some are coined for stylistic references. The latter set constitutes new linguistic phenomena – reinterpretation of traditional swearwords. It is noted that many variants in our collection seem to alleviate the insulting force encoded in its original, like (/compare) as a substitution of (/pussy) in 逗比 (dòubǐ/a riot). In some cases, the new swearword is plausibly the product of several processes. 煞笔 (shābǐ/a sucker) is a near homophone of 傻逼 (shǎbī/a sucker), changing tones of the characters. Thus, the former form is actually a compound coinage of (shǎ/stupid) and (/pussy), which reads much weaker in the insulting force than its base 傻逼 .

3.2Code-mixing in the new swearwords

Another observation among the collection is the diverse forms and disguises these new swearwords take on. Some new variants adopt code-mixing to include unusual forms such as Roman letters, numerals, English words and even radicals of Chinese characters. The concept of ‘code’ is used here in its broad sense, which includes different writing systems of a single language, like Pinyin and radicals44.Pinyin is the official Romanization system of Standard Chinese in mainland China. A radical is a graphical component of a Chinese character, which is often a semantic/phonetic indicator. For example, ‘mom’ has a semantic radical on the left meaning ‘female’ and a phonetic radical on the right suggesting its pronunciation should be in the same rhyme as that of the character ‘horse’. in Chinese. Previous research has also noted the emergence of such ‘hybridized orthography’ in Chinese online space (Lee 2002Lee, Carmen K. M. 2002 “Literacy Practices in Computer-Mediated Communication in Hong Kong.” The Reading Matrix 2 (2): 1–25.Google Scholar; 10, Lotherington and Xu 2004Lotherington, Heather and Xu, Yejun 2004 “How to Chat in English and Chinese: Emerging Digital Language Conventions.” ReCALL 16(2): 308–329. CrossrefGoogle Scholar, 309). Creation of these swearwords employs approaches from two aspects: orthography and pronunciations. For instance, 我艹 (wǒcào/I ‘head of cǎo’) is coined from 我草 (wǒcǎo/I grass), where is the semantic radical of and can be typed out by certain Chinese input methods.55. ’ can be typed out through a few input methods, usually by inputting ‘cao’ via Sogou Pinyin Method or via Pinyin Simplified method provided by an iOS or on Mac device. 我草 (wǒcǎo/I grass) is developed from 我操 (wǒcāo/I fuck). (cāo) and (cǎo/grass) are near homophones that derive from the swearword (cào/fuck) by changing the original tone into legitimate combination of tone and syllable in contemporary standard Chinese. (cǎo/grass) is then replaced with its subcomponent, which is a further hedge of the original insulting connotation. These processes can be denoted as this: 我操 (wǒcāo/I fuck) → (wǒcǎo/I grass) → (wǒcào/I ‘head of cǎo’). Another type of code-mixing involves Roman alphabets, i.e. the Pinyin form. For instance, ‘TMD’ is the acronym of the Pinyin form of the swearword tāmāde ( 他妈的 /his mom’s). Sometimes ‘TMD’ is further clipped by dropping the ‘D’, as a correspondence to the shortened swearword tāmā ( 他妈 /his mom). In most new swearwords, only one type of the disguise methods mentioned above is employed to substitute the original insulting key character(s).

There are also a group of the new swearwords that contain English words, like low (lōubī/low class). ‘Low’ is used literally to comment that the level or standard of a person (usually in terms of taste or abilities overall) is poor. Interestingly, the English word ‘low’ is used to form a derogatory word, but the use of English in Chinese presumes some knowledge in the foreign language, which is still an indication of prestige and education in China today (Gao 2009Gao, Yihong 2009 “Sociocultural Contexts and English in China: Retaining and Reforming the Cultural Habitus.” In China and English: Globalisation and the Dilemmas of Identity, ed. by Joseph L. Bianco, Jane Orton and Yihong Gao, 56–78. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.Google Scholar, 72). In contrast, understanding swearwords involving Pinyin scripts or numerals only requires a basic level of literacy from the writer/reader. As most contemporary young netizens have had secondary education and are equipped with basic English (Hu 2002Hu, Guangwei 2002 “Recent Important Developments in Secondary English-Language Teaching in the People’s Republic of China.” Language Culture and Curriculum 15(1): 30–49. CrossrefGoogle Scholar), it is not surprising that code-mixing involving English is adopted in creating new swearwords, as it may be considered a symbol of coolness and of social prestige.

3.3The new grammatical features of the swearwords

Traditional research proposes that swearwords are usually used as interjections in discourse (Ameka 1992Ameka, Felix 1992 “Interjections: The Universal Yet Neglected Part of Speech.” Journal of Pragmatics 18(2–3): 101–118. CrossrefGoogle Scholar). They usually carry an abusive or aggressive punch. Therefore, omission of a swearword does not affect the grammaticality of its host sentences. Our data suggest, however, that certain new variants of Chinese swearwords that are pervasive today have obtained more concrete grammatical features such as discourse-pragmatic functions as they underwent derivation and other changes while their semantic meanings have been bleached. For example, 你妹 (nǐmèi/your younger sister) could serve as a discourse marker that falsifies or rejects a presupposition in a previous statement by the speaker (or another interlocutor), or an assumption that could be inferred from the context. In (1) below, the author starts with a rhetorical question “You think it’s still early?”, defying the assumption made by “you” that the time is still early; in other words, the author is presupposing the time is not early for many people. The author then follows up with a rejection 早你妹 (“Early your.younger.sister!”), further affirming his or her own stance that it is already too late. 你妹 nǐmèi here apparently has nothing to do with its original semantic meaning or abusive referent, but rather a marker that signals strong denial of the statement that could be inferred from the context. In (2), “the agent would come out…and curse at every moment” sets up a scenario where the agent always refutes rumours for the celebrity. The author follows up with a grunt 辟你妹啊 “Refute your.younger.sister ah”, expressing his/her displeasure towards and rejection of such phenomenon in the previous account.

(1)
…… 你妹 ……
  Zǎo nǐmèi!  
  early your.younger.sister  
“Early, hell no!”

你以为还早吗?早 你妹 !7点到教室,你觉得很早么?教室6点40有人开始巴拉巴拉读书背单词了……你还巴拉巴拉念叨起的太早!

“You think it’s still early? Early, hell no! Arriving at the classroom at 7am, and you think it’s too early? At 6:40 there are already people reading books and memorizing words… and you keep on nagging it is too early!”

(2)
…… 谣,……, 你妹 啊,……
  yáo,…, nǐmèi ah,
  refute rumors,…, refute your.younger.sister sfp
“The agent came out and refuted rumors for her again. Refute, hell no!“

经纪人总是会第一时间出来辟谣,真是分分钟就想爆粗口,辟 你妹 啊,就不能来个假戏真做,来点意外惊喜吗?

“The agent would come out in first time to refute rumors, and that makes one want to curse at every moment. Refute, hell no! Can’t the play be real? Surprise us!”

Another swearword that has acquired new features is (/pussy), which shows up in the variants we gathered (Table 1–c). is likely to be derived from its taboo origin (/pussy), which is homophonic and refers to female’s private part. This original referent is still somewhat retained in certain variants like 撕逼 (sībī/rip pussy). The new referent in the variants could range from a cat fight (Example (3)) to a falling-out in general (Example (4)).

(3)
室友 撕逼
yào shìyǒu sībī!
I have to with roommate rip.pussy

“I really have to have a catfight with my roommate!”

(4)
职场, 每天 上演 无数 撕逼 故事
Zài zhíchǎng, měitiān dōu shàngyǎn zhe wúshù de sībī gùshì.
at work.place every.day all display zhe numerous de rip.pussy story

“In the workplace, numerous falling-out stories happen every day.”

In most new variants, however, the original abusive referent in is weakened and even bleached, in which it is granted new referential meanings. This could be seen in the following variants (Table 1–c): 装逼 (zhuāngbī/to act ostentatiously), 二逼 (èrbī/a stupid person), 逼格 (bīgé/swag), and variants that contain its near homophones (/compare) or (/pen) such as 煞笔 (shābǐ/a stupid person), 逗比 (dòubǐ/a riot). As in Example (5), 装逼 means acting in a pretentious and ostentatious manner and has a teasing and slightly sarcastic undertone. The meaning of the original swearword has been extended in this new variant. 装逼 is derogatory and somewhat vulgar, but not a swearword any more. So the original abusiveness in has faded and its insulting force considerably softened. In other new swearwords, is further extended to neutral or positive references. For example, 逼格 (bīgé/swag) is a simplified form of 装逼的格调 (zhuāngbī de gédiào/the level of someone’s swag). It appears with a mild commendatory sense in Example (6).

(5)
…… 别人 喜欢 电影 就是 装逼 行为 ……
  Biérén shuō xǐhuān mǒu xiē diànyǐng jiùshì zhuāngbī xíngwéi.  
  others say I favor certain cl film is pretend.pussy act  
“Others say I am being a show-off just because I favor certain films.”

好片子就是好看的片子,虽然它太不闷了或者太闷了。

我厌恶对另类导演的趋之若鹜,也厌恶别人说我喜欢某些电影就是 装逼 行为。

看电影就是看电影。

“Good films are always good films, though they could be too entertaining or too boring.

I hate it when people are going after a director just for his idiosyncrasy, and also hate it when others say I am being a show-off just because I favor certain films.

Going to theatres for films is nothing more than seeing films.”

(6)
并不是
Bìng bù shì
not
……
 
wear
一条
yī tiáo
a
BV
 
Bottega Veneta
de
de
皮带
pídài
belt
就是
jiùshì
is
yǒu
have
逼格
bīgé
pussy.level
了,
le,
le
……
 
 

“It doesn’t mean… wearing a Bottega Veneta belt makes you classy.”

怎么说呢,对于提升 逼格 这件事儿听着挺虚。其实不然,不外乎是通过一些物件来彰显自己是一个有品位、有情怀、有追求的男人。当然,并不是你去背一个LV的包,系一条BV的皮带就是有 逼格 了,这特么叫土豪,和 逼格 无关,和情怀无关。

“How shall I put it – to level up one’s style may sound so abstract, but it is not so. You can use accessories to show that you are a man with taste, heart, and ambition. But, of course, it doesn’t mean that carrying a Louis Vuitton bag or wearing a Bottega Veneta belt makes you classy. That says nothing but you’re a nouveau riche, which has nothing to do with being cool or one’s heart.”

Some variant of (/pussy), such as (/compare) used in Example (7), even shows a significant change in lexical meaning from the abusive origin. started as a homophonic substitute of in swearwords, and carried abusive referent. In Example (7), has shaken off the original meaning but acquired new referent, a common person or nobody. Compounding with the adjective meaning ‘funny’, 逗比 (dòubǐ/funny pussy) refers a hilarious person, or a riot, especially one from the grass root. In this specific context, “being a 逗比 ” is also a kind of lifestyle or personality which the author finds “charming”. Here 逼/比 is completely bleached in terms of swearing functions: turning from its original abusive referent to a neutral and even positive one, by taking on a new lexical meaning.

(7)
逗比 可以 理解 一种 生活 态度
Dòubǐ kěyǐ lǐjiě shì yīzhǒng shēnghuó tàidù
Funny.pussy also can understand be a kind of life attitude

“Being a riot can also be understood as an attitude towards life.”

逗比 也可以理解是一种生活态度

或者是一种人格特性

有时候也会拥有独特的魅力吧

“Being a riot can also be understood as an attitude towards life

or a type of personality

Sometimes such a person may have a unique kind of charm”

In similar fashion, has been used to form more compound nouns with derogatory references. For example, 丧逼 (sàngbī/depressing pussy), as shown in Example (8). means death or deprivation, infelicity or frustration. It is noted that a culture of began to emerge on new media in China (Lin 2017Lin, Zhanting 2017, August 6. “China’s Special Report: Online and Offline, Spirit of ‘Sang’ Overflows.” Retrieved April 11, 2018, from http://​www​.zaobao​.com​/znews​/greater​-china​/story20170806​-784899), where the character has come to refer to a negative and let-things-drift attitude towards life. Following this trend, 丧逼 is formed to refer to ordinary people who are often depressed or decadent to the extent that they seem to have lost the purpose in life.

(8)
火锅 难过 丧逼 朋友
yǒu wèi chī wán huǒguō jiù nánguò de sàngbī péngyǒu.
i have several cl eat finish hot pot then sad de depressing.pussy friend

“I have a few whiny friends who become melancholy upon finishing their hot pot meals.”

我有几位吃完火锅就难过的 丧逼 朋友。

我们这群 丧逼 朋友的主要特点,一是穷,二是多愁善感,三是文艺青年,酷爱粤语歌。粤语歌爱好者们貌似人生路都挺坎坷的。或者说,坎坷的人在粤语歌中比较能得到安慰。

“I have a few whiny friends who become melancholy every time they had hot pot meals.

These whiny friends have some features in common: poor, sentimental, self-claimed artsy youths who are crazy about Cantonese songs. It seems most Cantonese song lovers have experienced too many downs in life. Or rather, a person who has gone through too many downs finds more solace in Cantonese songs.”

Examples (7) and (8) are evidences that has been confirmed with new lexical meaning extended and distinct from the original one. It can refer to a specific kind of person, especially one who is average and of certain grass-root characteristics (no matter pleasant or upsetting). But, it should be noted that the new meaning does not stand alone by itself, but is best manifested in compound nouns.

The above Examples (38) and analyses demonstrate that some new swearwords such as 你妹 (nǐmèi/your younger sister) and (/pussy) have undergone semantic change to acquire new grammatical features. Their original concrete and abusive referential meanings appear to be lost or bleached in the process. In contemporary Chinese netizen’s vocabulary, these words are granted additional concrete and extended meanings to form new variants to be used in more contexts and lexical items (Brinton and Traugott 2005Brinton, Laurel J. and Traugott, Elizabeth C. 2005Lexicalization and Language Change. Cambridge University Press. CrossrefGoogle Scholar, 108). We could see that, for example, 你妹 serves as a marker that provides denial of a presupposition when it is used post-focally. This adds functional flexibility to this new swearwords, though the new grammatical feature retains a clear connection to its original function as swear. The other swearword () represents more significant changes in lexical meanings: two new generic meanings are developed including class/style and a common person. Each new meaning is neutral and can participate in creating new compounds, which adds to the productivity of the word . It is expected that many more different kinds of ‘– 逼’ might be created by netizens in the future.

These changes of swearwords are made possible through the reinterpretation and innovative uses by young netizens, as well as on the Internet platform that enables and increases the appearance of new variants and token frequencies. During the process of change, the original insulting force of the traditional swearwords like 逼/屄 (/pussy) has been greatly alleviated in wide acceptance and adaptation on new social media, which has in turn further boosted frequency of occurrence and enlarge range of use.

3.5The new social functions of the swearwords

Aside from traditional pragmatic functions, the sex-related swearwords and their variants could also contribute to identity construction and solidarity enhancement on social media networks. Douban Moments, the major source of our data, was oriented towards urban youngsters who have received a certain degree of education and are fond of sharing and discussions about books, films, music and the like. The app selected and pushed popular or featured articles daily, and these could be taken as representations of the unique kind of discourse and culture of this social community. Our data revealed that from 2015 to the end of 2016, nearly one out of four popular authors or one out of six featured articles had used sex-related swearwords. In light of this, we could say this style of discourse was widely recognised, and at the same time conventionalised, by the mainstream users of Douban Moments, who mainly were young Chinese people. Swales (1990)Swales, John 1990Genre Analysis: English in Academic and Research Settings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar defined that members of a discourse community share goals in common or are governed by certain beliefs and conventions, which are manifested by certain ways of talking and getting things done. Following this direction, these young netizens should be regarded as forming a particular discourse community. Use of swearwords, as proposed by Stapleton (2003Stapleton, Karyn 2003 “Gender and Swearing: A Community Practice.” Women and Language 26 (2): 22–33.Google Scholar, 2010 2010 “Swearing.” In Interpersonal Pragmatics, ed. by Miriam A. Locher and Sage L. Graham, 289–305. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton.Google Scholar), could be understood then as a community practice in terms of enhancing identity construction within a group by marking in-/out-group boundaries and affirming members’ identities, which are hard to realise through other means. When using swearwords, both the speaker (or writer) and the audience display their group membership. The swearwords and their hit rates involved in our study to some extent reflect users’ sense of identity, which in turn facilitates their identity construction in this online community by using sex-related swearwords in their posts or comments, or by being frequent audience members who consumed this style of talk.

Simultaneously, swearword uses could create or enhance the solidarity among different members and reduce their social distance (Dynel 2012Dynel, Marta 2012 “Swearing Methodologically: the (Im)politeness of Expletives in Anonymous Commentaries on YouTube.” Journal of English Studies 10: 25–50. CrossrefGoogle Scholar, 38). The use of sex-related swearwords on social networks like Douban could be in some ways seen as a subculture that prevails in this specific kind of community, whose members recognise and support the words’ use. Albeit rude and impolite behaviour in traditional views, swearword usage could be taken as an in-group polite act in certain contexts on social media. By using them in vernacular conversations online, strangers on a virtual platform would have the potential to narrow their social distance and thus to increase solidarity.

Such ‘reciprocal’ effect could to varying extents be seen in other swearwords and their variants in our study. For instance, 尼玛 nímǎ is a near homophone but non-lexical variant of 你妈 (nǐmā/your mom’s), which was clipped from 肏你妈的屄 (cào nǐmāde bī/fuck your mom’s pussy). However, as reflected in Example (9), it is used in the sense of a marker where the original abusive referent is bleached.

(9)
尼玛 进去 嘛!
Zhè nímǎ shì kēng hǎo ma tiào jìnqù le ma!
this nima is a pit great sfp jump inside you scared le sfp

“This is a freaking deep pit okay, getting into it does make one scared!”

这时候就要海淘满足求知欲满足用最少的钱买海外商品提高姿势水平的急切的心对不对!!

准备好说爱我了嘛!

先说各位小仙女的心头爱————

美妆

尼玛 是个坑好嘛跳进去你怕了嘛!

“This is exactly when you should start overseas online shopping, satisfy your curiosity and purchase foreign products at the lowest price possible!

Now, get ready to show your gratitude for me!

First let me start with everyone’s beloved – cosmetics

This is a freaking deep pit okay, and getting into it is scary right?”

(The post author then continued to recommend her favourite products and recount her user experiences.)

Example (10) is part of a popular post regarding purchasing cosmetic products from online stores. The author described shopping cosmetics products on overseas websites is very appealing but with consequences. Online overseas shopping is then like “a freaking deep pit”: a person can never get out of it once s/he starts. The author goes on to provide a list of cosmetic products she finds to be of great value for money. It is not surprising that the author inserts the swearword 尼玛 nímǎ as well as other words with negative connotation like “freaking”, “pit” and “scary” when sharing her experiences. Such slangy language suggests that the author is not trying to pose as a lofty expert, but a next-door neighbour who is eager to share. As an ordinary person like most her audience, she gets excited when talking about her passion, and empathizes with her readers’ dilemma. In such a way, the author constructs her identity as a lover of and an old hand in overseas online shopping in this group. The post’s popularity can be seen in the replies that followed, as listed below.

Reply 1:

I don’t know how to make online overseas purchase. Please give advice (face with tears of joy emoji)

Reply 2:

Where to make online overseas purchase?

Reply 3:

How to make online overseas purchase -_-#

Reply 4:

Don’t know how to make online overseas purchase. Feels so sad ╮(╯▽╰)╭

Reply 5:

A lot of useful tips in this post. But for now I only know how to make purchases on US websites.

Reply 6:

What the author said makes sense.

A look at the comments under this post could contribute to a better understanding of the solidarity that the author gets to enhance through her language use. While the author has made a few heartfelt recommendations of what products to get on overseas websites, in most of the replies, readers are sharing their frustration from not knowing how to make online overseas purchases, or are inviting the author to give them advice on how to do this. Some people agree with the author’s opinions in the post (Reply 6), or affirm the value of this post (Reply 5). All of the comments are friendly in tone, and none of the commenters seem to be offended by the swearword usage. This is particularly manifested by the use of emoticons and emojis in the comments (Replies 1, 3, 4). Instead of netizens questioning the author’s authority or attacking the author for being a show-off with foul language, this post reveals how the author constructs her identity and establishes solidarity with other netizens through moderate swearword usage in an online post. Simultaneously, the participants in the comment section also construct their identity and show rapport to the author by recognising such language use. Since this post was so popular, it was tweeted by the Douban Moments app to a wide audience based on its algorithm. Among the thousands of readers this article reached, none of them seemed to have had such a serious problem with this author’s language use to the extent of leaving a bitter comment under the post.

In the instance above, the author displays her empathy and constructs her identity online with the enhancement by swearwords. Such use serves two goals: expressing strong personal emotions and opinions, and delivering one’s desire to seek resonance among other netizens. In such a context, the swearwords are not used abusively or to attack someone, but to show the authors’ belonging to the same speech community as readers. This approach is actually a tool for building connection and communication, with the aim of gaining support and establishing solidarity among readers.

4.The youth, the Internet and beyond

From the analyses above, it could be seen that the swearwords in our study have turned into commonplace sayings among young people, especially those who frequent social media. Their practices, however, contain innovative interpretation of the traditional swearwords’ abusive forces. Through frequent reinterpretation and fast spread via the Internet and phone apps, some swearwords have even softened, bleached to neutral, and some been granted positive connotations. Some have even lexicalised to participate in the formation of new words in Chinese. These changes are largely attributed to the popularity of the Internet and social media among young Chinese people. Since Web 2.0 enables netizens to create web content and thus virtually brings its users closer, it also gives rise to testing grounds and platforms for the creative use of languages. Therefore, we propose that the Internet has accelerated the circulation of swearwords and expanded their range of use, which in turn enables larger groups of netizens to create new forms and functions to accommodate wider applications.

The speaker’s attitudes and emotions are encoded in the use of swearwords (Moore et al. 2010Moore, Robert L., Bindler, Eric and Pandich, David 2010RESEARCH NOTE: Language with Attitude: American Slang and Chinese Lǐyǔ. Journal of Sociolinguistics 14(4): 524–538. CrossrefGoogle Scholar). Young people’s use of swearwords in online communication could be regarded as part of their attempt to redefine social taboos and conventions, which is also a feature of the vernacular characteristics of online interaction. These new language phenomena may have prompted young people to rethink linguistic and social conventions to the extent that they reinterpret and recreate norms for their own uses. Actually, research has shown that every generation of young people tend to have their own unique way of talking that may change the language in general (Eckert 1997Eckert, Penelope 1997 “Age as a Sociolinguistic Variable.” In Handbook of Sociolinguistics, ed. by Florian Coulmas, 151–167. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.Google Scholar). For example, saying ‘bad’ for ‘cool’ in English has been around since its first use in 1960s. As the millennials grow up in the web age, they have both linguistic resources and the Internet at their disposal in creating their kind of unconventional linguistic forms, such as the new swearwords to reflect their understanding of their identity and times.

A glimpse at the rapidly changing Chinese society would also contribute to a better understanding of the growing use of new swearwords by the young netizens. In recent decades, China has been exposed to unprecedented globalisation forces, including ‘global knowledge transfer, information sharing and cultural learning’, which has had strong impacts on China’s modernisation (Faure and Fang 2008Faure, Guy O. and Fang, Tony 2008 “Changing Chinese Values: Keeping Up with Paradoxes.” International Business Review 17(2): 194–207. CrossrefGoogle Scholar, 194). Simultaneously, China’s millennial generation has been responding to these challenges in its own ways and leading to some social changes, challenging the older generation’s cultural values (Moore 2005Moore, Robert L. 2005 “Generation Ku: Individualism and China’s Millennial Youth.” Ethnology 44(4): 357–376. CrossrefGoogle Scholar). There has been a growing need for self-expression and individualisation among Chinese youth (Faure and Fang 2008Faure, Guy O. and Fang, Tony 2008 “Changing Chinese Values: Keeping Up with Paradoxes.” International Business Review 17(2): 194–207. CrossrefGoogle Scholar, 198). To establish and display their identity of being ‘cool’ and ‘relatable’ in the new age, young people resort to their rich creativity in language use to break away from conventional taboos. These creative changes, rebelling and inappropriate in the eyes of the older generation and authorities, catch on quickly among youngsters and prevail on the Internet.

5.Conclusion and implications

Our study set out to garner data and evidence to enrich the current body of literature on swearing. We collected and analysed the frequently used ‘new swearwords’ in Chinese social media. We then examined new variants’ formation and classification, and analysed their functions in online communities. It is found that most new swearwords of focus have taken on new grammatical and pragmatic features compared with their linguistic origins. Some are undergoing semantic change, shaking off the original abusiveness to absorb new referential meanings. These swearwords are not only semantically bleached but also transformed into productive morphemes with neutral to positive connotation. Moreover, in social media platforms, all new swearwords contribute to identity construction and solidarity enhancement within the speech community on the web. We propose a ‘reciprocal’ relationship between the new swearwords and Internet use: new variants and uses of swearwords among Chinese young netizens are catalysed by the vast popularity of the Internet and social media apps, which provide platforms and inspirations for the young users to fully display their linguistic and pragmatic creativity, which leads to more new forms and uses.

Our study also sheds light on the importance of studying swearwords in the age of new media. Linguistic novelty and pragmatic implications are thus investigated both inside given texts and in the broader social context in which they are situated. Our research approach is justified by the new forms and meanings that we discover, and by the reinterpretation of their functions on Chinese social media platforms. As swearing is a social taboo but also an intriguing linguistic phenomenon, its interpretation must also take consideration of psychological, cultural and social factors, as the latest research on Chinese neologisms has reiterated (Jing-Schmidt and Hsieh 2018).

The prevalence of swearwords and their variants in online spaces also raises questions regarding intercultural communication and second language learning. Some scholars have pointed out that novel language usage, as such, is especially intriguing to second or foreign language learners (Horan 2013Horan, Geraldine 2013 “ ‘You Taught Me Language; And My Profit On’t/Is, I Know How to Curse’: Cursing and Swearing in Foreign Language Learning.” Language and Intercultural Communication 13(3): 283–297. CrossrefGoogle Scholar; Register 1996Register, Norma A. 1996 “Second-Language Learners and Taboo Words in American English.” English Today 12(3): 44–49. CrossrefGoogle Scholar). Learners might be easily exposed to ‘new swearwords’ in various online platforms and in instant messaging. The high frequency and wide application of such new forms may lead learners into the misconception that the swearwords are a cool tool for promoting peer solidarity. If they are eager to make use of such ‘cool words’ before realising their actual cultural and historical connotations, the learners are under the risk of insulting native speakers even when they mean no harm but are within-speech-community politeness (Scheu-Lottgen and Hernández-Campoy 1998Scheu-Lottgen, U. Dagmar and Hernández-Campoy, Juan M. 1998 “An Analysis of Sociocultural Miscommunication: English, Spanish and German.” International Journal of Intercultural Relations 22(4): 375–394. CrossrefGoogle Scholar, 391). Therefore, the socio-pragmatic aspects of swearing and swearword changes are of both scholarly and practical value. While our study has provided some insights from this angle, we hope there will be more in-depth studies on swearing from the perspectives of second language acquisition and cross-cultural communication in the future.

Funding

Research funded by The University Grants Committee of Hong Kong T&L Scheme (City University of Hong Kong 6391207) to Bin Li and by City University of Hong Kong (TDG 6000653) to Bin Li.

Acknowledgements

Preliminary findings of this study were presented at the IPrA 2017, held on 16-21 July in Belfast We thank Liang Chaoyun for online data retrieval and collection.

Notes

1.A ‘netizen’ is defined as an active participant in the online community of the Internet (The online Merriam-Webster Dictionary, https://​www​.merriam​-webster​.com​/dictionary​/netizen, accessed on September 5 2019).
2.Related etymological studies are scarce, and swearwords are generally excluded from the majority of Chinese corpora available. It is extremely challenging, if not impossible, to track and confirm the exact time when a swearword appeared in literary works, on the Internet or in other media. Moreover, very few swearwords and their variants are collected in dictionaries (Jing-Schmidt 2019Jing-Schmidt, Zhuo 2019 “Cursing, taboo and euphemism.” In Routledge Handbook of Chinese Applied Linguistics, ed. by Chu-Ren Huang, Zhuo Jing-Schmidt and Barbara Meisterernst, 391–406. London: Routledge. CrossrefGoogle Scholar), most of which only include prototypical forms of traditional swearwords.
3.Douban Moments was suspended in August 2017 by its parent company as a business strategic move.
4.Pinyin is the official Romanization system of Standard Chinese in mainland China. A radical is a graphical component of a Chinese character, which is often a semantic/phonetic indicator. For example, ‘mom’ has a semantic radical on the left meaning ‘female’ and a phonetic radical on the right suggesting its pronunciation should be in the same rhyme as that of the character ‘horse’.
5. ’ can be typed out through a few input methods, usually by inputting ‘cao’ via Sogou Pinyin Method or via Pinyin Simplified method provided by an iOS or on Mac device.

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Appendix 1.Frequency of occurrence of targeted swearwords
(in Chinese and in Pinyin)

Swearword Frequency No. of authors Swearword Frequency No. of authors
他妈的 tāmāde 454 200 你妈的 nǐmāde 72 41
逼格 bīgé 407  15 二逼 èrbī 56 43
装逼 zhuāngbī 366  17 草泥马 cǎonímǎ 50 42
特么(的) tème(de) 243 126 傻X shǎbī/shǎchā 25 24
我操 wǒcāo 213 199 我草 wǒcǎo 21 21
我靠 wǒkào 197 194 装B zhuāngbī 16  5
尼玛 nímǎ 182 98 装X zhuāngbī/ zhuāngchā  8  5
卧槽 wòcáo 180 164 B格 bīgé  7  6
我擦 wǒcā 159 152 煞笔 shābǐ  7  7
TM(TMD) 130  85 装13 zhuāngshísān  6  5
逗比 dòubǐ 123  14 我艹 wǒcǎo  4  4
你妹 nǐmèi 119  75 low逼 lōubī  2  2
撕逼 sībī 114  97 X你妈 càonǐmā  1  1

Appendix 2.Abbreviations used in the glosses of sentences (adopted from Li and Thompson 1989Li, Charles N. and Thompson, Sandra A. 1989Mandarin Chinese: A Functional Reference Grammar. Berkeley/Los Angeles: University of California Press.Google Scholar)

asp

aspect marker

p

possessive marker

q

question marker

cl

classifier

sfp

sentence final particle

de

a structural particle in Mandarin Chinese used for modifying nouns

le

a suffix in Mandarin Chinese to express perfectivity

zhe

a durative aspect marker in Mandarin Chinese to signal the ongoing nature of an event

Address for correspondence

Bin Li

Department of Linguistics and Translation

City University of Hong Kong

Kowloon Tong, Hong Kong S.A.R.

China

binli2@cityu.edu.hk

Biographical notes

Bin Li is an Associate Professor at Department of Linguistics and Translation in City University of Hong Kong. Her research interests include speech communication, second language acquisition, teaching methodology and discourse analysis.

Yan Dou is a PhD student at School of English in The University of Hong Kong, before which she was Research Assistant in City University of Hong Kong. Her research interests include multimodality, space and place, social semiotics and mediated discourse analysis.

Yingting Cui is a PhD student at School of Education in University of Bristol, before which she worked as Research Assistant in City University of Hong Kong. Her research interests include technology-enhanced language learning, Chinese as a foreign language teaching, and ICT policy.

Yuqi Sheng is Professor of Chinese and Director of Research Centre of Chinese Informatics in Shandong University, and Professor in Macau University of Science and Technology. His research interests include dialectology, corpus linguistics, and language pathology.