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Title: Profanity  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
Language: English
Subject: Latin profanity, Feck, Profanity in American Sign Language, Psychological manipulation, Dutch profanity
Collection: Censorship, Connotation, Profanity
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia


In cartoons, profanity is often depicted by substituting symbols ("grawlixes") for words, as a form of non-specific censorship.

Profanity – in its more literal sense – means "offensive words, or religious words, used in a way that shows you do not respect God or holy things", or behaviour showing similar disrespect.[1]

A more general, modern, meaning is given by Merriam-Webster online dictionary, which defines profanity as "an offensive word" or "offensive language".[2] This second use is also called bad language, strong language, coarse language, foul language, bad words, vulgar language, lewd language, swearing, cursing, cussing, or using expletives. This use is a subset of a language's lexicon that is generally considered to be very impolite, rude or offensive. It can show a debasement of someone or something, or show intense emotion. Profanity in this sense usually takes the form of words or verbal expressions, but can include gestures (such as flipping the middle finger), or other social behaviours that are interpreted as insulting, rude, vulgar, obscene, obnoxious, foul or desecrating.


  • Etymology 1
  • Research into swearing 2
    • Perceived severity 2.1
    • Types of swearing by purpose 2.2
  • By country 3
    • Swearing in the United Kingdom 3.1
      • In public 3.1.1
      • In the workplace 3.1.2
  • Broadcasting 4
  • Minced oaths 5
  • Notable instances in popular culture 6
  • See also 7
  • References 8
  • External links 9


The term "profane" originates from classical Latin "profanus", literally "before (outside) the temple". It carried the meaning of either "desecrating what is holy" or "with a secular purpose" as early as the 1450s CE.[3] Profanity represented secular indifference to religion or religious figures, while blasphemy was a more offensive attack on religion and religious figures, considered sinful, and a direct violation of The Ten Commandments.

Profanities, in the original meaning of blasphemous profanity, are part of the ancient tradition of the comic cults, which laughed and scoffed at the deity or deities.[4][5] An example from Gargantua and Pantagruel is "Christ, look ye, its Mere de ... merde ... shit, Mother of God."[6][7][8]

In English, swear words and curse words tend to have Germanic, rather than Latin etymology. "Shit" has a Germanic root, as, probably, does "fuck".[9] The more technical alternatives are often Latin in origin, such as "defecate" or "excrete", and "fornicate" or "copulate".

Profane language is by no means a recent phenomenon. The Bible records instances of the use of strong language, such as mention of men who "eat their own dung, and drink their own piss" in the Authorized King James Version of 1611's translation of Hebrew text of 2 Kings 18:27. Shakespeare is replete with vulgarisms, though many are no longer readily recognized.

Research into swearing

Analyses of recorded conversations reveal that roughly 80–90 spoken words each day – 0.5% to 0.7% of all words – are swear words, with usage varying from 0% to 3.4%. In comparison, first-person plural pronouns (we, us, our) make up 1% of spoken words.[10]

A three-country poll conducted by Angus Reid Public Opinion in July 2010 found that Canadians swear more often than Americans and British when talking to friends, while Britons are more likely than Canadians and Americans to hear strangers swear during a conversation.[11]

Swearing performs certain psychological functions, and uses particular linguistic and neurological mechanisms; all these are avenues of research. Functionally similar behavior can be observed in chimpanzees, and may contribute to our understanding, notes New York Times author Natalie Angier.[12] Angier also notes that swearing is a widespread but perhaps underappreciated anger management technique; that "Men generally curse more than women, unless said women are in a sorority, and that university provosts swear more than librarians or the staff members of the university day care center"[12]

Keele University researchers Stephens, Atkins, and Kingston found that swearing relieves the effects of physical pain.[13] Stephens said "I would advise people, if they hurt themselves, to swear".[14] However, the overuse of swear words tends to diminish this effect.[14] The team earned themselves the Ig Nobel Peace Prize in 2010 for the research.

A team of neurologists and psychologists at the UCLA Easton Center for Alzheimer's Disease Research suggested that swearing may help differentiate Alzheimer's disease from frontotemporal dementia.[15]

Neurologist Antonio Damasio noted that despite loss of language due to damage to the language areas of the brain, patients were still often able to swear.[16]

Perceived severity

The relative severity of various British profanities, as perceived by the public, was studied on behalf of the British Broadcasting Standards Commission, the ITC, the BBC, and the Advertising Standards Authority; the results of this jointly commissioned research were published in December 2000 in a paper called "Delete expletives?".[17] It listed the profanities in order of decreasing severity.

A similar survey was carried out in 2009 by New Zealand's Broadcasting Standards Authority. The results were published in March 2010, in a report called "What Not to Swear".[18] According to the Authority, the findings "measured how acceptable the public finds the use of swear words, blasphemies, and other expletives in broadcasting".

Types of swearing by purpose

According to Steven Pinker[19] there are five possible functions of swearing:

  • Abusive swearing
  • Cathartic swearing
  • Dysphemistic swearing
  • Emphatic swearing
  • Idiomatic swearing

By country

Swearing in the United Kingdom

In public

Swearing, in and of itself, is not a criminal offence in the United Kingdom although in context may constitute a component of a crime. In England and Wales, swearing in public where it is seen to cause harassment, alarm or distress may constitute an offence under section 5(1) and (6) of the Public Order Act 1986.[20] In Scotland, a similar common law offence of breach of the peace covers issues causing public alarm and distress.

In the workplace

In the United Kingdom, swearing in the workplace can be an act of gross misconduct under certain circumstances. In particular, this is the case when swearing accompanies insubordination against a superior or humiliation of a subordinate employee. However, in other cases it may not be grounds for instant dismissal.[21] According to a UK site on work etiquette, the "fact that swearing is a part of everyday life means that we need to navigate a way through a day in the office without offending anyone, while still appreciating that people do swear. Of course, there are different types of swearing and, without spelling it out, you really ought to avoid the 'worst words' regardless of who you’re talking to".[22] With respect to swearing between colleagues, the site explains that "although it may sound strange, the appropriateness [of] swearing [...] is influenced largely by the industry you are in and the individuals you work with". The site continues to explain that, even in a workplace in which swearing is the norm, there is no need to participate in it.[22] The site stresses that swearing is, in general, more problematic in asymmetric situations, such as in the presence of senior management or clients, but it also mentions that a "holier than thou" attitude towards clients may be problematic.[22]

The Guardian reported that "36% of the 308 UK senior managers and directors having responded to a survey accepted swearing as part of workplace culture", but warned about specific inappropriate uses of swearing such as when it is discriminatory or part of bullying behaviour. The article ends with a quotation from Ben Wilmott (Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development): "Employers can ensure professional language in the workplace by having a well drafted policy on bullying and harassment that emphasises how bad language has potential to amount to harassment or bullying."[23]


In countries where it is illegal to broadcast profanity on radio or television, programs can be pre-recorded or a broadcast delay device can be used to screen for and delete profanity or other undesirable material before it is broadcast.

Minced oaths

Minced oaths are euphemistic expressions made by altering or clipping profane words and expressions, to make them less objectionable. Although minced oaths are often acceptable in situations where profanity is not (including the radio), some people still consider them profanity. In 1941, a judge threatened a lawyer with contempt of court for using the word "darn".[24][25]

Notable instances in popular culture

  • Seven Dirty Words – a comedy routine by George Carlin, from 1972, in which he explained the seven words that must never be used in a television broadcast.

See also


  1. ^ "Definition of profanity".  
  2. ^ "Definition of Profanity", Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, retrieved on 2014-08-31.
  3. ^ Oxford English Dictionary Online, "profane", retrieved 2012-02-14
  4. ^ Bakhtin 1941, "introduction", p.5-6
  5. ^ Meletinsky, Eleazar Moiseevich The Poetics of Myth (Translated by Guy Lanoue and Alexandre Sadetsky) 2000 Routledge ISBN 0-415-92898-2 p.110
  6. ^ François Rabelais, Gargantua book, chap. XVII; in French the words mère de (meaning "mother of") sound like merde, which means "shit".
  7. ^ Full text of Chapter 16
  8. ^ Bakhtin, Mikhail Mikhaĭlovich (1984) , p. 190. Indiana University Press.Rabelais and His World At Google Books Retrieved 11 August 2013.
  9. ^ Oxford English Dictionary
  10. ^ Jay, T. (2009). "The Utility and Ubiquity of Taboo Words". Perspectives on Psychological Science 4 (2): 153–161.  
  11. ^ Angus Reid. (2010). Canadians Swear More Often Than Americans and British. Retrieved 2012-11-19
  12. ^ a b Angier, Natalie (2005-09-25), "Cursing is a normal function of human language, experts say", New York Times, retrieved 2012-11-19 
  13. ^ Richard Stephens, John Atkins, and Andrew Kingston (2009). "Swearing as a Response to Pain". Neuroreport 20 (12): 1056–60. 
  14. ^ a b Joelving, Frederik (2009-07-12), "Why the #$%! Do We Swear? For Pain Relief", Scientific American, retrieved 2012-11-19 
  15. ^ Ringman, JM, Kwon, E, Flores, DL, Rotko, C, Mendez, MF & Lu, P (2010). "The Use of Profanity During Letter Fluency Tasks in Frontotemporal Dementia and Alzheimer Disease". Cognitive & Behavioral Neurology 23 (3): 159–164. 
  16. ^ "Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain" by Antonio Damasio
  17. ^ "Delete expletives?". Retrieved 2012-11-19.
  18. ^ What Not to Swear. Retrieved 2013-09-17.
  19. ^ The Stuff of Thought: Language As a Window Into Human Nature, Steven Pinker 2007
  20. ^ "Public Order Act 1986". Retrieved 2012-11-19. 
  21. ^ Swearing in the Workplace. Retrieved 2012-11-19.
  22. ^ a b c Work Etiquette – Swearing in the Workplace. Retrieved 2012-11-19
  23. ^ Matt Keating (2006-06-03). "Should swearing be tolerated in the workplace?". London: Guardian. Retrieved 2010-05-12. 
  24. ^ Montagu, Ashely (2001). The Anatomy of Swearing. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. p. 298.  
  25. ^ "Minced oath". The Phrase Finder. 
  26. ^  
  27. ^ "Art or trash? It makes for endless, unwinnable debate".  
  28. ^ Ben MacIntyre (2005-09-24). "The American banned list reveals a society with serious hang-ups".  
  29. ^ Pygmalion, Act III. Eliza's "Walk? Not bloody likely!"
  30. ^ "Raw Dialog Challenges all the Censors". p. 92.  Life Magazine: 92. 10 June 1966. 
  31. ^ Winnebago Man" a Profanity-Laced Delight""".  
  • Bulcke, Camille (2001) [1968]. An English-Hindi Dictionary (3rd ed.). Ramnagar, New Delhi: Chand.  
  • Almond, Ian (2003). "Derrida and the Secret of the Non-Secret: On Respiritualising the Profane". Literature and Theology 17 (4): 457–471.  
Further reading
  • Jim O'Connor. Cuss Control. 2000.
  • Edward Sagarin. The Anatomy of Dirty Words. 1962.
  • Bill Bryson. The Mother Tongue. 1990.
  • Richard A Spears. Forbidden American English. 1990.
  • Sterling Johnson. Watch Your F*cking Language. 2004.
  • Geoffrey Hughes. Swearing. 2004.
  • Ruth Wajnryb. Expletive Deleted: A Good Look at Bad Language. 2005.
  • Jesse Sheidlower. The F-Word. 2009. (3rd ed.)
  • Volume 33, Number 3, May 2011, pp. 343–358. Published by ElsevierLanguage Sciences,Croom, Adam M. "Slurs." .
  • Tony McEnery, Swearing in English: bad language, purity and power from 1586 to the present, Routledge, 2006 ISBN 0-415-25837-5.

External links

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