*contains some swearwords

I have a theory on why words start sounding really weird if we repeat them over and over. Mostly, when we use language, we’re not actually thinking about the sounds that our mouths are forming, but the meaning attached to those sounds. Listening to a foreign language is just sounds without meaning, but we can achieve the same effect in a language that we’re fluent in.

Take the word ‘smuggle’. It makes me think of travelers hiding contraband in suitcases, pirates and treasure, refugees huddling in a small boat, a student unobtrusively pulling his phone from his pocket. But what if I say the word out loud…several times. Smuggle. Smuggle. Smuggle. I might start thinking of other things that the word makes me think of. Smeagol. Muggle. Mug. Smug. The more often I repeat the word, the more distance I gain from the meanings and connotations of the word and the more I just hear the sound my mouth is making. Smuggle. Smuggle. Smuggle. What a weird sounding word.

The truth is, we can do that with almost any word. Words are just sounds and scratch-marks on paper. Yes, those sounds and marks carry a lot of meaning, but only to someone who speaks the same language. Otherwise, it’s gibberish. We rarely think about how weird it is that we put ink to paper or yell random sounds at people because we’re so caught up in the meaning we’re conveying. And that’s a good thing. That’s one of the reasons why learning a language is so hard…the sounds and the meaning are not automatically connected.

Swear words occupy an interesting place in most languages. They’re often the first words that a foreigner will learn, they are often short and have harsh sounds. They’re usually related to either religious meaning (in a sacrilegious manner) or bodily functions. And they’re also entirely cultural and part of a particular language. A word that is considered absolutely taboo in one language might mean something completely different in another, even though the sounds are exactly the same. Or, in one language a word might be harmless, while the equivalent word in another might be a grave insult, even though they refer to the same thing.

Swear words depend a lot less on the literal definition (denotation) than on the other, associated, and less literal meanings (connotation) of a word. Kaka, doodoo, feces, poop, crap, shit. They all mean the same thing, right? In Germany, ‘scheisse’ has about the equivalent meaning of ‘crap’ in English. My 12 year old self didn’t understand that, so after spending a few months in Germany and then returning to my somewhat conservative American school in Kenya, I couldn’t understand why I’d gotten in trouble for using the word ‘shit’.

I since understand better why people can become offended when they hear certain words. Our background, cultural history, and experiences shape how we interact with language. In some cases, the words themselves cause a visceral reaction in people. Unfortunately, as with other words, swear words can be used to harm people. I’d argue that it is the intent, much more than the words themselves, that cause the harm. I’d also suggest that seeking to profane another’s beliefs is not only disrespectful but shows a lack of consideration for others.

And yet, there are times and places that I find swear words necessary. Humor often relies on knowledge of the audience, shock factors, and double meanings; swear words allow for those and can have the desired effect of making the audience laugh. Also, because of their connotations, and the force with which they convey meaning, expression, and reaction, swear words can be useful. Even the most conservative, anti-swearing person uses interjections. Damn it, danggit, dangnabit, doggone, daggum. They’re all bastardizations of the same word. No one gets mad at someone for yelling ‘Sugar’ when they stub their toe, but let’s not kid ourselves that the purpose is the strong ‘Sh’ sound at the beginning there and how close it gets to ‘shit’.

I’d argue that swear words are a matter of context. As with the rest of our words, we shouldn’t use them to harm each other—but let’s not pretend we can’t do that plenty well without swear words. As with all language, we need to modulate its usage to the given situation. For example, I wouldn’t talk to a doctor who is examining me in a hospital in the same way I would to a friend while playing futsal. The way I speak to my parents is different from how I speak to my students. We all adjust the formality, level of vocabulary, content, and type of speech we use depending on the audience, the situation, and the context.

There is nothing inherently wrong with most words. (Though there are some that have gained such a history of misuse and abuse directed at particular people groups, that they have lost all other meaning. For example, see Ta-Nehisi Coates articulate response on use of the n-word: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QO15S3WC9pg&ytbChannel=null). The rest, is just a matter of context. I tell this to students when I hear them swearing at school. School is not the right context; school is a place of many different people coming together, a place of elevated thought and learning. The context is more formal and so the informality of swear words are unsuited to the place. Unless we’re studying a text in English and need to consider the meanings and connotations of a swear word, let’s leave it at home. Besides, if we can avoid offending people that are less comfortable with the use of swear words, then let’s be respectful of them. Later, when the student is playing video games and yelling to their friends online, they can swear after getting shot, as that is a more appropriate context than school.

As an English teacher, I always advocate for taking the time to use the right words for the right situation. Having a disagreement with your spouse? Probably not the right time for a swear word. Writing a story with a salty Major in a combat situation? Yes, you’ll likely want a swear word or two. Speaking to your friend’s grandparents for the first time? Maybe don’t swear. Hanging out with a good friend and you burn the rice? Sure, go ahead—it might be cathartic.

In everything, context, deliberation, and respecting those in the vicinity.