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  • Max Brown, PhD

How to swear


Swearing is a ubiquitous feature of daily life – and it helps define a person – but so far hasn’t been the object of serious academic scrutiny. You’d think it would be a popular area of study for sociologists.

Let’s assume you talk proper; then you need to swear proper as well. It’s one of the signs of good breeding. Anyone can swear casually to signify his inclusion in a group (Army, street gang, sports fan) and anyone can curse with pain and anger (hammer + thumb). None of this counts as real swearing. What’s going to establish you as a person of quality and refinement is your ability to swear inventively and with detachment. Here are a few quick ideas off the top of my head. If these resonate, maybe I’ll become the trailblazer who builds a career on smutty talk.

First, style:

- Swear like you intend to swear and not because you can’t help yourself. Swear calmly.

- Avoid common vulgarity, unless you’ve established yourself as unquestionably posh. As a simple matter of statistical probability, you’re almost certainly not, but if you were . . . Imagine Queen Elizabeth telling us Prince Phillip is an asshole.* For QE2 that’s effective swearing. For you? No.

- Do not, whatever else you do, look around to gauge the effect. Bush league.

Words. There aren’t many. The Motion Picture Association of America lists only seventeen words that will earn a movie an R rating. You have to move beyond the top three – fuck, shit and cunt – if you’re going to engage in memorable swearing:

- Archaic is good. I, personally, like God + body part. This goes way back; Shakespearean vestiges are still found in the UK in words like ‘odsblood’ (God’s blood) and ‘odsbodskins’ (God’s little body).

- Similarly, use of Latin derivatives lifts your swearing out of the gutter. Compare ‘fuckin’ cunt’ to ‘oft-poked pudendum.’ Better, right? But be careful with alliteration; it’s easily overdone.

- Be creative; make up words. Turn verbs into adverbs: fuck => fuckingly. Nouns into adjectives: twat => twattish. Verbs into adjectives: shag => shagworthy, shagable.

Are we on the right path here? Write and let me know.

Researchers tell us that the incidence of swearing is on the rise. Please join the campaign to ensure that quality is not sacrificed. Put some thought into your swearing.

* Not farfetched; there’s plenty of evidence that he is an asshole.


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