Cursing: Obscenities, Expletives and 'Forbidden' Words
What are "obscenities," and why should US-1 cover them?
"Obscenities" are confusing for learners of English; they can remain
confusing even as English proficiency
increases. Obscene language is rarely taught in school
curricula. The contexts in which obscenities are used, and the "strengths"
expessions may contain in their native context, are difficult for
anyone outside that context to accurately judge.
As such, "obscenities," "expletives" and "forbidden language" can be
problematic in all forms of translation.
Obscene language is not standard. Some obscenities are similar across
different varieties of World English, but they also vary by
national or regional usage. What is considered obscene will also vary over
time, and within social groups. Further, terms which would not normally be
considered 'obscene' may be used for obscene effects.
The term "obscenities" refers to 'profane' or 'vulgar'
or 'forbidden' or 'naughty' language, or in general the practice of
'cursing' [cussing] or using 'curse words' [cusswords]. Related words include blasphemies, taboos,
epithets, slurs, and scatologies
[references to excremental and toilet functions, e.g. "shit"].
It may be obvious that euphemisms are also involved in "obscene"
language. Some types of specific 'jargon' identities (cf. 'Mobspeak': The Language of the Mafia
are also based largely on obscene or profane expression.
Why Study Cursing and Obscenities?
"Obscene language" has become much more common in both elite literature
(cf. class examples of language of elite black
literature) and the mass media (cf. the language of current black rap artists) in recent years. This presents a
variety of problematics for translators and interpreters. With these, it
is essential to know some of the various implications of 'profanities', as
well as how they differ between variants of English such as SAE and SBE.
As examples of recent historic change, consider these examples of
"obscenities" from Ernest Hemingway's The
Short, Happy Life of Francis Macomber, William Styron's Sophie's Choice (see also YouTube clip
), and Charles Bukowski's Pulp.
Consider also the differences in the use of obscenities in TV programs
such as The Sopranos, Sex and the City, Deadwood, Six Feet
Under and Hung, among others. What different meaning(s) might
obscenities have in each?
(These are all HBO productions, available in the U.S. only via
subscription-based cable "narrowcasting.")
In more "public" contexts, there may be different considerations for
'forbidden' words, depending on why, in particular circumstances, certain
terms 'should not be used' or may be perfectly acceptable. Compare, for
'Cursing' may be a reflection of rebellion or an indicator of social
powerlessness. Poor people seem to curse more than affluent people.
Teenagers usually curse more than adults. But why? Timothy Jay suggests
that it is because they have so little to lose by cursing. The situation
of teenagers is similar to that of the poor or the politically
disenfranchised; they have no power, so they have nothing to lose by
cursing (Jay 163). Would this also apply to rappers?
However, the use of vulgar or obscene language may be inadvertent, if
for instance acquired without contextual definition from the media or
- Anecdote of children using language
'learned' from television;
- Anecdote of Swedish student taking her baby to the doctor in the U.S.
- Would these examples be of "vulgar" or "obscene" language, or neither?
Is "capacity to understand and choose between" alternate forms of
expression relevant for either young children or (non-professional)
speakers of English as a foreign language?
Historical Influence from British English on 'Forbidden Language'
in American English
Terms in one language variety may have originated in another, but then be
locally modified over time. Consider these "forbidden" words from the
British Victorian and early American Puritan heritages. Note the use
of euphemism and restriction of some usage to a particular historical
- (Underclothing) brassiere, panties, garters, corset, etc., euphemized
to foundation garments, lingerie, undies, underwear, i.e.
"non-explicit" or "indirect" references
- (Toilet locations) retiring room, restroom, washroom, comfort
station, john, loo, powder room, cloak room, lavatory,
For Ladies Only, Gentlemen, [cf. BE:"to spend a penny...."]
- (Words 'suggesting' body parts) cock/rooster, cockroach/roach,
breasts/bosom, ass/donkey [cf. BE 'arse'], pregnant/delicate
condition, interesting condition, with child, "enceinte," to go to
bed, to retire or avoidance altogether, as in 1950s Rock
Hudson & Doris Day 'romance films'
- (Venereal disease) syphilis, gonorrhea, cf. 'social' or
'vice' diseases, "specific ulcer"
- (To rape) previously euphemized as "to assault," i.e. "a fiend had
knocked the girl down, dragged her down the cellar steps, beat
her with an iron pipe, and [then!] assaulted her..."
- ('Rural' euphemisms for obscenities) "Damn" = darn, dern, durn,
danged, gol-danged, all-fired, blamed, blasted, blowed,
confounded, dashed, cursed, cussed, etc.
Historic Ethnic Slurs in American English Deriving from U.S.
Some examples of ethnic slurs formerly used in American English (no longer
considered 'acceptable language', but sometimes still found in ethnic
'humor', historical contexts or as insults).
- Jewish = kike, yid, sheeney, mockie, Jew-boy, 'Jew' (cf. 'a Jewish
- Italian = wop, dago, tony (connection to "Tony" Soprano?)
- Black = nigger, coon, Rastus/Liza, pickaninny, jigaboo,
jungle bunny, spade, tarball
- German = kraut, hun, heinie
- Mexican = greaser, wetback, spic (spik) ("no spik Inglis...")
Examples of British Profanities Which Are Ineffective in American
- Bugger, bugger off, etc. see legal
definition and also YouTube clip hence
"ladybird", not "ladybug"
- "Bloody" and sod [sodomite]
cf. "Bugger off, you bloody sod" from John Boorman's film
Hope and Glory
- Cock ("...we may congratulate ourselves on not having lived in that
century when an infant of six could be hanged....and schoolboys were
encouraged to match cocks."
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Last Updated 01 December 2010