The Swearing Paradox

Think of the last conversation you had with your friends. Now think of a situation when you were truly angry. Wonder where you used swear words more frequently? Recent research published in the Journal of Psycholinguistic Research suggests that you are more likely to abuse when you are in a casual setting, thus presenting the swearing paradox.

The swearing paradox states that in spite of swearing being a universally offensive and unacceptable behaviour in society, its occurrence is very frequent. This can be observed in the increasing usage of the word, ‘fuck’, a conventional profanity. The paradox is even more relevant when the context, such as casual, aggressive or hostile, is not taken into consideration.

These contexts, however, play a vital role in determining the harshness of the swear word. Hansika Kapoor from the Department of Psychology at Monk Prayogshala, India, found that in fact swearing in casual contexts was more appropriate than in abusive ones, because they come across as less offensive in this context.

To understand this, two contexts were observed. First was abusive, when swearing occurred with the direct intention of causing harm, including hostile and antagonistic swears. Second was casual, when it occurred with little or no intention of causing harm. The swear words themselves were categorised into three. First was mild, which included words like ‘bullshit, ‘goddamn’ and ‘stupid’. Second was moderate, which included words such as, ‘asshole’, ‘fuck’ and ‘bitch’. The final category was severe, composed of words like, ‘cocksucker’, ‘sisterfucker’ and ‘whore’. Participants then rated the words for their appropriateness, in terms of the context. Few statements rated include:

A to a colleague B at work: “I think this is bullshit. You will have to redo the report.” (abusive-mild)
X to a friend Y, while drinking some soup: “Oh fuck! I burnt my tongue!” (casual-moderate)
Y to a childhood friend, Z: “So how are you, my favourite motherfucker?” (casual-severe)

Interestingly, mild swears (e.g., bullshit) were deemed more inappropriate than moderate swears (e.g., bitch). Moderate swears were also considered the least inappropriate in casual settings, while severe swears in abusive contexts were judged by participants to be the most inappropriate. In comparing Indians’ perception with that of other nationalities, Indians found swearing in abusive contexts more appropriate, showcasing the fact that abusive language holds greater offensive value in the Indian scenario. Further, gender differences were also noted, with males considering swearing more appropriate than females. While the gender difference may seem obvious, it did not manifest in actual behaviour.  “Although female participants deemed swearing as more inappropriate, they were just as likely to use swearwords as male participants”, noted Kapoor.

 This was observed when participants were assigned the task of completing a sentence with a swear word, showing how likely they were to use mild, moderate or severe swears. The situation described in the sentences were:  a) casual, directed to a non-living object, situation or experience; (b) conversational, directed to an individual with no intention to cause harm; (c) cathartic, to express physical or emotional pain; (d) abusive, directed to an individual to cause harm; and (e) hostile, to indicate antagonism.

 Overall, severe swears were least likely to be used, even in abusive contexts, while mild and moderate swears were often used to complete the dialogues. Further, non-Indians were more likely to use swearwords, as compared to the Indian participants, though Indians used swearwords in increasing order of severity.

 This work provides great insight into a form of behaviour individuals are increasingly engaging in to express themselves. Understanding the implications of swearwords in various contexts helps understand the evolving manner of expressing one’s emotions. Though it focused primarily on English, it also paved way for further research of this nature into native Indian languages. Kapoor signs off with ideas for extending the current work: “As most Indian participants are at least bilingual (if not multilingual), it is important to extend the current work using taboo words in various L1s (first languages)... Examining the contextual use of swears in two or multiple languages in bi- or multi-lingual participants would be the next step in applying the current work.” 


Article details

Swears in Context: The Difference Between Casual and Abusive Swearing” by Hansika Kapoor. (doi 10.1007/s10936-014-9345-z). The article appears in the Journal of Psycholinguistic Research, Volume 43.

A copy of the paper is available to credentialed journalists upon request, contact Monk at or +91 9167226458.


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