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Swears in Context: The Difference Between Casual and Abusive Swearing

Abstract

Although swearing is taboo language, it frequently appears in daily conversations. To explain this paradox, two studies examined contextualized swearing in Indian and non-Indian participants. In Study 1, participants assessed the appropriateness of mild, moderate, and severe swears in casual and abusive contexts; in Study 2, participants completed contextual dialogues with mild, moderate, or severe swearwords. Results indicated that mild and moderate swears were more appropriate in casual settings than in abusive scenarios; severe swears were the most inappropriate, regardless of context. Mild and moderate swears were likely to be used to complete casual and abusive dialogues respectively, even though it was expected that severe swears would be compatible with abusive settings. Moreover, gender and nationality differences suggested that assessing appropriateness of swearing behaviour and likelihood of swearword usage provided independent and contrasting findings. Cultural variations in swearing behaviour, particularly contextualized swearing, and suggestions for further research are outlined.

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Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Hansika Kapoor.

Additional information

I thank Ahuti Das, Anupama Nair, Aakankshi Javeri, and Merin Sanil for their assistance during data collection. I acknowledge the valuable comments of two anonymous reviewers on a previous version of this manuscript.

Appendices

Appendix A

Swearing Questionnaire (Study 1)

You will be presented with several dialogues between two people, each containing a swear word/phrase. Please read each sentence carefully and decide whether the swear word/phrase used is appropriate or not, in the given context. Please make your ratings using the following scale:

  1. (1)

    Very Appropriate

  2. (2)

    Appropriate

  3. (3)

    Somewhat Appropriate

  4. (4)

    Neither Appropriate nor Inappropriate

  5. (5)

    Somewhat Inappropriate

  6. (6)

    Inappropriate

  7. (7)

    Very Inappropriate

  1. 1.

    X to a friend Y, while drinking some soup: “Oh fuck! I burnt my tongue!” (casual-moderate)

  2. 2.

    A to a colleague B at work: “I think this is bullshit. You will have to redo the report.” (abusive-mild)

  3. 3.

    Y to a flat-mate Z, during a verbal fight: “You cocksucker! You can’t do anything right!” (abusive-severe)

  4. 4.

    C to a colleague D at office: “Who ate my goddamn sandwich?” (casual-mild)

  5. 5.

    C to a friend D, while debating ethics: “This is bloody painful—talking to you.” (abusive-mild)

  6. 6.

    X to a friend Y while shopping: “That outfit makes even the mannequin look like a whore!” (casual-severe)

  7. 7.

    C to a friend D, who made a suggestion: “Come on, don’t be stupid. How can I possibly quit my job?” (casual-mild)

  8. 8.

    A to a colleague B, during a heated argument: “You’re a back-stabbing sisterfucker!” (abusive-severe)

  9. 9.

    A to flat-mate B, who is very messy: “Fuck you, I’ve had it. Clean it up yourself.” (abusive-moderate)

  10. 10.

    Y to a childhood friend, Z: “So how are you, my favorite motherfucker?” (casual-severe)

  11. 11.

    A to a roommate B: “My laptop’s behaving like a real bitch today!” (casual-moderate)

  12. 12.

    X to a colleague Y, who is giving X a hard time: “Why do you have to be such an asshole?” (abusive-moderate)

Appendix B

Dialogues Questionnaire (Study 2)

You will be presented with some statements with blanks. You will have the option of using swear words to complete these sentences. You task is to indicate how likely YOU would be to use EACH of the swear words to fill in the blank in the statement provided by using the following scale: 1 = least likely to 5 = most likely.

1. A to a friend B, about the concert they just attended: “That concert was so _________ good!” (casual-mild, moderate, severe)
Bloody Fucking Motherfucking Other
2. X to a colleague Y, during a physical altercation: “You _______! How dare you hit me!” (abusive-mild, moderate, severe)
Idiot Bitch Whore Other
3. Z on not being able to find the house keys: “Oh _______, I think I’ve lost the house keys again!” (cathartic-mild, moderate, severe)
Damn Fuck Motherfucker Other
4. B greeting a close friend: “What’s up _______?” (conversational-mild, moderate, severe)
Jackass Shitface Whore Other
5. X to an employee Y: “That was such a _________ presentation! Redo it!” (hostile-mild, moderate, severe)
Bullshit Fucked Slutty Other
6. B joking with a close friend C: “Haha, don’t behave like a(n) _____!” (conversational-mild, moderate, severe)
Idiot Asshole Cocksucker Other
7. D on not finding a good pen to fill the form: “This ________ of a pen isn’t working!” (cathartic-mild, moderate, severe)
Bullshit Bastard Cunt Other
8. B to C during a heated argument: “You _______, I’m gonna make sure you get what you deserve!” (abusive-mild, moderate, severe)
Jackass Asshole Motherfucker Other
9. X to a friend Y while passing by a store: “That outfit would make anyone wearing it look ________.” (casual-mild, moderate, severe)
Stupid Bitchy Slutty Other
10. G in an outburst to a pestering colleague H: “________! Mind you own business.” (hostile-mild, moderate, severe)
Damn it Fuck it Cunt Other

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Kapoor, H. Swears in Context: The Difference Between Casual and Abusive Swearing. J Psycholinguist Res 45, 259–274 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10936-014-9345-z

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Keywords

  • Swear words
  • Taboo words
  • Casual swearing
  • Abusive swearing
  • Contextual swearing