In its older, more literal sense, "profanity" refers to a lack of respect for things that are held to be sacred, which implies anything inspiring deserving of reverence, as well as behaviour showing similar disrespect or causing religious offense.
The term "profane" originates from classical Latin "profanus", literally "before (outside) the temple".
It carried the meaning of either "desecrating what is holy" or "with a secular purpose" as early as the 1450s. Profanity represented secular indifference to religion or religious figures, while blasphemy was a more offensive attack on religion and religious figures, considered sinful, and a direct violation of The Ten Commandments. Moreover, many Bible verses speak against swearing.
Profanities, in the original meaning of blasphemous profanity, are part of the ancient tradition of the comic cults which laughed and scoffed at the deity or deities: an example of this would be Lucian's "Dialogues of the Gods" satire.
In English, swear words and curse words tend to have Germanic, rather than Latin etymology "Shit" has a Germanic root, as, likely, does "fuck". The more technical alternatives are often Latin in origin, such as "defecate" or "excrete" and "fornicate" or "copulate" respectively. Because of this, profanity is sometimes referred to colloquially as "Anglo-Saxon". This is not always the case. For example, the word "wanker" is considered profane in Britain, but it dates only to the mid-20th century.
The history of curse words and profanity was part of spoken words in medieval era.
The word fuck was used in English in the fifteenth century, though the usage in earlier times of 13th century was not with abusive intent. The word shit is the oldest of words in use with early references found in German and Scandinavia languages.
A three-country poll conducted by Angus Reid Public Opinion in July 2010 found that Canadians swear more often than Americans and British when talking to friends, while Britons are more likely than Canadians and Americans to hear strangers swear during a conversation.
Swearing performs certain psychological functions, and uses particular linguistic and neurological mechanisms; all these are avenues of research.
Functionally similar behavior can be observed in chimpanzees, and may contribute to our understanding, notes New York Times author Natalie Angier. Angier also notes that swearing is a widespread but perhaps underappreciated anger management technique; that "Men generally curse more than women, unless said women are in a sorority, and that university provosts swear more than librarians or the staff members of the university day care center". Swearing over time may gain roots as a habit with involuntary utterance of obscene words or socially inappropriate and derogatory remarks. This has been referred to as coprolalia, which is an occasional characteristic of tic disorders.
Keele University researchers Stephens, Atkins, and Kingston found that swearing relieves the effects of physical pain. Stephens said "I would advise people, if they hurt themselves, to swear". However, the overuse of swear words tends to diminish this effect. The Keele team won the Ig Nobel Peace Prize in 2010 for their research.
A team of neurologists and psychologists at the UCLA Easton Center for Alzheimer's Disease Research suggested that swearing may help differentiate Alzheimer's disease from frontotemporal dementia.
Neurologist Antonio Damasio noted that despite loss of language due to damage to the language areas of the brain, patients were still often able to swear.
A group of researchers from Wright State University studied why people swear in the online world by collecting tweets posted on Twitter. They found that cursing is associated with negative emotions such as sadness (21.83%) and anger (16.79%) thus showing people in the online world mainly use curse words to express their sadness and anger towards others.
An interdisciplinary team of researchers from the University of Warsaw investigated bilingual swearing: why is it easier to swear in a foreign language? Their finding that bilinguals strengthen the offensiveness of profanities when they switch into their second language, but soften it when they switch into their first tongue, but do both statistically significantly only in the case of ethnophaulisms (ethnic slurs) led the scientist to the conclusion that switching into the second language exempts bilinguals from the social norms and constraints (whether own or socially imposed) such as political correctness, and makes them more prone to swearing and offending others.
Types by purpose
Abusive swearing, intended to offend, intimidate or otherwise cause emotional or psychological harm
Cathartic swearing, used in response to pain or misfortune
Dysphemistic swearing, used to convey that the speaker thinks negatively of the subject matter, and to make the listener do the same
Emphatic swearing, intended to draw additional attention to what is considered to be worth paying attention to
Idiomatic swearing, used for no other particular purpose, but as a sign that the conversation and relationship between speaker and listener is informal
Three Australian states (New South Wales, Queensland, and Victoria) have laws against using "offensive language" in public. These offences are classed as a summary offence. However, if the court is satisfied that the individual concerned had "a reasonable excuse to behave in such a manner", no offence is committed. In Australia's remaining states and territories, swearing is not illegal per se, but depending on circumstances may constitute disorderly conduct or a breach of the peace.
In Brazil, the Penal Code does not contain any penalties for profanity in public in a direct manner. However, direct offenses against one can be considered a crime against honor, with a penalty of imprisonment of one to three months or a fine. The analysis of the offense is considered "subjective", depending on the context of the discussion and the relationship between the parts.
Section 175 of Canada's Criminal Code makes it a criminal offence to "cause a disturbance in or near a public place" by "swearing […] or using insulting or obscene language". Provinces and municipalities may also have their own laws against swearing in public. For instance, the Municipal Code of Toronto bars "profane or abusive language" in public parks. In June 2016, a man in Halifax, Nova Scotia, was arrested for using profane language at a protest against Bill C-51.
Sections 294A and 294B of Indian penal code have legal provisions for punishing individuals who use inappropriate or obscene words (either spoken or written) in public that are maliciously deliberate to outrage religious feelings or beliefs..
In February 2015, a local court in Mumbai asked police to file a first information report against 14 Bollywood celebrities who were part of stage show of All India Bakchod, a controversial comedy stage show known for vulgar and profanity based content. In May 2019 during the election campaign, the Prime minister of India listed out the abusive words the opposition Congress party had used against him and his mother during their campaign.
In January 2016, a Mumbai based communications agency initiated a campaign against profanity and abusive language called "Gaali free India" (Gaali is the hindi word for profanity). Using creative ads, it called upon people to use swacch (clean) language on the lines of Swacch Bharat mission for nationwide cleanliness. It further influenced other news media outlets who further raised the issue of abusive langugage in the society especially incest abuses against women.
In New Zealand, the Summary Offences Act 1981 makes it illegal to use "indecent or obscene words in or within hearing of any public place". However, if the defendant has "reasonable grounds for believing that his words would not be overheard" then no offence is committed. Also, "the court shall have regard to all the circumstances pertaining at the material time, including whether the defendant had reasonable grounds for believing that the person to whom the words were addressed, or any person by whom they might be overheard, would not be offended".
Department of Education in Phillipine city of Baguio expressed that while cursing was prohibited in schools, children were failing to imbibe it at home.
Thus as part of its anti profanity initiative, in November 2018, the Baguio City government in Philippines passed an anti profanity law that prohibits cursing and profanity in areas of the city frequented by children. This move was welcomed by educators and the Department of Education (DepEd) in Cordillera.
- In public
Swearing, in and of itself, is not usually a criminal offence in the United Kingdom although in context may constitute a component of a crime. However, it may be a criminal offence in Salford Quays under a public spaces protection order which outlaws the use of "foul and abusive language" without specifying any further component to the offence, although it appears to be unclear as to whether all and every instance of swearing is covered. Salford City Council claims that the defence of "reasonable excuse" allows all the circumstances to be taken into account. In England and Wales, swearing in public where it is seen to cause harassment, alarm or distress may constitute an offence under section 5(1) and (6) of the Public Order Act 1986. In Scotland, a similar common law offence of breach of the peace covers issues causing public alarm and distress.
- In the workplace
In the United Kingdom, swearing in the workplace can be an act of gross misconduct under certain circumstances. In particular, this is the case when swearing accompanies insubordination against a superior or humiliation of a subordinate employee. However, in other cases it may not be grounds for instant dismissal. According to a UK site on work etiquette, the "fact that swearing is a part of everyday life means that we need to navigate a way through a day in the office without offending anyone, while still appreciating that people do swear. Of course, there are different types of swearing and, without spelling it out, you really ought to avoid the 'worst words' regardless of who you’re talking to". With respect to swearing between colleagues, the site explains that "although it may sound strange, the appropriateness [of] swearing [...] is influenced largely by the industry you are in and the individuals you work with". The site continues to explain that, even in a workplace in which swearing is the norm, there is no need to participate in it. The site stresses that swearing is, in general, more problematic in asymmetric situations, such as in the presence of senior management or clients, but it also mentions that a "holier than thou" attitude towards clients may be problematic.
The Guardian reported that "36% of the 308 UK senior managers and directors having responded to a survey accepted swearing as part of workplace culture", but warned about specific inappropriate uses of swearing such as when it is discriminatory or part of bullying behaviour. The article ends with a quotation from Ben Wilmott (Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development): "Employers can ensure professional language in the workplace by having a well drafted policy on bullying and harassment that emphasises how bad language has potential to amount to harassment or bullying."
In the United States, courts have generally ruled that the government does not have the right to prosecute someone solely for the use of an expletive, which would be a violation of their right to free speech enshrined in the First Amendment. On the other hand, they have upheld convictions of people who used profanity to incite riots, harass people, or disturb the peace. In 2011, a North Carolina statute that made it illegal to use "indecent or profane language" in a "loud and boisterous manner" within earshot of two or more people on any public road or highway was struck down as unconstitutional. In 2015 the US city of Myrtle Beach passed an ordinance that makes profane language punishable with fine up to $500 and/or 30 days in jail. An amount of $22,000 was collected from these fines in 2017 alone.
Minced oaths are euphemistic expressions made by altering or clipping profane words and expressions to make them less objectionable. Although minced oaths are often acceptable in situations where profanity is not (including the radio), some people still consider them profanity. In 1941, a judge threatened a lawyer with contempt of court for using the word darn..
Impact on society
A 2011 research by Jeffrey Bowers affirms the use of bad language has impact on and alters our behaviour. This study was conducted to study linguistic relativity with regards to swear words and euphisms.
As a part of this study, 24 volunteers between ages of 18 - 26 with mean age 21 were subject to a 20 minute experiment involving their responses on swear words spoken aloud and their responses noted.
Additionally their electrodermal activity was measured using an in-house device that measured changes in skin resistance in response to the swear words.
Another study at Stanford in 2016 indicated a direct correlation between profanity and honesty.
Based on this study of 307 participants, it turned out that the top two US states (Connecticut and New Jersey) on profanity were also the highest on integrity.
Previous notions about children picking swearing from adult behavior have found to be incorrect while experience shows that they learn to swear as behaviour of conformity.
In popular culture
Gone with the Wind, a 1939 film based on the novel by Margaret Mitchell includes the line "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn". This has been wrongly asserted to be among the first uses of profanity in a major American film. In fact, films produced in America prior to 1935 occasionally used strong language and gestures.
Seven Dirty Words is a 1972 comedy monologue by George Carlin in which he named the seven words that, he said, must never be used in a television broadcast.
Kurt Vonnegut's use of the word motherfucker in his novel Slaughterhouse-Five became a subject of much controversy and led to his books being banned (and in some cases physically destroyed) by several public and school libraries.
British film director Ken Loach generated some media debate with his 2002 film Sweet Sixteen as it was given an 18 certificate for the very large amount of profanity, and not for any violent or sexual content. Loach argued that the language used was typical of the working-classes in Greenock in Scotland and that the BBFC censors had a "London-centric view".
Brandon Sanderson, in an annotation for his 2007 novel The Well of Ascension, mentions that some readers are put off by light cursing:
"I’ve taken a little bit of criticism from certain readers for the swearing I put into these books.
I know that most of you consider things like ‘damn’ and ‘hell’ to be very weak curses, if even swear words at all.
However, to some people, they can be offensive."
Fuck: Word Taboo and Protecting Our First Amendment Liberties
Grawlix: typographical symbols standing in for profanities (🤬)
Profanity in science fiction
R v Penguin Books Ltd
Seven dirty words