Rebecca Roache On Swearing and Philosophy

Should we always avoid causing offence?

Rebecca Roache is a Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at Royal Holloway, University of London, and is currently writing a book about swearing.

Roache began her academic career at the University of Leeds, where she worked closely with Professor Robin Le Polvidin during her BA and MA studies, with a focus on the philosophy of time. Her philosophical interests cover a broad array of issues, covering but by no means limited to metaphysics, philosophy of mind, practical ethics, and philosophy of language.

This conversation took place over the phone in a quiet Islington café and I’m grateful to Rebecca for joining me in swearing with such gusto.

— David Maclean


DM: How should we define swearing? What separates it from other aspects of speech?

RR: I think there are a few things. If you look it up, you’ll find definitions like 'taboo language', which is just anything that you’re not allowed to do - often informally, not illegal but whatever is frowned upon. So that’s a good place to start but taboo language includes things other than swearing, like blasphemy and racist slurs, for example.

Swearing tends to focus on a cluster of taboo topics, things like sex, religion, lavatorial matters and a few other things. Unlike most other forms of taboo language, it is used to express emotion – something we do when we’re angry or surprised.

There are also some neurological aspects of swearing that mark it off from other forms of language. It’s part of what psychologists call 'automatic speech’, those forms of speech that we can produce without thinking, such as when you 'umm' and 'err' in the middle of a sentence, or counting and reciting the days of the week.

Often people who have had strokes or brain tumours, who have lost the ability to use language normally, retain aspects of automatic speech. So you hear stories of people who have had a severe stroke or brain injury and can still swear even though they can’t form full sentences or communicate normally.


DM: So that raises the question of what is meant when we swear. Because isn’t swearing mostly just implying? If you say to someone “go fuck yourself”, I’m not literally telling them to go and do that but the recipient understands the meaning and fills in the gaps.

Yes, sometimes when we swear we’re not using it like language at all. I think it was Geoff Nunberg, the linguist, who said that swearing can be more like a scream than an utterance. So if you drop something on your foot and shout fuck, it doesn’t really matter that you’re saying a word, any loud utterance would have done.

The example that you used is interesting because there are some swearwords that, if we do treat them as language, raise questions about how exactly we’re supposed to interpret them.

There’s a paper by the late linguist James D. McCawley writing under the pseudonym "Quang Phúc Đông" (supposedly a linguist at the fictitious South Hanoi Institute of Technology) where he explores the meaning of the word ‘fuck’ and he isolates two separate forms of it which he calls 'Fuck 1' and 'Fuck 2'. Fuck 1 is where we use the word as we would any other verb and it behaves quite normally. If you say “I saw two people fucking”, you’re using it in a fairly common way. But the use of Fuck 2 behaves very differently, and that’s the one we use when we’re saying “fuck you” or “fuck off” or “go fuck yourself.” He goes through all these quite surreal examples to show that we can’t categorise it in the way we ordinarily categorise words. It’s not simply a verb, an adverb or an adjective. ‘Fuck off’ is not an imperative because it doesn’t behave in the way that commands normally do.  ‘Fuck’ really does seem unique in that you can say just about anything with it. There’s a great example of Anthony Burgess overhearing an army mechanic repairing a truck and getting frustrated with it and saying, ‘Fuck it, the fucking fucker's fucking fucked’ and in that sentence the word behaves in all sorts of ways – it’s a verb, an adjective, an adverb and so on.

That’s probably our most versatile swearword in English and there’s some debate about how we can assign it any meaning at all. One theory is that some expressions like 'fuck you’ might have evolved out of religious expressions. A few hundred years ago, blasphemy in English was a much bigger deal than it is now. If you say ‘damn you’ to somebody now, it’s quite mild while in the past it was much more offensive. There is a theory that as ‘damn you’ became less forceful as an insult, it was replaced with ‘fuck you’, which simply took on the structure of that expression. And while ‘damn you’ makes sense, we can work out what it means, ‘fuck you’ just doesn’t make sense in the same way. But perhaps using this historical context we can work out what we’re trying to say.


"It's not really about the words themselves, but what we're signalling to others when we swear."


DM: Do you think it’s fair to say, as the author and philosopher William H. Gass claims, that there is a strangely Freudian dynamic to the way that people swear. For example, if I call someone a ‘motherfucker’ or tell them to ‘go fuck themselves’, isn’t there a thinly-veiled power dynamic behind the scenes?

That is really heavily dependent on context. There are contexts in which you can say 'fuck you’ as a way of putting people in their place and that’s clearly an expression of power. But there are other cases where it doesn’t have that role at all. There are some really informal contexts in which people will banter with each other and say ‘fuck you’ in an almost affectionate way, in which case it’s not offensive or insulting at all. We often swear as a way of bonding with others. Whereas in some contexts swearing would be really inappropriate and turn people against you, there are other situations where it might be worse not to swear. If you’re accustomed to swearing in a social group and a new person joins the group and their speech is quite prim and proper, that can be really unsettling  you’d be more at ease if they were to use the language that you and your friends use. So I don’t think it’s right to say that swearing has any one particular social function because it depends so much on when and where it’s happening, who is doing it, to who and whether they’re swearing in an open-ended way. All these factors lead us to think about what it means and signals.


DM: That leads us back to Wittgenstein and the idea that swearing is a language game and it’s the *use* that gives it meaning.

Yes, that’s definitely one way of looking at it. If you ignore questions about what swearing refers to, which is not that important, we’re doing various things when we swear: we’re signaling what sort of person we are, what sort of person we think we’re addressing, what context we think we’re in and so on. I think that explains why swearwords have this power to offend. It’s really not quite about the words themselves but what we’re signalling to others. If you are in a job interview, say, and it’s a fairly formal context and you swear and people are offended then it’s not because you’ve used that particular word, because presumably they hear these words in other contexts without being offended. It’s more that you’re signalling disrespect and contempt for their feelings by knowing that they’re not expecting you to swear in this context and doing it anyway. I think that a lot of what we do when we swear is hardly linguistic at all but a wider behavioural thing.


DM: That’s very interesting. There was a recent study that showed when people swore during strenuous activities, such as weightlifting, that they saw a marked increase in strength and performance – no other words had this effect.

There was quite a famous study done a few years ago by Richard Stevens that showed people were better able to withstand pain if they were allowed to swear while doing it. It’s perhaps just related to this cathartic role, this way of expressing emotions. If you view it as a form of body language, when we’re trying to do something physically demanding there are all sorts of things we do to help, whether that’s a certain facial expression or making a noise and so on.

I think swearing fits into that – certain behaviours that we engage in to support ourselves doing other tasks.


DM: But swearwords surely have no innate meaning?

It’s not that they don’t have any meaning per se. It’s just often that when we use them, the meaning isn’t all that relevant. So if you’re telling someone to ‘fuck off’ or ‘piss off’, they mean exactly the same thing. The difference in what those words mean in other contexts is not relevant to how you’re using them, which is to signal annoyance or contempt or whatever. So in that sense, it’s just incidental that we’re expressing ourselves using language at all.


"While we might think that in most cases it’s a good thing to avoid offending people, there are instances where we should ignore that."


DM: Where does this fit in with philosophy? What do you see as the implications of a serious investigation of swearing?

This is not something that’s really been explored very much by philosophers and that’s why I’m writing a book on it. There are some issues around offensive speech in general, and things have been written on hate speech and slurs. Slurs are offensive terms that deride an entire group of people – homophobic, racist or transphobic language. There has been stuff written about that – what sort of words those expressions are, the ethics of using them, what context is appropriate, who is using them etc. If you take the example of the racial slur, that’s generally seen as more acceptable if it’s being used by a member of the target group that particular slur refers to rather than someone outside that group.  The questions around swearing are related to that so I think there’s a blurry line between swearing and slurs. If compare the British and American usage of the word ‘cunt’, in America it’s almost like a slur because it’s used against women whereas in Britain it’s not really used in that way.

So that’s one issue - the relationship between swearing and other forms of offensive speech. Another issue, which I’m also quite interested in and one that has not been written about much by other philosophers, is etiquette.  I think that, at least in many cases, we can explain what’s wrong with swearing in inappropriate contexts with reference to etiquette. Saying ‘fuck’ and putting your feet on the table in a job interview are both inappropriate for similar reasons - it has to do with etiquette. And then there’s a whole set of questions about how etiquette relates to morality. If we say you ought not to swear in a job interview and you ought not to put your feet on the table, how does the *ought* relate to other prohibitions, like ‘you ought not to steal’ and ‘you ought not to kill.’ So there’s an interesting relation between morality and etiquette.

And here’s all the applied issues where we have things like censorship in broadcasting or online. We might, in general, think it’s good not to offend people if we can avoid it and that would help explain why on BBC One, before the watershed, you don’t tend to hear people swearing. And every ten years or so the BBC does this survey where they find out what people consider to be the most inappropriate words and then that feeds into broadcasting regulations. But while we might think that in most cases it’s a good thing to avoid offending people, there are instances where we ignore that. So if you had a very homophobic society and you ran a survey about homosexuality on TV and dramas portraying gay relationships and found that most people found that offensive, then that would give broadcasters a reason to avoid showing those kinds of relationships and silencing those voices.

But there’s something wrong with that. Here the appropriate response might be not to censor it but, if anything, to increase exposure so as to encourage acceptance. So there’s a whole set of issues about how to best respond to things we find offensive and swearing fits in with them.


DM: And this obviously veers into questions around the philosophy of language.

Exactly. There’s a whole set of the quite technical philosophy of language type issues related to swearing, especially related to what we do when we censor swearing. So if you read ‘f***’ in a newspaper, you can tell from the context what word is meant and people are more likely to find that less offensive than if the word was written out in full. There are some interesting questions about why that is because we all know what word is meant and the intention of the person who wrote it is to signal that word.

It’s almost ritualistic thing - you’re not actually withholding any information. Using asterisks rather than writing a word in full is just a way of saying “Here’s this word but I respect that you might not like it so I’m doing this.” It’s quite complicated but I think you can begin to unravel these problems by referring back to quite traditional kinds of debates within philosophy of language.


DM: Do you think we lose anything in censoring our speech in that manner?

The Guardian, for example, doesn’t do it, so you do sometimes find disapproval about that sort of censorship. You would think something is lost but I don’t think what that has ever been articulated in a satisfactory way. One argument is: “We’re able to read all sorts of things about refugees drowning in the Mediterranean so surely no one should be offended by reading swearwords.” So there’s an argument to say we should be more adult about it. And there’s also the case of people who say things like 'Fiddlesticks' instead of 'fuck’; you would think that they lose something if the point of swearing in certain contexts is to vent emotion and then they curtail their ability to do so.

There are some cases where we will censor a swearword by placing another word in its place but sometimes there are cases where the word that replaces it takes on a life of its own. An interesting example is “feck” in Ireland, which has become a word in its own right; people don’t see it as a substitute for “fuck.” It’s difficult to say whether it plays the same role since swearing in Ireland is more acceptable than in the UK – you have swearing on the radio, for example.

When you try and compare these interchangeable words, you come up against cultural differences that make it quite complex.


DM: So does it come down to how we use swearwords and how we mention them?

This is a really familiar philosophical distinction: if you ‘mention’ something then you’re referring to the word itself rather than using it in a sentence to express yourself. A ‘mention’ would typically be what someone said, stuff that’s in quotation marks. And The Guardian, in their style guide, say that there’s rarely a need for using swear words outside quotation marks. What they’re saying is that ‘mentions’ of swear words are more acceptable. And so perhaps the idea is that if you’re reporting on what someone has said then you should report accurately rather than sugarcoating or censoring speech, that we lose something if we censor swearwords and sugarcoat our reporting of what’s going on in the world. So I think this fits in with the expectation that this is reality and one should report reality in a truthful, accurate manner.


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Haji Benstoke 20 July 2021

Roache began her academic career at the University of Leeds, where she worked closely with Professor Robin Le Polvidin during her BA and MA studies, with a focus on the philosophy of time.