Illustration by Shonagh Rae, man and woman swearing
© Illustration by Shonagh Rae

Earlier this week I put an empty jar on top of my kitchen counter with a label saying “No swearing”. This device is supposed to stop my daughters from breaking linguistic taboos: if they curse, they have to deposit a dollar in the jar.

But the device is also meant to control me. In recent months, as stress has risen in these politically tumultuous times, swear words have been popping out of my mouth. So I have committed to honour that dollar pledge as well, in a bid to prevent my daughters from copying me.

Is this just a piece of domestic trivia? Perhaps. But, as anthropologists have long argued, the way that cultures define “swearing” is a barometer for social norms. And when it comes to western culture today, the question of whether we do (or do not) swear reveals some interesting points about changing gender roles — and the internal conflicts that these keep throwing up.

To understand this, take note of some fascinating research conducted by Barbara LeMaster, a linguistic anthropologist at California State University, and presented at the American Anthropological Association in Minneapolis last month. She recently examined the patterns of swearing among American men and women during the past century, drawing on survey data, historical records and published texts.

She started by noting that most western swear words fall into three categories: they refer to sex, excrement or religion. That, in a sense, is no surprise: the reason swear words have the power to shock is that they disregard conventions and break taboos. In the case of American culture, sexual activity, excrement and religion are considered respectively to be private, “dirty” and sacred. Thus talking about these concepts in public and/or with disrespect overturns boundaries.

But language is never static and swearing is no exception. When LeMaster looked back at how men and women spoke a century ago, she noticed a striking gender divergence: men who were angry employed words linked to sex, excrement and religion (ie phrases similar to modern swear words). However, women “had special language”, LeMaster said. They used phrases that subverted religion in a more subtle manner, such as “oh goodness” or “my gracious”, as well as others that no longer offend, because religion has lost its dominant cultural role.

The reason for this split is not hard to find: a century ago, male and female roles were separated in many areas of life, and the cultural ideal of “femininity” presented an assumption that women should be subordinate, meek and submissive. Talking like a man — in an aggressive, crude way — was taboo.

Today, the concept of “acceptable” female behaviour has shifted: women are politicians, business leaders, scientists, soldiers and journalists. They still do not have quite the same cultural freedom as men; just look at the opprobrium heaped on Hillary Clinton or the way that forceful women are often described as “bossy”. But as roles have shifted, speech expectations have changed — and continue to change.

When LeMaster looked at how people swear today she discovered that women are using as many swear words as men, if not more. “Women have started to use the strong language used by men, but men are not using the words used by women [a century ago].” And while the balance of words associated with sex, excrement and religion varies, this distinction now reflects religion and class as much as gender.

Is this a good thing? Many readers might howl “No!” And since I am a creature of my own cultural environment and biases, in some senses I share this dismay: I hate the idea of a world shaped by “foul” language, particularly if it involves my daughters.

Hence my introduction of that swearing jar.

Then again, the fact that swearing is now an equal-opportunity practice is cheering in some ways. Winning the right to shout “f**k you!” without needing to apologise (too much) was never a feminist ideal; and it is utterly trivial compared with the infinitely more serious issues that women are grappling with today. But the only thing worse than a world where people shout obscenities is a place where this is only culturally permitted for men. Language, like much else, should be gender blind.

So maybe it is time for men to start copying old-fashioned female speech, and for all of us to limit ourselves to saying “goodness” or “darn”. That might sound peculiarly mild or mealy-mouthed. It might even leave us fuming in these volatile times. But now, more than ever, a little extra civility, respect and graciousness could go a long way — for women and men. It might even help to create a more equal world.

Illustration by Shonagh Rae

Letters in response to this column:

Dart and stiletto are more deadly than blunt crudity / From Jascha Kessler

Children soon learn the satisfaction of swearing / From Melanie Metcalfe

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