There are lots of different definitions of swearing. Thelwall’s 2008 paper “Fk Yea I Swear: cursing and gender in Myspace” refers to swearing as the “aspect of language that is typically not taught or received from authority figures… [is] strongly tied to gender roles [and] typically related to taboo issues.”
The British Board of Film Classification doesn’t set define acceptable language for films shown in British cinemas, although it issues guidance.
“Many people are offended, some of them deeply, by bad language. This may include the use of expletives with a sexual, religious or racial association, offensive language about minority groups and commonly understood rude gestures. The extent of that offence may vary according to age, gender, race, background, beliefs and expectations brought by viewers to the work, as well as the context in which the word, expression or gesture is used.
“For these reasons, it is impossible to set out comprehensive lists of words, expressions or gestures which are acceptable at each category. The advice at different classification levels, therefore, provides general guidance taking account of the views expressed in public consultation exercises.”
There are different types of swearing: Baruch and Jenkins (2007) introduce us to the notion of “social swearing” and “annoyance swearing”. Social swearing is the kind of “team bonding” swearing – chanting “The referee’s a wanker” for example – that cements groups together. Annoyance swearing is the kind of expletive that that spontaneously erupts when the wanker of a referee makes a bad decision.
Perhaps the most thorough set of definitions I’ve seen so far comes from McEnery (2006). He classified 15 types of swearing that he analysed in the British National Corpus.
|Predicative negative adjective:||This film is shit.|
|Adverbial booster:||Fucking marvellous.|
|Cursing expletive:||Fuck you!/me!/him!/it!|
|Emphatic adverb/adjective:||He fucking did it/In the fucking car.|
|Figurative extension of literal meaning:||To fuck about.|
|General expletive:||Oh fuck!|
|Idiomatic set phrase:||(Oh) fuck!|
|Literal usage denoting taboo referrent:||We fucked.|
|Imagery based on literal meaning:||Kick the shit out of…|
|Premodifying intensifying negative adjective:||The fucking idiot.|
|‘Pronomial’ form with undefined referrent:||Got shit to do.|
|Personal insult:||You fuck! That fucker!|
|Reclaimed usage:||Queer theory.|
|Religious oath used for emphasis:||By God!|
This impressive list, along with a 16th heading, “uncategorised”, shows just how much work swearing does in British English.
Baruch, Y., & Jenkins, S. (2007). Swearing at work and permissive leadership culture: When anti-social becomes social and incivility is acceptable Leadership & Organization Development Journal, 28 (6), 492-507 DOI: 10.1108/01437730710780958
Thelwall, M. (2008). Fk yea I swear: cursing and gender in MySpace Corpora, 3 (1), 83-107 DOI: 10.3366/E1749503208000087
Tony McEnery (2006) Swearing in English: Bad Language, purity and power from 1586 to the present, Routledge.