Nice girls don’t swear, runs the conventional wisdom. Bad language, especially bad language used aggressively or in a derogatory fashion is seen as something normal (if not entirely laudable) for teenage boys, but teenage girls using similar words are likely to be thought of as “feral” or “out of control” in some way.
It’s strange that we persist in these views when numerous studies since at least the 1970s show that teenage girls are just as likely to swear as their male counterparts.
One hypothesis suggests that boys’ swear more because their groups of friends tend to be large and competitive whereas girls’ peer-groups are thought to be smaller and more intimate. A 20-year old study of 160 South African teenagers set out to test whether boys really swear more than girls.
In 1992, Vivian de Klerk of Rhodes University in South Africa asked teenagers in the 12-14 and 15-17 age ranges about the “slang” that they used for various terms, including a good looking girl, a good looking boy, an ugly girl, an ugly boy, an unpleasant girl and an unpleasant boy.
The first surprising finding is that teenagers came up with 141 derogatory terms for boys and 117 for girls. Again, conventional wisdom has it that there are more “bad words” used against females than there are used against males. It turns out that the most popular words used to describe an unpleasant girl are perhaps stronger (bitch, cow, slut, cunt) than the ones used against males (bastard, asshole, dog, dick), but that the range of words that girls use to describe unpleasant or ugly boys is a bit broader than the range used by boys about girls. Girls are also pretty inventive with their terms of approbation – my favourite suggested term for a fit boy is the delightfully descriptive “ovary overflow.”
Girls in general were more likely to be the target of both negative and positive swearing and slang than boys, and in general, teenagers are likely to use both positive and negative swearing about the opposite sex than their own sex. But overall there was no significant difference in the number of terms that boys and girls reported using.
de Klerk concluded that social pressure acts on male and female teenagers alike and that “many a teenager is blissfully unaware of the full import of slang terms he or she uses, because the use of slang is often a vague hit-or-miss affair. Slang is picked up by careful observation and is used casually and coolly – asking about the meaning of slang items is tantamount to admitting failure as a teenager.” She goes on to say “Females, it would appear, are not striving for standard prestigious speech…but are striving to use what their peers are using.” Teenage boys and teenage girls are more alike than we might realise.