How to Swear In English (Bad Language) Part 1

How much do you know about 'swearwords'? (SP: palabrotas IT: parolacce )

Do the exercise below and find out. (SP: averiguare IT: scoprie )

Divide the words into groups.

Answers in lesson 16.3 of ZakWashington's Guide to English. 

Can you think of any other swearwords? Which of the above swearwords are only possible with men? And which are only possible with women? 


The answer is that you can probably think of more swearwords. There are two factors at play here: The first, and the least important, is what the word actually means; the second, and far more important, is how strong it is. ‘Twat’ and ‘c*nt’ both refer to the female genitalia. The first is offensive, but merely means that the person in question is an imbecile, while the second is quite possibly the most offensive word in British English. Students use it all the time, by accident, because they don’t know how to pronounce ‘can’t’. The victim of this very serious insult could be either male or female.


Insults whose real meaning refers to the male organ include ‘prick’, ‘dick’, and many more.  These, interestingly enough, are only usually used to insult men, and the meaning again is a very strong way of saying, ‘idiot’ or ‘imbecile’.


If you want to insult a woman, then you need to use the universally accepted method of referring to her as a woman of questionable sexual reputation. The most common ways of saying that a girl ‘sleeps around’ are to call her ‘slag’, ‘slapper’, ‘tart’, ‘slut’, or ‘whore’. ‘Slapper’ is the most comical of these, the most aggressive being ‘whore’. But all are obviously very offensive.


‘Bitch’ refers more to nastiness of character or to someone who constantly speaks badly about people, rather than implying sexual promiscuity. There are plenty of swearwords whose meaning refers to the sexual process. ‘F*ck’, ‘screw’ and ‘shag’ are all words that function as verbs and nouns. (‘F*ck’ has arguably more grammatical functions than any other word in English, and is used internationally in a thousand different ways. ‘F*ck off’ is a classic, offensive intransitive phrasal verb; ‘p*ss off’ means the same but is a little less offensive.)


The swearwords ‘bugger’ and ‘sod’ literally mean ‘homosexual intercourse’ and are vulgar expressions, usually of surprise, which, surprisingly are not as offensive as some of the other expletives mentioned here, ‘Oh bugger! I’ve left my fags in the pub’ is an inoffensive phrase that contains a mild swearword, and means, ‘Oh no! I’ve forgotten to pick  my cigarettes up from the pub.’  ‘Oh sod it! I’ll buy another packet’ is equally inoffensive.


‘Wank’, ‘wanker’ and ‘wanking’ are commonly used British insults referring to masturbation that also have a hand gesture in case you can’t be heard. ‘Sh*t!’ is also a very vulgar word that means ‘excretion’, again, used to express surprise and disapproval. An interesting strong insult that doesn’t actually contain a swearword is ‘up yours!’


Do you think swearing is more common in your country?

Every country has taboo or swearwords, but often the degree of social acceptance differs greatly. What is habitual and mainly inoffensive in one country, can cause much embarrassment and offence in another. Students who watch a lot of English language films, often don’t realise that much of the language is completely unacceptable in most day-to-day situations. The word ‘f*ck’ is commonplace in the movies, but would never be heard on daytime TV, and much less in polite society. Spaniards and Italians, for example, use swearwords, which have the same meaning as English ones, in a much looser and less offensive way.


What subjects are considered acceptable and unacceptable targets for insults?

Sisters and mothers seem to be the targets of expletives in many countries. Although surprisingly not in Britain. (‘Motherf*cker’ is highly offensive, but is only really used in the USA and other English speaking countries.) In fact, it is worth pointing out, that other than the word ‘f*ck’, there are very few similarities between British and American swearwords.


How much do you swear yourselves? How important is swearing?

A cynic might say that the three most interesting uses of a language are: to make money out of others; to steal partners from other; and to insult others. Others will argue that swearwords are offensive and shouldn’t be used. But swearwords are important whether you like to use them or not. When someone starts talking to you on a Manchester bus, you need to know if they are referring to you as a good friend, a rather unpleasant so-and-so, or a part of the female reproductive system.


Learning swearwords seems, to most students, to be more important than learning the basics like the verb ‘to be’. Let’s face it, how many of you know how to say, ‘your mother has a face like the back end of a camel’ in Arabic? Exactly. Everybody does. How many of you know how to say ‘good afternoon’ in Arabic? Exactly. Nobody does. Everyone learns swearwords first.


So if  swearwords are the first thing that a person learns, why am I teaching them to you at the end of the book? I’m not. I’m teaching them to you at the beginning. You have just picked up the book and are looking at the last page to see how it ends. You haven’t read the first part yet! Don’t be so lazy. Now go back to the beginning and study it properly.

More English lessons tomorrow! See you soon. Please share!

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