Kristine L Ming

Why do people swear?

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The English language contains an alphabet soup of swear words. Those of a sweary disposition can draw upon the A-word, the B-word, the C-word, the F-word, the S-word, the W-word and many more. So here’s a puzzle – if you see the F-word spelled out with all four letters, are you more offended than when you read F with asterisks?

It seems many people are. But why? After all, you presumably know what F with asterisks stands for. It has the same meaning as the non-asterisked version.

The BBC tries to avoid swear words whenever possible, but on the rare occasions that they are considered integral to the story, they are used without the asterisks. Some other news outlets, such as The Times do adopt the asterisk convention and only print swear words when they are quoting other people. This reflects the view that using swear words is more offensive than merely mentioning them. The paper’s journalists mention the swear words used by others, but do not use them themselves.

But to understand why the full-frontal swear word might be considered worse than its pale asterisked imitator, we first need to define what a swear word is.

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