Do We Really Need to Swear?

In The R-Rated Blog Post” I explored what it is we really mean by the words we say, especially expletives and innuendo, in hopes of finding ways to translate those words from one culture or language to another. This time I want to explore what others have to say about these same issues.

When I searched “latin swearing” on metacrawler I found many sites supposedly teaching one how to curse in Latin, including a youtube video. Amidst these was also an article on avoiding profanity in Latin (which I sadly couldn’t access).

Barry Baldwin, Classics Professor at the University of Calgary, published the essay Classical Swearing in 2006, in which he describes many ancient vulgarities, their modern counterparts, and the development of swearing throughout history. He makes an interesting point about blasphemy, saying that “the great advantage of polytheism is that it gives you a generous choice of gods to invoke” and includes social strata for who curses with what God. Men would swear to Hercules, while women swore to Castor. While reading through the winding journey of what society considers vulgar and what it doesn’t, I wonder at the twin facts that language is incredibly diverse and that humanity has hardly changed.

Baldwin quotes the adage “censorship is the mother of linguistic invention.” Censorship has indeed contributed to the diversity of profane language. As words become taboo we find new ways to express the same ideas (since we always have had and always will have need of blasphemy, strong exclamations and ways to talk about sex). These inventions produce euphemisms, like “kick the bucket,” “pushing up daisies,” “gone to meet the Lord,” and “six feet under.” They produce a multiplicity of synonyms which not only meet the need of expressing the idea, but offer a variety of images which can impart particular reactions in the audience.

Inciting a reaction from the audience seems to be one of the primary purposes of expletives. When calling down a curse upon something, you could say G**damn, which would certainly incite reaction if you proclaimed it in, say, a church, but possibly the wrong reaction. Instead, depending on the circumstances, you can say goshdarnit, dagnabbit, doggonit, or simply drat.

Translators take advantage of the creativity inherent in swearing. The unchanging nature of humanity is what makes translation work. We may never understand exactly what another culture meant by the specific words they used, but their intent behind the words is still keenly felt in our day and age. By tapping into that intent we find ever more inventive ways to express the passions, lusts, longings, and frustrations we all feel and endeavor to express.

Perhaps that’s what lies at the core of swearing: a need to express the human condition.

Perhaps the deepest emotions can only be expressed by the strongest words.

Perhaps the messiness of humanity requires words that push us out of our comfort zones, forcing us to sit up and take notice of both the world’s brokenness and greatest joys.

Radha Deitenbeck


4 thoughts on “Do We Really Need to Swear?

  1. hopeadvancedlatin Post author

    Radha, I love your conclusion “Perhaps that’s what lies at the core of swearing: a need to express the human condition.” This is an excellent way of explaining why we swear. Too often I hear people (myself included) using swears when they aren’t really necessary—they aren’t expressing the human condition. I think for less severe circumstances we should draw from our non-swears like goshdarnit and the rest. Thanks for sharing this interesting topic with us!
    ~A. Hoffman

  2. hopeadvancedlatin Post author

    I find swearing to be quite therapeutic, like when I bump my knee on something or hurt myself in some other way, it seems to ease the pain. I find it to be the best expression for the pain that I am feeling which really connects to what you said in your blog about expressing the human condition. I’m not saying that I swear out loud, it is usually in my head or said to myself quietly. Another situation that I swear at myself is when I miss a shot in basketball or a catch in football, it is the easiest way for me to express my anger at myself for messing up.
    -Skylar H.

  3. hopeadvancedlatin Post author

    Radha, I loved your post! This was really interesting. I remembered that I talked about something like this in a Psychology class one time, so I went and did a little bit of research and found an article I didn’t know if you’d be interested in reading. I really liked how you addressed the psychological and emotional aspect of swearing, but the physical aspect is that they say that swearing literally reduces pain, and although I don’t really understand this, I think it’s really interesting that how we perceive words can have physiological effects on us! I think that some of the allure of swearing is that it is forbidden, so there is a little bit of a rush that comes when we say something that colors slightly outside of the lines, especially when we’re kids. But the idea that these express the human condition is a really great idea, and I think you express it really well. Thanks! Emilie

  4. hopeadvancedlatin Post author

    Radha, this was very interesting. Thank you so much for sharing this. It’s neat to see your progression of though and research, and picking up comments in class through the last two years, I know this topic has caught your attention. It has caught mine too and I’ve often thought about swear words, why they’re used, how they’re used, and how they became profanity in the first place. So thanks for sharing your thoughts and these links and you raise and interesting point at the end. Sometimes the strongest words are the only ones appropriate to accurately convey the depth of emotion and meaning.



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