Psychology Wiki

Assessment | Biopsychology | Comparative | Cognitive | Developmental | Language | Individual differences | Personality | Philosophy | Social |
Methods | Statistics | Clinical | Educational | Industrial | Professional items | World psychology |

Language: Linguistics · Semiotics · Speech


In cartoons, profanity is often depicted by substituting symbols for words, as a form of non-specific censorship.

Profanity can be a word, expression, gesture, or other social behavior which is socially constructed or interpreted as insulting, rude or vulgar, or desecrating or showing disrespect toward an object of religious veneration.[1]

Other words commonly used to describe profane language or its use include: cuss, curse, derogatory language, swearing, expletive, oath, bad word, dirty word, strong language, irreverent language, obscene language, and blasphemous language. In many cultures it is less profane for an adult to curse than it is for a child, who may be reprimanded for cursing.

Types of swearing

Steven Pinker's book Language as a Window into Human Nature breaks profanity down into five categories:

  • Dysphemistic swearing - Exact opposite of euphemism. Forces listener to think about negative thing. Using the wrong euphemism has a dysphemistic effect.
  • Abusive swearing - for abuse or intimidation or insulting of others
  • Idiomatic swearing - swearing without really referring to the thing.. just using the words to arouse interest, to be macho/cool, and express to peers that the setting is informal.
  • Emphatic swearing - to emphasize something with swearing.
  • Cathartic swearing - when something bad happens like coffee spilling, people curse. One evolutionary theory of it is that its meant to tell the audience that you're undergoing a negative emotion.


A profanity will have an original meaning (which may change across time and language) which in itself may give some cause for offense. Additionally, many profanities will have applied meanings of their own, usually associated to their context and which therefore may vary significantly depending upon the intended purpose of the word in the sentence. For example, "fuck", a common (often considered strong) profanity in English, is a verb for the act of sexual intercourse and may be used literally in this sense. It is also used in the context of an exclamation ("Fucking hell!") or to refer to acts of violence ("He really fucked that guy up good."), or to an error (You fucked it up again, you're fired."). It can also be used to add emphasis to a sentence. It can also be in a similar context to blasphemy.

The diversity of these profanities and their multiple connotations is pointed out to attempted humorous effect in Troy Duffy's film The Boondock Saints, in which one character discovers a room full of assassinated Russian Mobsters and uses the word "fuck" as an adjective, a verb and a noun in one sentence.

Rocco: Fucking... What the fuck. Who the fuck fucked this fucking... How did you two fucking fucks...
Rocco: fuck!
Connor: Well, that certainly illustrates the diversity of the word.

The degree to which a profanity is offensive relies upon how the use of the word affects an individual. Some will consider the original meaning of a word (for example, the sexual act) to be offensive or a subject not fit for polite conversation (cf Ephesians 5:3 " is not right that any matters of sexual immorality or indecency or greed should even be mentioned among you. Nor is it fitting for you to use language which is obscene, profane or vulgar.") while others will have no objection to these subject matters. Some will feel that certain words, having an established social taboo are simply offensive, regardless of any context; others will find profanities offensive mainly when used in a way deliberately intended to offend.

Furthermore, some may be in the habit of using profanity in order to seem cool. Thus, insults can even be used as terms of endearment.

A 2007 peer reviewed study by the University of East Anglia found that banning profanity in the workplace and reprimanding staff for using it could have a negative effect on morale and motivation. According to the study, while swearing in front of senior staff or customers should be seriously discouraged or banned, in other circumstances it helped foster solidarity among employees and relieved frustration, stress or other feelings.[2]

Finally, profanities may cause offense, regardless of context, if they have some religious meaning which may cause their use to offend those who follow a particular religion. The original meaning of the term was restricted to blasphemy, sacrilege or saying the Abrahamic God's name (or an identifier such as "Lord" or "God") in vain. Profanity in this context could be represented as a secular indifference to religion or religious figures, while blasphemy was a direct attack on them, or was interpreted as such even when that was not the intent. Such religious profanity is referred to as blasphemy.

As the concept of profanity has been extended to include expressions with scatological, sexist, derogatory, racist, or sexual interpretations, the broader concept of "socially unacceptable" language has emerged, with religious meaning playing a varying role, and the more vague and inclusive interpretation blurring the distinction between categories of offensiveness. This modern concept of profanity has evolved differently in different cultures and languages. For example, many profanities in Canadian French are a corruption of religious terminology (the sacres), while many English obscenities tend to refer to sexuality or scatology. A term that functions as a profanity in one language may often lack any profane quality when translated into another language.

Western history

Terms of profanity have historically been taboo words. Some words that were originally considered profane have become much less offensive with the increasing secularity of society. Others, primarily racial or ethnic epithets, can be considered part of hate speech and are now considered more profane than they once were.

William Shakespeare hinted at the word cunt in Hamlet, Twelfth Night and Henry V: Hamlet makes reference to "country matters" when he tries to lay his head in Ophelia's lap; Malvolio has the salacious line (although the term cut was an accepted euphemism for vagina in the early sixteenth century) "These be her very c's, her u's, and her t's, and thus she makes her great p's"; and the French Princess Katherine is amused by the word gown for its similarity to the French con[How to reference and link to summary or text]. Interestingly, the word cunt, while retaining its original meaning in America, has changed in meaning somewhat in Great Britain in the past thirty years. Where American usage of the word mostly refers to either female anatomy or (in extreme cases) an ill-tempered woman, cunt in the UK has attained the status of a gender-neutral insult. [How to reference and link to summary or text]

In the U.S. today, terminology considered to be racist is often seen as more offensive than sexual or scatological terminology; this is most clearly shown in the attention given to use of the word nigger, now effectively banned in American public discourse, although many African-Americans use the word nigga as a casual reference, and in certain social groups, nigger as a casual reference to black people is still in frequent use. Some mistakenly associate the unrelated word niggardly (meaning "stingy") with 'nigger." [3] As with other types of profanity, context is very important; thus, Americans of African descent might use 'nigger' in informal situations among themselves, without being considered offensive.[How to reference and link to summary or text]Words such as faggot and fag, though incidentally sexual in nature, are considered highly offensive and derogatory toward gay people, yet have undergone similar changes to nigga when being used by the gay community. The most famous example of this is prominent Sex Advice Columnist Dan Savage originally having his readers send letters with the salutation "Hey Faggot".

Many of the words now considered most 'profane' are held to be so because they were created to insult and disparage a particular group (see pejorative terms). Some of the targets of these words have however attempted to reclaim them and reduce their power as insults. Other ethnic slurs like dottie (Indian person) [How to reference and link to summary or text], chink (Chinese person), wetback (Hispanic), guinea(Italian/Greek), kraut (German--used especially during World War II), raghead (Sikh, or Arab in the US); and pejoratives like fattie, retard, and redneck or hillbilly aren't entirely profane at all times, but can be considered very offensive when used in the company of certain people, and not socially acceptable in polite settings or social situations.

The offensiveness or perceived intensity or vulgarity of the various profanities can change over time, with certain words becoming more or less offensive as time goes on. For example, in modern times the word piss is usually considered mildly vulgar and somewhat impolite, whereas the King James Bible unblushingly employs it where modern translators would prefer the word urine (2 Kings 18:27; Isa 36:12) or urinate (1 Sam 25:22, 25:34; 1 Kings 14:10, 16:11, 21:21; 2 Kings 9:8). The word cunt has seen a similar evolution; its ancestor—queynte—was not considered vulgar at all, but the word is now considered among the most offensive in the English language.

Profanity as blasphemy

The original meaning of the term was restricted to blasphemy, sacrilege or saying the Abrahamic god's name (or an identifier such as "Lord" or "God") in vain. Profanity represented secular indifference to religion or religious figures, while blasphemy was a more offensive attack on religion and religious figures, and religious people considered it sinful.

Profanities in the original meaning of blasphemous profanity are part of the ancient tradition of the comic cults, which laughed and scoffed at the deity.[4][5] In Europe in the Middle Ages the most improper and sinful "oaths" where those invoking the body of the Lord and its various parts, as the Italian Pote di Cristo! ("Christ's cunt")[How to reference and link to summary or text], and these were precisely the oaths most frequently used.[6] An example from Gargantua and Pantagruel is "Christ, look ye, its Mere de ... merde ... shit, Mother of God."[7]


The relative severity of various British profanities, as perceived by the public, was studied on behalf of the British Broadcasting Standards Commission, Independent Television Commission, BBC and Advertising Standards Authority; the results of this jointly commissioned research were published in December 2000 in a paper called "Delete Expletives". It listed the profanities in order of decreasing severity, the top ten being cunt, motherfucker, fuck, wanker, nigger, bastard, prick, bollocks, asshole, and paki in that order. About 83% of respondents regarded cunt as "very severe"; 16% thought the same about shit and 10% about crap. Only about 1% thought cunt was "not swearing"; 9% thought the same about shit and 32% of crap.


The situation is rendered even more complex when other languages enter the picture. Merde in French, and Mist or Scheiße in German (both usually translated as shit) are also quite common, as are the Italian and Portuguese Merda and the Spanish Mierda. While German and some other languages' profanity seems to focus on elimination, profanities in many Romance and northern European languages tend to make reference to religion, and English profanity tends to be sexual in nature. Italian represents an exception with its extensive use of Cazzo and Fica (translated as dick and cunt, with the latter being less insulting than the English equivalent) in common speech; each is very common in the Italian language and each has, for the most part, lost its vulgar meaning. Likewise, in European Spanish, coño (usually translated as cunt in English) is in some places very common in informal spoken discourse, and means no more than "Hey!" Its frequent use by Spaniards led to the labelling of the class of Filipinos with Spanish ancestry as konyos. In other locales, however, the word has a much stronger negative connotation.

Some scholars have noted that while the French and Spanish are comfortable hearing native speakers use these words, they tend to hear the "stronger" meaning when the same words are spoken by non-native speakers. This may be similar to the differences in the acceptability of queer or nigger depending on who is saying the words. Or it may be an example of how it is easier to learn swear words in a new language or dialect than to learn the fine shades of intensity which accompany their use.

A profane word in one language often sounds like an ordinary word in another; such words are called false friends. Fuck sounds like the French words for "seal" (phoque) and jib (foc), the Spanish words for "seal" (foca) and lightbulb (foco) or the Irish word for "words" (focail), as well as the Latin and Romanian words for "do" ("I do" can be facio as well as the imperative fac in Latin or fac eu in Romanian, which sounds a lot like the English "fuck you"). Arabic for "think" sounds just like "you fucker". Also, the Croatian word fakat sounds similar to the English "fuck at" when it actually means "factually". "Fuck" also sounds like the Latin imperative singular form of "do" or "make" (fac) and the Swedish word for "union" (fack); shit sounds somewhat like the Russian for "shield" (щит). The Cantonese words for "flower" and "bridge", when said together ("fa kyu"), sound vaguely similar to "fuck you". Also, the Latin singular imperative of "say" (dic) and the Dutch word for "fat" (dik) are pronounced like the English "dick". The German word for "fat" is both spelled and pronounced as the word dick in English. And the Dutch word for "cook" or "chef" (kok) sounds exactly like cock. Several European translations of the English word "bassoon" sound very similar to the American English slur faggot; an example is the Albanian "fagot". Even names in one language may appear as vulgar words in another linguistic community, which causes many immigrants to change their names (common Vietnamese personal names include Phuc and Bich; a fairly common Thai name is Porn. In Bengali, Fukeer is a personal name. In Latin, cum means "with", but it can be a profane word for "ejaculation" in English. Both cum and precum are prepositions in Romanian but can have profane, explicitly sexual meanings in English.

A particular coincidence is the Hungarian and Spanish and Italian words for curve: Spanish curva sounds like the Slavic, Romanian, Hungarian and Polish kurva meaning "prostitute" (or, more offensively, "whore"), and Hungarian kanyar sounds like coño, mentioned above. The word con is a profanity in French, but simply means "with" in Spanish and Italian. Apparently, L.L. Zamenhof chose kurba as the Esperanto word for "curved" to avoid the Slavic profanity evoked by the more etymological *kurva. This phenomenon occurs even between Slavic languages. The word kokot is a offensive Slovak (and, to a smaller extent, Czech) word for penis, while in Croatian it means "rooster" with no offensive meaning at all. (The French word cocotte meaning "Dutch oven", is pronounced exactly the same, giving Slovak students of French language good laughs.) Also, the Croatian word piće, meaning "a drink", means "cunts" in Czech and Slovak. Additionally, puta is the genitive and accusative case of two often-used words in south Slavic languages, but in Portuguese and Spanish, it means "whore"; and filho da puta (Spanish: "hijo de puta") is an offensive phrase, similar to "son of a bitch" but actually worse: "son of a prostitute". In Finnish, katso merta means "look at the sea", but to speakers of Italian it sounds very similar to cazzo merdacazzo is the English equivalent of cock or dick, and merda is equivalent to shit. While "cazzo merda" does not make much sense grammatically (the words are just two nouns put one after the other), hearing such a thing would be funny for Italians, to say the least. This is even more true for Spaniards, since the same sentence, katso merta, sounds just like the offensive expression cacho mierda ("piece of shit") in Spanish. The Spanish word puse (the first-person past-tense of "to put") sounds similar to the English pussy. This is often a source of discomfort for Spanish teachers and humor for Spanish students when the conjugation is being taught. Also Finnish word for bag, pussi resembles pussy. Similarly, the Latin word amabit ("He will love") is pronounced exactly like Ah, ma bite! ("Oh, my dick!") in French, and is a frequent pun in Latin classes. The chemistry term gel, which means the same thing in Spanish as in English, sounds like the English hell when said by a Spanish speaker. The French word vite ("quickly") sounds like the Estonian word for pussy.

In at least one case in Spanish, one word with one connotation in the native language of one of its colonies (in this case, the Philippines) was adopted with another profane connotation in Spanish. The Tagalog word pinga (which means a pole, particularly the one used as a whip to strike or otherwise drive a stray horse into walking on a straight line) is regarded as an equivalent of dick in some Spanish countries, particularly Cuba and Puerto Rico. Yet the word pinga in Portuguese is the slang name for Cachaça, a Brazilian alcoholic beverage.

The American pronunciation of the English word follow is almost identical to the Spanish word falo ("penis"), a non-profanity cognate with phallus. Similarly, the British pronunciation of the word after is identical to the German word After (anus).

Canadian French sometimes string a few basic terms from Roman Catholic liturgy into strings of invective of up to a minute or more. This is known as sacre. Some of these terms have euphemistic alternatives which are also religious terms, but not Catholic ones, for example, Tabarnak, Calisse, Ostie, Christ, Batême.

The German and Finnish interjection for surprise or admiration—Hui!—sounds identical to the Russian and Polish swear word literally meaning "penis" (Polish and Slovak chuj, Russian and Bulgarian xyй). The Maori word hui, meaning a meeting or gathering, is also very similar in pronunciation.

The word odbyt means "sales (department)" in Czech and Slovak, but it is a non-profane, anatomical term for "rectum" in Polish.

Fáklya, Hungarian for "torch", sounds similar to the English "fuck ya". The British pronunciation of fast sounds like the Hungarian faszt, which is the accusative form of dick or cock. The English pronounciation of the word bus is identical to Hungarian basz, which means "fuck". The Polish word być, which is the infinitive of "to be" (in terms of location), is pronounced exactly like the English word bitch. Czech and Slovak word "horný", meaning "upper", sounds like English "horny".

A more exotic example of interlanguage profanity is the English word carry which sounds exactly the same as a Sinhala (spoken in Sri Lanka) expletive, literally meaning "semen". It is originally a Semitic loanword. (See keri.)

The Afrikaans word kak, which is pronounced kuck literally means "shit". It is mildly profane compared with another Afrikaans word kaffir, considered extremely offensive, and having an equivalent meaning to nigger. In Dutch, the source of Afrikaans, kak means excrement (especially animal excrement), but is not particularly offensive. The English word wife is very offensive to the Dutch and Flemish, as the word wijf is a highly derogary term for a vulgar, offensive woman, to the point that it is almost exclusively used by natives cursing someone with disease: teringwijf implies tuberculosis, klerewijf cholera.

International languages

International auxiliary languages are often assumed to have little or no profanity, but this varies from one language to another. The basic criterion for inclusion in Interlingua is widespread international use, and this can be as true of a profanity as any other word or phrase. Thus, expressions such as cunno (cunt), merda (shit), and pipi (pee-pee) may be used in Interlingua. Culo (ass or butt) and its derivative incular (to butt-fuck) are also Interlingua expressions. Fottar (to fuck) is used much as in English, e.g., "Fotta te!" ("Fuck you!") or "Mi auto es fottate!" ("My car is fucked!").

Profanity in different languages and religions

For reasons of differing cultural, linguistic and historical backgrounds, the profanities of different languages place emphasis on different subject matter. Here is a list showing the main emphases for some common languages:

  • Arabic: sacrilege/blasphemy, excrement, sex, homosexuality, gender identity, insulting female family members, animals , and reproductive organs.
  • Chinese: sex, insults to family members, cursing (e.g., the Cantonese "Hum Gah Chan", which literally means "Hope Your Entire Family Dies").
  • Czech: equating people with animals (ox, cow), reproductive organs, sex, prostitution, blasphemy
  • Dravidian languages: Cursing (saavugiraaki implies that the recipient is about to die), questioning one's parentage.
  • Dutch: reproductive organs, excrement, homosexuality, equating people with animals (most notably pig, dog and cow), diseases, racial and ethnic hatred, prostitution, mental illness and blasphemy supplemented with English swearwords.
  • English: sex, excrement, homosexuality, religion, incest, bigotry, racial and ethnic hatred, prostitution.
  • French: sex, excrement, religion, racial and ethnic hatred.
  • German: Equating people with animals, (e.g., Schweinehund), sex, excrement, Nazi terms.
  • Indo-Aryan languages: insults to family members (especially incest).
  • Indonesian: sex, reproductive organs, excrement, animals, racial.
  • Interlingua: sex, excrement, religion.
  • Irish: religion (damnation, blasphemy), some sexual terms, some excrement.
  • Italian: blasphemy, some sexual terms, personal insults (e.g. "your mother").
  • Japanese: sex, violations of politeness protocols, discriminatory language, mocking status, insulting intelligence, suggesting death of another.
  • Korean: Impolite responses to people (especially family and authority), references to animals, sexual terms.
  • Hebrew: Yiddish loanwords having sexual meaning, borrowed Arabic, sex, prostitution.
  • Norwegian: Predominantly religion and blasphemy in the south, more genitals and sexual acts with animals in the north.
  • Polish: sex, prostitution, homosexuality, diseases, excrement, comparing people to pigs and dogs.
  • Portuguese: sex, homosexuality, prostitution.
  • Russian: sex and foul language, excrement, mental illness, equating people with animals, ethnic hatred.
  • Scots Gaelic: sex, excrement, religion, English-Scottish tensions.
  • Spanish: religion, incest, homosexuality, excrement, prostitution.
  • Swedish: sex, excrement, homosexuality, blasphemy, use of English.
  • Welsh: sex, excrement, English-Welsh tensions.

Severity of profanity types in European languages

In European languages the three basic types of profanity (religious, sexual, and excretory) have differing levels of severity. The type generally considered worst is listed first, down to the type generally considered least offensive.[How to reference and link to summary or text]

  • French, Italian, Provencal: religious> sexual> excretory
  • Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, Polish: sexual> religious> excretory
  • English: sexual> excretory> religious
  • Welsh, Swedish: excretory> religious> sexual

Books containing famous uses of profanity

  • Ulysses by James Joyce
  • The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger
  • Glengarry Glen Ross by David Mamet
  • Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
  • Five go to Smuggler's Top by Enid Blyton
  • Various books by François Rabelais
  • Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
  • Polish book "Szewcy" (Shoemakers) by S. I. Witkiewicz
  • Lady Chatterley's Lover by D.H. Lawrence (1928)
  • Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli (1990)
  • Hyperion by Dan Simmons(1989) in The Poet's Tale


  1. Definition of Profane”, emphasis on original, Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, retrieved on June 5th, 2007.
  2. Swearing at work boosts team spirt, morale October 17, 2007
  3. For example, in a highly publicized incident in 1999, the mayor of Washington, D.C., Anthony A. Williams, pressed for the resignation of his staff member, David Howard, because Howard used the word "niggardly" in a private staff meeting (Washington Post).
  4. Bakhtin 1941, "introduction", p.5-6
  5. Meletinsky, Eleazar Moiseevich The Poetics of Myth (Translated by Guy Lanoue and Alexandre Sadetsky) 2000 Routledge ISBN 0415928982 p.110
  6. Bakhtin 1941, chap.2 "The Language of the Marketplace in Rabelais", p.188-194
  7. François Rabelais, Gargantua book, chap. XVII; Mere de and merde has a close sound to "mierda" which means "shit" when translated from Spanish. Full text of Chapter 16, Rabelais and His World at Google Books.

Bibliography - sources

See also

  • Obsecenity
  • List of ethnic slurs
  • Mandarin slang
  • Profanum

This page uses Creative Commons Licensed content from Wikipedia (view authors).