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What the *#@$&*?

Linguistics Course Tackles Taboo Language

Story by
Nancy Joseph

It’s not often that a course description features a content warning for students. But when the course is titled Swearing and Taboo Language, with class sessions on “the F-word” and “swearing across cultures,” a warning goes with the territory.

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When linguists talk about taboo topics, we must sometimes mention taboo words," says Laura McGarrity. "I tell students to imagine that the words are in quotations or italics as something we are looking at clinically.” Media credit: Isaiah Brookshire

Laura McGarrity, lecturer in the Department of Linguistics, developed the new 200-level course to interest non-majors in linguistics. “My main area of study is sound systems, but I consider myself a closet psycholinguist with an interest in the connection between language and the brain,” says McGarrity. “As I looked into research in this area, I started finding references to swear words, which provide unique insights into how language works, specifically how the brain processes language.”

Swear words, it turns out, are processed differently than other aspects of language. When individuals suffer brain damage in the left hemisphere of their brain, their ability to use language can be catastrophically affected. Yet they can still swear fluently because swearing is processed in the right hemisphere, which regulates emotion, and in the limbic system, which controls our fight-or-flight reflex.

McGarrity discusses this brain connection in class, as well as the grammar of swearing, gender and cultural differences in swearing, the evolution of swearing over time, societal responses to obscenity, and what makes certain words particularly taboo.  And yes, navigating these topics requires the occasional use of colorful words.

“In class I talk about the ‘use-mention’ distinction, which comes up often in linguistics,” says McGarrity. “If I were to use a swear word, that would carry emotional weight and could be offensive. But when linguists talk about taboo topics, we must sometimes mention taboo words. I tell students to imagine that the words are in quotations or italics as something we are looking at clinically.” If McGarrity or one of her students oversteps that line between mention and use, the offender must pay up with a donation to a classroom ‘swear jar,’ which will help fund an end-of-quarter party. So far, the jar is empty.

McGarrity dives right into perceptions of taboo language on the first day of class.  Students complete a survey of 20 potentially offensive words, rating them on a scale from one to seven, from completely inoffensive to extremely taboo. There’s agreement on the most taboo words (the N-word tops the list), but some words receive both very low and very high ratings. “It alerts the students to the fact that even if they don’t see a word as offensive, someone else in class might and they need to be mindful of that,” says McGarrity.

The first class project expands on that idea, with students exploring how words can seem more or less taboo depending on context. For example, a popular swear word for feces—yup, you know the one—can be used literally but is more often used connotatively to express emotion. “All these words have multiple personalities, multiple lives,” says McGarrity. The students develop a survey with swear words incorporated in different contexts—denotative, idiomatic, emphatic, invective—and ask friends and family to rate the words. Then they analyze the ratings, taking into account the respondent’s age, gender, and ethnicity.

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Other course assignments involve researching swear words from other cultures and researching the etymology of a swear word, from its beginnings to the various meanings that may have evolved independently. “These things change over time,” says McGarrity. “Swear words that were considered the worst five hundred years ago were religious, but some of the words for body parts that we now consider obscene were in medical textbooks.”

About halfway through the quarter, McGarrity devotes an entire class session to the F-word.  She hadn’t intended to feature one word so prominently, but research on this granddaddy of swear words won her over.  “It’s the big one,” she says. “It’s probably the most prolific swear word in the English language. It can be a noun, it can be a verb, it can be an adjective if you add ‘ing’ at the end. So I decided that it probably deserves its own day.”

McGarrity is particularly intrigued by how the F-word is used as an infixal intensifier, which is like a prefix or suffix, but placed in the middle of a word for emphasis. “An example of this is abso-f***ing-lutely,” she explains. (Notice that this is a mention, not a use, of the taboo word. The swear jar remains empty.) “What’s interesting is that the English language doesn’t have infixes—except this one. We would have no idea how English would treat an infix, because we don’t have them, and yet you ask students to put this infix in words, even a random word like Oklahoma, and they will know where to put it. It will be consistent across 99 percent of all speakers. So that means there’s a grammar to it. Linguists have used this fun example for decades, because it provides insight into how language works. It’s very systematic. It’s part of our internal, grammatical understanding of how English works.”

Given the engaging content of McGarrity’s course, it’s no surprise that the class filled quickly. She capped enrollment at 25 students, preferring to start small as she hones her approach to this sensitive topic. She hopes to eventually expand the class size to 95. 

And if some of those students decide to take more linguistics courses as a result of this one? That outcome would be, ahem, pretty  *#@$&* great.