#CORPUSMOOC: Week 8: A Swearing Extravaganza

This week looking at ‘swearing’ as it is used within language .. so there’s a disclaimer, some of the comments:

The use of ‘bad language’ seems to me to be very cultural specific. For example, young people seems to use it more often than old people. And I see variation of what’s considered as ‘bad language’ between registers and dialects. For example, the same person would never use bad language at work but he probably uses it when he is with friends; and what’s considered bad in some areas would not have this consideration in others.

Of course, you have to define what is meant by ‘bad language’; obscenity is very culturally specific (Northern Europeans: body parts, coition and excrement, Southern Europeans religion, mothers, aspersions re sexuality – the Victorians found the phrase ‘what a cunning hat’ rather racy). The point is well put, though.

Oh dear, the warm up activity is to listen out for the use of bad language in conversation around us … probably more than you’d expect even in my own context! Interesting conversations online about whether language teachers should teach this, as students will come across it (don’t we all remember how funny it was once we learnt ‘merde’ in French classes!)

amazing what you can get used to after a while and how much these words lose their strength through over use.

Part 1: Looking at Bad Language

Why say ‘bad language’ and not ‘swearing’? Definitions of what is ‘swearing’ = complex!


Words developed for the Lancaster Corpus of abusive words – including animal, intelligence, sexuality focused insults. Then had to develop an annotation system for the material – including class, gender, age, etc. Can provide some quite useful distinctions that can be researched. Metalinguistic word – am not using the word, but I’m talking about it/describing it, or quoting someone else saying something.

Who knew there were so many different ways to use ‘fuck’ – fascinating…


Final category = a ‘dustbin category’ for those that didn’t fit any of these categories, and didn’t really need further work.

Commentator suggests that video helps gives further insights into the use of swearing in language – jocular, and ‘fillers’ have been mentioned by other commentators.

Another kind of ‘MOOC’ – – such dictionaries allows us to see language develop.

Part 2: Swearing and Gender

We can use such corpora to see how such language is actually used – but we’ll likely approach such questions with a number of assumptions – e.g. that men swear more than women. In early 1990s, there was no statistical difference in usage, but in looking at the individual words themselves, these are different… words used by men tended to be stronger. 


There are levels of ‘strength’ seen, but there are possibilities that these might be used differently … e.g. ‘religious people’ more offended by God/Jesus than the general population [Note to second year housemates, yes…]

Commentators mentioning encouraging people to rethink phrases that have become everyday

  • Someone being ‘a bit gay’
  • Someone having ‘a blonde moment’
  • Someone ‘running like a girl’

Is there ‘surgical cleaning’ where such words become sanitised? Corpus tools, of course, are good at identifying the change in language of words e.g. ‘gay’.

Different people will probably see some of the words as more offensive than others… e.g. people say ‘God’ without thinking – probably more offensive to ‘religious people’ than many realize.

Part 3: Swearing and Interaction

How do the genders interact when it comes to the use of ‘bad language’ words? Is there a difference between or across? Intra-gender use of swearing is the norm (e.g. men direct swearing at other men more than at females and vice-versa), but men do this much more than women (have they been cultured to swear less in front of women?

What kind of words are targeted? E.g. ‘cow’ exclusively at women…


Wow… so much complex!

Part 4: Strength of Swearing

Different categories of words (e.g. general annoyance) = much milder words, but ‘destinational category’ (reached end of tether = “go away”) = much stronger!

Discussions mentioning new British National Corpus coming this year, where it will be interested to see how words are used/re-used and reclaimed – e.g. African-Americans claiming ‘n****r’, gay people claiming ‘queer’ and women claiming ‘bitch’ as positive interaction words. Also lots of discussion as to regional/cultural differences and how the right corpus might help explore those.

Part 5: Swearing and Age

Assumption is that younger people tend to swear more, and data seems to bear that out:


Is it down to age? It’s not necessarily their age that is the issue. The cultural environment may have meant that swearing was less accepted, so don’t swear less as get older! Are they possibly using ‘swear words’ that are so mild that they’ve not been measured as swear words (e.g. golly, blimey), although this doesn’t exist, either. What about the strength of swear words/categories? Mirrors the distribution from the graph above. Frequency/strength distribution are similar.

Commentator notes: ‘When angry, count to four; when very angry, swear.’ (Mark Twain). Also questioning whether the extra drop-off is down to being in the presence of children/grandchildren, when people seek to reign themselves in.

Part 6: Swearing and Class

How do we draw out the nuances here? Do lower classes select stronger words, and higher class = weaker ones?

AB: 1.81, C1 1.76, C2 2.16, DE 2.47 (General pattern, but AB = stronger than C1)…

What about the type of bad language use? AB/C1 and C2/DE = inverted.

Lots of discussion about whether upper classes = rules don’t apply, and middle classes more cautious…

Part 7: Combining Factors

What happens when try and combine the data – e.g. male AB aged 25-34 = use most? BNC was balanced to get roughly similar amounts of data on single data. May be no examples combining particular factors… that particular group = 2,259 words uttered in the spoken BNC.

How many types of speakers are in the BNC? Not many, but we can combine particular types of data to give insights.

Part 8: Combining Factors – 2 Case Studies

Age/Gender combination:


Class/Gender combination:


Class/Gender/Age combination:


Do you want to argue – are women pre-disposed to use less swearwords? Surely socially constructed, it’s an artifact of the society within which these 2 genders are operating, nothing to do with genetics. Debate? Where did the distinctions come from? What were the social processes that constructed this?

Commentator: People are willing to say things in other languages they’re not prepared to say in their own –

Final Words from Tony

The start of a journey into language .. with an overview of the kind of things you should have learned, and in a position to build your own corpora [though I didn’t use the practical elements!]… and don’t think that this course has given you everything…

We often want to study language in their social contexts, rather than in isolation. Contemporary social issues or historical issues typically the most interesting.

By admin

Dr Bex Lewis is passionate about helping people engage with the digital world in a positive way, where she has more than 20 years’ experience. She is Senior Lecturer in Digital Marketing at Manchester Metropolitan University and Visiting Research Fellow at St John’s College, Durham University, with a particular interest in digital culture, persuasion and attitudinal change, especially how this affects the third sector, including faith organisations, and, after her breast cancer diagnosis in 2017, has started to research social media and cancer. Trained as a mass communications historian, she has written the original history of the poster Keep Calm and Carry On: The Truth Behind the Poster (Imperial War Museum, 2017), drawing upon her PhD research. She is Director of social media consultancy Digital Fingerprint, and author of Raising Children in a Digital Age: Enjoying the Best, Avoiding the Worst  (Lion Hudson, 2014; second edition in process) as well as a number of book chapters, and regularly judges digital awards. She has a strong media presence, with her expertise featured in a wide range of publications and programmes, including national, international and specialist TV, radio and press, and can be found all over social media, typically as @drbexl.

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