Women swear more than men, study finds

Oh my word: Kim Sears uses foul language while watching her boyfriend Andy Murray play a match.

According to British researchers, the way men and women swear has changed radically since the 1990s. Our use of profanities is constantly shifting. What do these trends say about us?

Andy Murray’s victory over Thomas Berdych at last year’s Australian Open is not remembered for the tennis. After Murray won a nail-biting rally, his girlfriend Kim Sears showed her relief by calling Berdych something rather rude. The cameras immortalised the moment.

Sears’s outburst set off a media storm. Murray was among those who defended her right to swear, while others criticised her – some even questioning whether women should use such foul language.

It turns out that she has company. A new study has shown that women in Britain now say the f-word more often than men. This is a big leap from the 1990s, when men were far more likely to use it. One of the authors called the result a victory for social progress: ‘gentlemanly behaviour and ladylike language should become something of the past.’

This reflects a wider trend: profanities are swiftly being normalised in the West. President Obama can say ‘ass’ in an interview. Brands with names like Fat Bastard and Holy Crap line supermarket shelves. The f-word, once considered too rude to print in dictionaries, is used over 500 times in an award-winning film.

According to some, swearing can even be beneficial: studies have shown that a well-timed cuss can help relieve pain and stress, or boost team spirit in the workplace.

Our ancestors would have been appalled. In the pious Middle Ages, using God’s name in vain caused outrage. ‘Damn’ was a shocker. Under the Victorians, notions of privacy and prudery were important, so words with sexual connotations – including ‘trousers’ – were out of bounds.

Today, arguably the only real taboos in the West are sexist, racist and homophobic slurs (most of which were in common use a generation ago). Yet not everybody agrees on where to draw the line. On the whole, swearing is more strictly censored on American than British television. Religious groups tend to disapprove of it. Social media users love it.

In other words, as social values change, so does the role of swear words. We are using them more freely than ever. Should we be proud?

Potty mouths

Swearing is fine in moderation, some allow. But we must not forget that it is, by definition, offensive. Do it a lot, and you will appear crude at best, and seriously upset someone at worst. The news that women are adopting the f-word has pleased feminists. But as signs of gender equality go, it is a depressing one.

Cut the crap, say others. It’s time we stopped being wusses. Freely using a swear word is not a sign of disrespect, but the opposite: a way of saying ‘we refuse to find this offensive’. It is also a useful way of expressing emotion. Oh, and it’s fun. Nobody, male or female, should hold back.

You Decide

  1. Do you change your language depending on who you are speaking to?
  2. Should swearing ever be illegal?

Activities

  1. Read Cuss Control Academy’s reasons not to swear in Become An Expert. Divide them into those you think make sense, and those you do not. Compare your lists with the class: are there any you all agree on?
  2. Choose one swear word and research its etymology. Write your findings in a short essay, concluding with a paragraph on how you think the word should be used today.

Some People Say...

“I don’t want children cursing.”

Nicki Minaj

What do you think?

Q & A

I like to swear. Who’s gonna stop me?
Depends where you are. In liberal countries like the UK, swearing is not a criminal offence, but it can get you into big trouble: if you let slip a rude word on daytime TV, for example. On the other end of the scale, in the United Arab Emirates, you could be fined £87,000 for sending a ‘middle finger’ emoji on WhatsApp. Take note of local laws, and don’t be abusive – in person or on social media.
Don’t laws against swearing violate my right to free speech?
You’ve touched on a big debate. All governments have to balance this right with the need to curb offensive language. This involves defining terms like ‘indecent’, ‘obscene’ and ‘hate speech’, which can be very tricky, especially as words offend people differently. How is this done in your country?

Word Watch

Study
The researchers listened to hours of recorded conversations spanning two decades, which had been submitted by 367 volunteers. They found that in the 1990s, men used the f-word 1,000 times per million words, and women 167. By 2014, the numbers were 540 and 546.
Ass
After the disastrous 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Obama told the NBC television network that he was on a mission to find out ‘whose ass to kick’.
Fat Bastard
A France-based wine manufacturer.
Holy Crap
An organic cereal company.
Film
The Wolf of Wall Street. It holds the record for the most uses of the f-word in a mainstream fiction film: between 505 and 569, depending on how you count.
Team spirit
A 2007 study by the University of East Anglia found that colleagues can use swear words to let off steam and bond with each other.
Slurs
These terms are sometimes ‘reclaimed’ by the groups they refer to. The black community’s adoption of the n-word is one example. Even this usage can be controversial.
American
See Become An Expert for more on the differences between American and British swearing.

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