Editors Stan Carey and James Harbeck write about the English language on their blogs, Sentence first and Sesquiotica. Stan and James co-founded Strong Language, a blog for linguists, lexicographers, and word nerds who like vulgarities. Here, they tell us how the site was born, comment on people’s attitudes on profanity over time, and share their favorite swear words.
(If vulgar language offends you, this interview isn’t for you!)
How did Strong Language come about?
Many of the cursing connoisseurs at Strong Language publish with WordPress.
Stan: That was a happy accident. I was chatting with linguist James Harbeck about something he’d written for The Week on expletive infixation (like abso-bloody-lutely). There were words he couldn’t include because they’d be censored, and we both tend to stay family-friendly on our own blogs, so James suggested teaming up to create a sweary blog about swearing. I proposed Strong Language as a name, James kicked off with a post on cussword phonology, and we soon had an amazing team of linguists, lexicographers, editors and other word specialists contributing. It’s been foul-mouthed fun ever since.
Are there words (or types of swear words) you won’t cover on the site? Is anything too offensive for your taste?
Popular posts on Strong Language:
Stan: I don’t think any taboo terms are off limits for Strong Language — it would go against the blog’s spirit of scientific enquiry. There are certainly swears I don’t use: racial epithets, ableist slurs, that sort of thing. But that’s different from examining their use.
As a linguist, do you sense a change in people’s attitudes towards swearing over time? Are we more or less profane than, say, ten years ago?
Stan: Ten years is too short for any major shifts, but attitudes do change. Even in Chaucer’s day, though, there was huge variety in how people felt about swearing. Whether we’re becoming more profane is debatable, but we are more visibly so, because the internet has sidestepped the traditional filters on what language we see and hear. It affects the type of swearing too, hence the vogue for super-abbreviated forms like af and tf.
On a longer timescale there’s a shift from swearing by (and to) higher powers, to just swearing at things and people. Centuries ago religious swears were stronger, which led to strange euphemisms like ’snails (God’s nails) and odsbodikins (God’s little body). Religious swears in most English-speaking communities are less taboo now than sexual swears, and even those are losing their force for many people. I’m not trained as a linguist, by the way — I just dabble.
James: I am trained as a linguist, and I agree with Stan. 🙂
Which swear word fascinates you the most?
Stan: Probably fuck. How many words have a whole dictionary devoted to them? It’s so versatile, and has shown up in all sorts of curious places historically, like surnames and bird names — centuries ago, kestrels could be called windfuckers, for example. Fuck still carries force, so it has a lot of euphemistic spin-offs, but it’s also very popular, so we get these playful memes like Look at all the fucks I give. I also like shite, bollocks, and religious oaths, and combinations of these with fuck. You get that a lot in Ireland.
James: Along with the words (I am also a big fan of fuck), I also like the kinds of morphosyntactic infractions people sometimes get up to when swearing. Sometimes people seem to want to deliberately break rules of grammar in swearing just as they’re breaking rules of propriety — although I must say that in general swearing is just as rule-observing as anything else in speech.
What language has the best swear words? Do you have a favorite foreign swear word that’s hard (or impossible) to translate?
Irish Gaelic is full of colorful insults, and has a fine tradition of sinister but hilarious curses…
Stan: I couldn’t pick one language — there’s amazingly crude and creative swearing in so many. Some, like the Slavic languages and Spanish, have a well-earned reputation. I adopted some German and French swears when I learned those languages, but I seldom use them now. Irish Gaelic is full of colorful insults, and has a fine tradition of sinister but hilarious curses, like Go n-ithe an cat thú is go n-ithe an diabhal an cat, which means: May the cat eat you, and may the devil eat the cat.
I’m most entertained by the liturgical swearing of Québecois French: câlice de tabarnac d’hostie de ciboire.
James: I’ve read that Serbians are especially inventive, but I don’t speak Serbian. I know the Dutch use kanker (cancer) a lot, which I find entertaining. But, being from Canada, I’m most entertained by the liturgical swearing of Québecois French: câlice de tabarnac d’hostie de ciboire. Sometimes I’ll say “chalice of tabernacle” in English in place of “dammit.” The thing about translating swears is that literal translations often seem silly, but a good translator would translate them idiomatically whenever possible, so you have to find the best match of tone and connotation. It’s never going to be an exact match, but in general use it’s often good enough.
How profane are you in your daily life?
Stan: In public, not very; in certain company or by myself, pretty sweary. It varies. I’ve never recorded my daily speech, so I don’t know how I compare with others. But I like having a wide range of swears available for amusement, venting, and so on.
James: I swear too fucking much, generally. For a while in my department at work we kept score, and at the end of each month we would have to contribute to a group lunch at the rate of 5¢ per damn, 10¢ per shit, 25¢ per fuck (and, at a coworker’s insistence, $2 per cunt, so we never used that word, but we would sometimes refer to someone as two dollars). One co-worker — female — always edged me out by a buck or two, but we were both generally over $10 per month, I think.