What the @%!# is Vulgar Language?

A discussion about the meaning and censorship of swears

Alyx King, Cartoonist

Language is a strange thing. For example, the English language has several synonyms for most words. But there are some words that are considered obscene or vulgar. These words are often referred to as swear words or curse words. But what makes something a swear word? And have these standards changed over the years?

North Kansas City High School English teacher Nam Vu believes that they are a social construct. “The words that we consider vulgar, themselves, have no intrinsic vulgarity attached to [them]. There’s nothing about the F-bomb that, perhaps, is innately wrong,” he said. Vu also made clear that there is a definite difference between slurs and other foul language. “[With non-slurs] there’s no specificity in which the degradation happens,” said Vu. A sophomore student, Zowie Rivera, disagreed. “I think they fall under the same category,” she said.

What about the origin of our current standards for vulgarity? According to Vu, they stem predominantly from Judeo-Christian religious ideals. “A lot of what we consider swear words [in the US] stem from this certain Puritanism that existed and exists continually,” said Vu. However, he acknowledges the lack of concreteness in these standards. “Because language is so malleable and changing, we know that we attach different values to different words over time,” they said. North Kansas City English teacher Aaron Lerner, agrees with this sentiment. “Words, in general, I typically do not deem as foul or fair, although the overall statement being made can absolutely be in poor taste depending on the intent behind it,” he said. Lerner applies this to slurs as well. “Referencing slurs, in general, however, could be different, as it is oftentimes necessary for the purpose of educating, enlightening, providing historical context, and creating valuable discourse,” said Lerner. He then continued to specify that slurs should never be used with intent to harm. “When it is spoken out of hatred, however, I see no place for it whatsoever,” said Lerner.

Foul language also contains certain power. “Strong language—swear words included—are a very raw and real form of expression,” said Lerner. However, that power can be weakened with excessive use. “Your repetition of [a swear word] without fully understanding the weight of it, makes it so that when you do need to harness the weight, the impact, the force of that word, you may not be able to do it, because you have dulled the pointedness of them,” said Vu. He also cautioned against the abuse of lingual power. “Language is power and power is unequal,” said Vu. This applies to lingual experts, as well. “Proper English is really serving a certain interest. It’s not neutral,” they said.

Now, it’s been established that foul language exists and is based on societal expectations. But should this language be censored? “I think it is a good idea [to censor vulgarity] so that less people default to ‘move your s**t’ instead of ‘move your things,’ which sounds much nicer and more polite,” Rivera said. When posed with this question, Vu seemed to be opposed to the idea. “It’s really not my business to prescribe a certain way of speaking,” he said. Like in George Orwell’s novel, 1984, language can be abused to push an agenda. “There are perceptions of class and race and gender tied to the ability to articulate a certain standard of English,” Vu said. Charlotte Brontë discourages censorship as well. In her preface to Wuthering Heights, Brontë wrote, “The practice of hinting by single letters those expletives with which profane and violent people are wont to garnish their discourse, strikes me as a proceeding which, however well-meant, is weak and futile.” She believed that censoring foul language caused it to lose some of its impact and meaning, just as overusing it can.