Each language has words that are considered taboo, or shouldn’t be said. English is no exception. Taboo words (“bad” word, swear words, profanity) fall into four different categories in English and also have different strengths of severity (how bad something is).
As a student of English, we suggest being very careful when using these words, as it can be difficult to gauge (determine, decide, analyze) whether the taboo words are appropriate to the situation and how strong they are.
While we don’t recommend swearing in formal company, if your friends swear, it is a way that you can practice and increase your fluency and competency in the language! To not mention these taboo words wouldn’t really be true to the whole of the language, right?
When to Use Taboo Words
Even (or especially) among native speakers, there’s a debate as to when, and even if, it’s appropriate to ever use taboo words. It’s commonly assumed (thought automatically) in some circles that that only “unsophisticated” people swear because they don’t have the vocabulary to find the exact word they need to express themselves (communicate a thought).
It’s always important to very carefully decide when, and if, you should swear in a given situation. I would say it’s generally frowned upon (see as bad) to swear at work and, actually, in most situations, come to think of it.
Of course, when you are with your friends or when the mood is right, you may have the tendency to swear more, as you are probably more relaxed and sometimes the atmosphere calls for it.
Always keep in mind whom you’re with when- and if- you swear. Swear words that have racial connotations (associations, connections), for example, may be used freely among those groups in relation to each other, but as a non-member of that group, a racial swear word would come across as highly offensive (hurtful, insulting) and you shouldn’t- under any circumstance– use it yourself.
Categories of Taboo Words
There are many swear words relating to religion (Jesus!, Christ!, Jesus Christ!, Oh My God-OMG.., hell, etc.) It’s easy to see why these words would become taboo words, as it can be very offensive to some people for the name of important people in their religion to be taken in vain (used in a non-religious context).
For most people, at least in the United States, however, saying “What the hell?” is so common nowadays, that neither those using the phrase nor those who could be offended associate that “hell” with the Christian idea of “heaven and hell”.
Sex and the Body
There are lots of taboo words having to do with the topics of sex and the body (tits, fuck, dick, screwing, etc.) Of course topics involving these ideas come up in all types of situations, but we have more neutral, clinical ways of referring to them such as breasts, penis, making love, sex, etc. I would say all the same rules of politeness, good sense, and respect apply to judging these situations, as well.
Words having to do with the toilet and bodily functions (the body’s way of cleaning itself..) can also be taboo but have equivalents in polite company. For example, if you’re at dinner and have to use the bathroom, you wouldn’t say, “I have to take a piss” or “I’m gonna have a shit,” but rather “I have to use the bathroom,” or a simple “Excuse me” will also do. No one likes too many details.
This category of swear words is particularly delicate (sensitive, careful), as the taboo words here are considered very offensive. Words having to do with people’s intelligence (retarded, slow), race (the N-word, Indian –not Native American), physical capabilities (lame, crippled), sexuality (fag, homo), or nationality (Nazi for Germans, Rednecks for US Americans), are included in this category.
A final word about Taboo Words
Swearing, while frowned upon by some, can also be quite a creative exercise of expression, as you have to ability to mix all different words together to describe what you mean and show a bit of wit while doing it.
One last thing: before you feel too much stress about when it’s okay to use swear and taboo words, I would say just try to see what others are doing, use your best cultural judgment, and do (or don’t do) what makes you feel the most comfortable
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Erin Duffin lives in Hamburg, is an English teacher, yoga instructor, and is always very careful with her word choices and to be a good example of progression, not regression.