Why we should teach students how and when to swear

The use of swear words can provoke a visceral response and is usually considered a no-no in the classroom. But are we doing our students any favours by banning ‘bad’ language or should teachers’ approach to expletives be more nuanced? Henry Hepburn reports
1st January 2021, 12:05am
Should We Teach Students How & When To Swear?
Henry Hepburn


Why we should teach students how and when to swear


Consider this your final warning: there will be swearing in this article - and lots of it. If you are offended by that sort of language, you may want to look away. However, arguably, you are the very people who need to read it most. So, if you can suspend your offence for just a few minutes, what follows will likely prove useful to you.

Teachers know the power of linguistic transgressions more than most. A cuss is a weapon in schools, thrown out in the middle of a lesson to shock, disrupt, amuse or aggravate. When it happens, everyone knows that a line has been crossed, and everyone wants to know this: what, as the teacher, are you going to do about it?

The answer to that question will likely differ not just between teachers but between contexts for the same teacher. That said, overwhelmingly the repercussions of uttering an obscenity in school are negative. But should that actually be the case?

In 2018, Tes reported comments by Emma Byrne, a science writer specialising in the neuroscience of swearing, who argued that children should be taught how to swear, in order to "demystify" certain words and improve social development. Byrne advocated that "learning to use swearing effectively, with the support of empathetic adults" was "far better than trying to ban children from using such language".

As you will have noticed in your day-to-day working life, that did not prompt a sudden tolerance of expletives in classrooms. Perhaps it attempted to push teachers too far from one extreme to the other. So, is there a more tolerable revision of our complete aversion to swearing available?

Emily Nordmann, a psychology lecturer at the University of Glasgow, is an expert in swearing and she thinks there is a debate to be had here. She recently gave the most profanity-laden talk I have ever heard from an academic (and, let's be clear, second place is a long way behind). 

"Please take the opportunity to pretend that your internet has crashed and you can leave the Zoom call - I really don't want to offend anyone," she advised at the outset.

She paused, then said: "OK, so is everyone ready? Everyone OK? Ready, steady - cunt!"

Nordmann does not think schools should have draconian attitudes to swearing, and she largely agrees with Byrne on "the basic premise that teaching kids about language is a good thing" - but with one key caveat.

"Swear words don't harm children, but using them in the wrong social context violates social norms, which can be harmful to them," she says. 

Rather than embracing expletives, she says it would be "better if we talked to children about social norms surrounding language use". Doing so, she believes, ensures a level playing field where students can better comprehend the nuances of swearing.

In some households, the only profanity heard will be the occasional "shit" when an adult falls over the family dog. In others, "swearing is used exclusively as an aggressive device", she explains. 

If you don't address swearing in its full complexity and social usage, and just ban it and never mention why - or unquestionably accept its usage - then, she says, "you risk creating another social divide in which middle-class kids get socially appropriate swearing right and working-class kids get it wrong because of modelling what they hear".

A primer on profanity

While you may agree with that, however, you may be wondering how exactly she proposes that schools embrace the language of obscenity. 

Nordmann says that it should start with ensuring that students have a better understanding of swearing, of where the words come from and why they shock.
To help with that, she divides swearing into five distinct categories based on a system favoured by Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker: blasphemy, disease, effluvia and orifices, sexuality and slurs. 

History, location and context mean that some of the words in these categories are seen in the UK as worse than others. For example, words in the disease category have "really lost [their] punch in Western English over the years", says Nordmann - think of Shakespearean insults, such as "a plague on both your houses". However, in languages such as Dutch, words like "typhoid" and "cancer" are still used to swear.

The current most offensive category is slurs. "Even though they're not classic swear words, they provoke such strong negative reactions" because they are used to insult myriad groups of people, she says. 

As part of this introduction to obscenity, students would need to understand where swearing in general sits in the moral compass of society - where it is acceptable, where it is not, and what is more or less acceptable than it culturally. She cites the example of an interview in The Guardian with Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins, former presenters of The Great British Bake Off, in which they explained how they tried to prevent the programme-makers using footage of the contestants crying.

"Whenever a contestant would cry, the presenters would go and stand behind them and swear because they knew that the BBC would never allow that to air,"
says Nordmann. "I think it's an interesting reflection on our society that we're OK with broadcasting someone having a meltdown to 10 million people but we won't allow someone to say the word 'shit' on television. It's an interesting view on what we consider important and moral."

Exploring the impact of swearing is also a key part of a profanity primer. Nordmann demonstrates the impact of swear words by deploying the Stroop effect, a psychological phenomenon in which the brain struggles to name a colour if it is used to form text that shows the name of a different colour. 

Similarly, she says, if you try to name a colour that a swear word is written in, it can take a while because the strong emotional reaction to the word initially overwhelms your conception of colour.

Interestingly, for that reason, Nordmann does see a case for using asterisks in swear words in certain contexts, but for practical rather than moral reasons: they dull the strong and distracting emotional reaction if readers are confronted with the full word. On occasion, newspapers are "probably right to put asterisks in the swear words because [the asterisks] slow down comprehension [of the swear words]" - something to bear in mind if your GCSE students are studying texts featuring swearing.

The impact of swearing is obviously linked to the reasons why we swear, something else to be considered. We cuss for myriad reasons. It can be a reaction to an event, for example, or an exercise in comedy, or, alternatively, the unfettered use of swearing can be an exercise in power and domination.

"When you swear, you're forcing people to think about negative concepts and there's nothing they can do to stop it," says Nordmann. When the most taboo and offensive words are uttered around someone, they're forced into a binary choice, she says: to object strongly or to stay quiet and become an accessory in reinforcing prejudice.

If, for example, a woman is called a "dyke", she explains, straight people in the vicinity "can say, 'Oi, shut the fuck up, you homophobic twat!' or they can stay silent [and] silence makes them complicit". The user of the word has wielded considerable power because they can "activate negative concepts in people's minds against their will", with the effect that "you either have to have a very confrontational experience or you have to basically have those [prejudicial] viewpoints put on to you".

Nordmann has found that the bigger the difference in status between the speaker and the listener, the more offensive swearing becomes. People are more likely to swear when they are alone with friends and family than at work, where there are "very clearly defined power structures". 

If she swore at a student who came in late to class, she says, she would lose her job, "because there's a huge difference in status. If I tell a student they're a cunt, I might as well have hit them in the face." That power dynamic is an interesting lesson in itself for pupils but it is also a useful filter with which to view incidents of swearing in schools. 

But of course, swearing can also be a positive force, providing catharsis when we experience pain, frustration or regret. A study by Richard Stephens of Keele University found that people were able to keep their hands in ice water far longer if they were swearing than if saying a neutral word. Research has also found that people can go harder on an exercise bike and have better grip strength while they are swearing. (PE teachers who are fans of marginal gains: this bit may be for you.)

There are two possible explanations for cathartic swearing, says Nordmann. The first is biological: "We have what's called a rage circuit. In an animal, this contains a reflex, whereby if they're wounded or cornered, they will make a sudden move to escape, and it's normally accompanied by a vocal response - if you've ever stood on a cat's tail, you'll know what I mean." 

The idea is that the rage circuit activates a part of the brain that stores both negative emotions and swear words.

Another explanation is the "response-cry theory" : that we swear when we are in pain or we make a mistake because we are aware of our audience and we are "letting people know that we're not OK with what just happened". So, for example, if you spill soup over your shirt and mutter "fuck", you are informing people that you are "the kind of person who doesn't think it's OK to have food all over myself ".

A final area that needs to be addressed is the mythology that has grown around swearing, in particular, the notion that "if you swear, it is a sign that you have a small vocabulary, that you are so deprived of lexical choices that you rely on the obscene - you fall back on these pre-programmed packages of filth, and you are a terribly stupid person", says Nordmann.

Far from being superfluous and crude, Nordmann shows that judicious swearing can actually make a piece of writing sing, as in the opening monologue from the film Trainspotting, when Ewan McGregor's Renton sardonically implores us to "choose a fucking big television" - a scene that would lose its impact if he were more minded to say "choose a really big television". 

"It's a well-known stereotype that people who swear are a bit thick. If you are a fucking person who fucking says the fucking word after every fucking word like a fucking
fuck - then, you know, fair enough, your vocabulary probably is quite limited. You are using the same word, you're not really showing much creativity."

It's fucking complicated

However, Nordmann says that "verbal fluency is verbal fluency" regardless of whether the person displaying it is "foul-mouthed" - although "this isn't to say that swearing all of the time in any context is a smart or reasonable thing to do".

"The use of swear words does not mean that you are less intelligent and it does not mean you have a small vocabulary. However, it is really important to know when and where to use swear words, which, one could argue, is a sign of intelligence."

So, should all this knowledge about swearing feed into our English lessons, history projects or PSHE discussions? Should it inform behaviour policies and safeguarding assessments? Or should schools decide that it's much too risky and hide the copies of Trainspotting

The reality is that swearing presents a conundrum for schools, says Billy Burke, headteacher of Renfrew High School in Renfrewshire, Scotland. 

"Whether you like it or not, swearing is part of adult discourse at times," he says. "Obviously, there are occasions when swearing is used as a tool for harm - and this is not acceptable. However, it often serves
a purpose within the context of humour and lightening the tone. So, if it is an accepted part of adult discourse, do we acknowledge and prepare pupils for this or pretend it is not an issue at all?"

Burke, a former president of School Leaders Scotland, recalls the wisdom of his old English teacher, Mrs Edgar, who said that there was a "time and place" for different styles of communication, whether this was a matter of volume, tone, dialect - or "bad words".

"If we don't talk to young people about this, we leave them to find their own way, which can involve simply mimicking the behaviour of others," says Burke. "So surely it's better to address it head-on and discuss the pros and cons, the appropriateness and inappropriateness?"

However, Burke warns that swearing in schools cannot always be neatly divided into "bad language during discourse" and all-out offensive language. As with most aspects of pupil behaviour and communication, "teachers will be skilled in knowing the difference
and responding appropriately to the particular context and profile of the pupil, and finding the best way forward". 

Burke adds: "There will unlikely be a one-size-fits-all response - it's more bloody complicated than that."

And the truth is, schools are generally very wary about any encroachment of swearing into classrooms. Alan Gillespie, a principal teacher of English at an all-through private school in Glasgow, says: "I think swearing is correctly quite taboo [in school] and certainly not encouraged. Verbal slips are understandable if they are infrequent and accidental. If a pupil was to deliberately swear at a teacher in an aggressive way, it would be taken very seriously - in my setting, anyway."

Gillespie, who is also an author, "wouldn't fancy taking on a unit teaching pupils to swear effectively" and is "pretty sure there would be more than a few complaints" for the school to field. He does not, however, see the presence of swearing as necessarily being a reason to avoid certain texts for classroom study: "A tiny bit of swearing can engage older classes - they like the idea of being treated like adults," he says. 

But Gillespie adds that "if it's gratuitous, I would avoid it" and he has edited out swearing from some shorter texts, to make them "more appropriate for pupils".

Nordmann, though, is certain of the numerous benefits in educators adopting less hardline approaches to swearing and providing opportunities to talk about its positive effects, as well as the negatives. 

A big part of her job is "trying to get students to talk to me … to feel comfortable with me", and she finds that "very carefully chosen [swearing] does wonders in a
lecture for transforming me from scary Dr Nordmann into Emily who you might not mind talking to".

She likes Emma Byrne's analogy about swear words: their relative rarity and the burning sensation they induce makes them like mustard - a great ingredient but a terrible meal. With overuse they "lose their power" but they are "a fantastic part of our language", which should be treated seriously.

"Never look down on people who swear," says Nordmann, "because sometimes they know exactly what they're fucking doing." 

Henry Hepburn is news editor at Tes Scotland. He tweets @Henry_Hepburn

This article originally appeared in the 1 January 2021 issue under the headline "Should teachers learn to
love the F-bomb?"

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