Emily Nordmann puts swear words into five categories, based on a model in The Stuff of Thought, a book by Harvard University professor of psychology Steven Pinker.
Words such as “hell” and “Jesus Christ” used to be highly offensive – “telling someone to go to hell was one of the worst things you could say when people believe in a literal hell”. It was also believed that you could literally curse someone by using certain words.
A type of swearing that has “really lost its punch in Western English over the years” – 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.
3. Effluvia and orifices
Or, as Nordmann also puts it, “stuff that comes out of your body and where it comes out of”. These words still cause offence because they repulse us and refer to things that can endanger our health. There is a gender divide, though: Nordmann says that menstrual blood is rated by men as the third most disgusting thing after faeces and vomit. However, women rank it eighth, after semen.
Most notably “fuck” in its various forms, but also words such as “bugger” and “wanker”. Nordmann explains that, while sex should be pleasurable, it is also risky: “Sex can result in STDs, it can result in unwanted babies, and the sex itself can be unwanted and violent.
“Sex can be so desperately wanted but not present…and sex can be between people who should not have sex, in the case of incest or paedophilia.
“If we think about sex in those terms, it becomes clear why we would have a set of words [generating] extreme emotional negative emotions.”
And there is gender bias in sexual swearing, as seen in the lack of a male equivalent for “slut” – a word thrown at women “for daring to have a sex drive and acting on it”.
The most offensive category of swearing – “even though they’re not classic swear words, they provoke such strong negative reactions” because they are used to insult myriad groups of people.
Nordmann has had a “huge amount of anxiety” about saying any of these words out loud during her presentations but, generally, she does put them on slides because she wants people “to feel the deep discomfort that you should feel when you read these words”.
“These are not words, these are entire viewpoints that are encapsulated in a couple of syllables,” says Nordmann, who draws on personal experience. “I have had the word ‘dyke’ thrown at me more times than I can count – normally from groups of men and moving cars.
“And let me tell you, when that word has been thrown at me, they are not simply pointing out that I am gay. They are not playing ‘I Spy’ – I have checked. When the word ‘dyke’ is thrown, it doesn’t mean ‘lesbian’ – it means ‘incorrect woman’, it means ‘unattractive’, ‘manly’, ‘sinful’, ‘freak’, ‘queer’, ‘disgusting’.”