The Gentle Art of Swearing

One of the subjects that catches my interest is the breadth and depth of bad language. Most people use the words vulgarity, cursing, obscenity, and profanity interchangeably but technically they each have their own specific meaning.

I used the word “fuck” on my blog for the first time yesterday and it got me thinking about comparing vulgarities and blasphemies which led me down a bad language rabbit hole.

Here is a very brief primer:

  • Obscenities are language or images that are primarily sexual or excretory in nature
  • Cursing refers to language that can cause actual mental or physical harm, usually, this is in reference to the danger of losing one’s soul, but common usage also applies to hexes and witch’s curses and the like
  • Vulgarities are words or phrases that are common, coarse, or unrefined, usually, this is used by upper classes to disdain those of lower class
  • Profanity is morally-offensive language that was historically held to be hateful or ignorant toward religion, but now the term could also apply to other references that are morally repugnant, such as racial epithets
  • Epithet technically only means a descriptive name but in recent decades has come to refer to abusive or derogatory language, such as racially-offensive nicknames
  • Blasphemies are phrases that show contempt or lack of reverence toward a deity or holy object
  • Intensifiers aren’t always bad words, they’re just words that are used to make phrases more intense, but most people use bad words for them (instead of stupid, doing meth is “fucking stupid”)

And that’s scratching the surface and not covering concepts like minced oaths (saying ‘fricking’ instead of ‘fucking’) or tracking the etymology of words like ‘bloody’ that have gone back and forth over the centuries as mild crudity to extremely vile to a quaint bad word we Americans associate with British stereotypes.


What’s the point of all of this? Well, in addition to it being genuinely interesting to me, I admire precision and it’s good to know the right categorization for your bad words of choice.

I tend to keep my day-to-day language mostly PG-rated and will occasionally pepper my language with stronger vulgarities when the situation calls for it. For the most part, I agree with Dr. Simon Tam on Firefly.

Kaylee: You swear?

Simon: I swear when it’s appropriate.

Kaylee: Simon, the whole point of swearin’ is that it ain’t appropriate.


On the other hand, as a faithful Orthodox Christian, I tend to avoid blasphemies for obvious reasons. This means I may censor myself when singing some of my favorite sea shanties, but it’s a fair trade in my book. Of course, that doesn’t mean that my characters will feel the same way.

I think my attitude with bad words, in general, is to use a few vulgarities here and there as intensifiers and when telling a roaring good joke, but I don’t feel the need to use them all the time. After all, too much pepper ruins your sense of taste.

6 thoughts on “The Gentle Art of Swearing

    1. Thanks, Tony! We all have a lightness and a darkness within us. Sometimes our words reveal that and sometimes they conceal our luminosity. I’d sooner trust a foul-mouthed sage than a mellifluous salesman.


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