Australian English

Sep 25, 2015

Welcome to Australian English, where swearing isn’t swearing

Is 'shit' a swear word? What about 'pretty'? Catherine Cook looks at the complexities of swearing in Australian English, where everything is not as simple as it sometimes seems.

What is swearing in Australian English? Is it Really Swearing? These are questions that arose during an International Cognitive Linguistics Conference session on taboo, looking at the Dutch use of diseases as swear words, that I attended in July this year. In the talk, the speaker gave examples of swearing from Twitter in Dutch, but basically skipped over the borrowed English ‘swear words’ in the posts. Later talks in the session talked about swearing by patients with Tourette Syndrome, but the speaker avoided swearing (which I admit I found odd). The discussion turned to bloody in Australian English, and the potential that it has fallen off a dysphemism treadmill, having lost its negative connotation and moved into simply emphasis. A dysphemism treadmill, like a euphemism treadmill, assumes that a word loses its negative connotations over time, and new negative forms are introduced to take over. A consensus between two British English speakers sitting nearby and myself was that bloody wasn’t swearing, at least in our vernaculars.

If we google ‘swearing definition’, we get ‘the use of offensive language, especially as an expression of anger‘. Yet what’s considered offensive is specific to an individual. I am not offended by the word fuck but if you call me an idiot I will take it personally. On the other hand, a couple on my train from Newcastle to York were outraged when a group of young people repeatedly said fucking, but had no trouble allowing anyone nearby to hear about their special birthday present (Use your imagination, it got a bit…uncomfortable). If the use of offensive language is the defining factor, then idiot or special present are just as much swearing as fuck or shit.

If we went by the second element of the definition – the use of these words is anger – then half of Australia rarely swears. If I say ‘Tom’s shirt is the shit’, I’m not angry at Tom or his shirt. In fact I quite like it. (It said ‘similes are like metaphors’ on it; it was fairly awesome). But no-one would say shit isn’t a swearword.

Swearing, I feel, is thus context dependent, or a set of homonyms. The shirt that is the shit is contextually dependent on where I am, who I am with, what the cultural understanding is of the people around me, and the socially understood list of acceptable descriptors for Tom’s shirt. In a discussion session about taboo with a group of linguists who specialise in taboo language it is probably ok, as is saying it with a group of friends. Add the lady who wouldn’t swear in a talk about swearing and it’s less ok. Say it in a church and it’s less ok again. But then if I told Tom his shirt is pretty the potential for offense or at least being taken aback increases. Pretty is something we tend to say to women, a man wearing a pretty shirt may feel emasculated or effeminate. Pretty is still not considered a swearword.

Is there, then, any such thing as a straight out swearword? Is there a word that is universally offensive, no matter who says it, who you say it to, where you say it or why you say it? Cunt is supposedly the most offensive word in the English language. Does it hold up to its reputation?

Not in Australian English at least. Cunt is taking on the same use as bastard in some places. “You are a dumbcunt” was prevalent in my high school, just as “you are one brave cunt/bastard”. The second example isn’t an insult, but emphasised courage, implying the addressee was brave to the point of being unusual, beyond simply being courageous (brave fucker or smartarse are similar uses).

So we shouldn’t define swearing as a particular set of words, or a particular set of concepts, but rather a set of contextually dependent and socially determined functions.

But then again, who gives a fuck anyway…


Catherine “Cat” Cook is a PhD student at Monash University specialising in cognitive and referential semantics in Video and Table Top Roleplaying games. When she’s not geeking it up academically, she’s relaxing with two cats and a level 9 Elf Bard.

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8 thoughts on “Welcome to Australian English, where swearing isn’t swearing

  1. Lord Muck

    Hmm, all very philosophical, etymologic and pleasant. We could discuss minced oaths, etc. Swear words are almost essential in the telling of some jokes. But swear words are also an important part of verbal abuse, which is not pleasant, and verbal abuse can be just as detrimental as physical abuse. There are certainly big contextual differences there and the second context is definitely not OK.

  2. Glenn Turton

    But surely the point is that since everyone is different then the context of where we say it is the main point of difference. Some people just can’t filter and use swearing wherever they are and defend it as if the people being offended are at fault. Swearing has always existed since language arrived. But used in context and in the correct group of recipients all is good. Otherwise respect for others needs to be the call. If nothing else I like to have something in reserve when I hit my thumb with a hammer 😉

  3. Roger Clifton

    Cuss words are part of the tone rather than part of the message. It is much more graceful to write no cuss words when we are writing scripts for ourselves or others to say. Then the tone delivered with the message is applied by the actor rather than the author.

    The information content of “that is silly” is the same as “that is f**king silly”, so there is no need to write the expletives, neither is there any need to record them.

  4. mikeb

    I think cunt hold a special place as it relates to something only women have. How it came to be a swear word is a mystery to me, but presumably it relates to dirty women’s parts which must rank worse than arseholes. I could well imagine how that particularly area would become unsavoury, especially in the past where people bathed rarely and without much care. Germs were only discovered fairly recently so they weren’t worried about hygiene at all and that wasn’t a factor in trying to keep clean.

  5. Clint Dolmo

    I would rather think that it is the intent rather than the word.

    Meanwhile cunt comes from cuneiform – meaning triangular. How obscene is that?

  6. Ian

    I do not feel as bad now phonakins has posted…my imagination is clearly not vivid enough as I was not sure either! 🙂

    On swearing, “cunt” is probably the only word that still is off-limits to me [it took all my strength to type it!]. Strangely I have used “twat” — though I did not know what it meant for several years [thinking it just meant a silly person] so perhaps its impact was lost. As Catherine wrote, I tend to think being offensive to someone [moron, idiot…] is worse than dropping the f-bomb now and again: context and intent.

  7. Cat Cook


    They made it pretty clear it was sex, seemingly of the kinky kind. I was sitting right behind them and the train seats are allocated so I couldn’t move…

  8. phonakins

    I need help with knowing what a special birthday present is, seriously….. a period? a blowjob? wet dream? I’m lost!!

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