Comparative swearing: U.S. vs. U.K.

In a comment on “More about manners in the U.S. and U.K.,” Karen at Fill Your Own Glass [sorry, everybody; that’s almost the end of the links] wrote, “My impressions have been created solely by movies, but I have believed that people in the U.K. are less inhibited when it comes to cursing and talking about sex.” (She went on to say that it was an insightful post, but I wouldn’t want you to think I’m the kind of person who’d mention that.)

I haven’t a clue whether her impressions are true. What fascinates me about the comment is how you’d measure either.

late winter 002

Near Minions

Let’s say we want to compare how inhibited or uninhibited people are in talking about sex. I mean, I want to be scientific here. How do we compare passing references to serious what-I-did, what-I-didn’t-do, and how-I-feel-about-it conversations? Do we measure in frequency, in length, or in depth?

No puns, please. We’re being scientific here, so settle down in the back row.

If we’re talking about a serious cross-cultural comparison of swearing, how do we balance frequency against intensity? How do we measure the weight do various swear words carry?

People I know here (and it’s entirely possible that my friends swear more than the average Brit) say “bloody” fairly often. How often? Oh, you know, often enough. (You can see why I never became a scientist, right?) But how intense a swear word is bloody? I’d always heard that it’s religious—actually, sacrilegious—in origin and assumed that it packed quite a punch. But a Wikipedia entry raises several milder and way less interesting possibilities. My Dictionary of British Slang and Colloquial Expressions calls it simply “an intensifier,” which makes it sound mild to the point of insipidity. Of course, I once heard a linguist talk dispassionately about the way Americans use the word fucking as an insertion. In fact, he called it “the fucking insertion,” which both illustrated how it was used and cracked me up for weeks afterwards. From this I gather that linguists, like all scientists, whatever their passions, prefer to present a dispassionate surface.

I’ve heard bloody said often enough that it’s made itself a home in my head, and it’s trying to push its way into my speech. It wants to be said, and I want not to say it. Not because I don’t swear—I do, and without being immodest here, I do it well—but because I don’t have a sense of its proportion, its weight, its impact. I don’t like to throw things until I can gauge their impact.

Besides, with my accent it’ll sound very odd.

So there you are, folks. Comparative swearing. I look forward to hearing what you have to say on the subject.

67 thoughts on “Comparative swearing: U.S. vs. U.K.

  1. Hmmm … well, some years back I set off a shit storm that still hasn’t died down because I commented that my then-middle-school granddaughter sometimes behaved like a bitch. YIKES! Apparently in the Eww Ess that is a VERY VERY VERY bad word! Now I’m not suggesting that it is necessarily appropriate for grandmothers to use rude words EVER with communicating with their grandchildren … but then, I’m of the sincere belief that “appropriate” is one of the filthiest and most destructive words out there, and here in the good old Pacific Northwest it is bloody ubiquitous. UGH.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I will need to keep my ears open so that I can conduct my own survey. I have found on both sides of the Atlantic that some people swear almost incessantly, as if a swear word is a punctuation mark, whereas other people use it for effect and with purpose. I am not sure that is down to any sort of geographical context. Something I have found amusing since moving to America is overhearing Americans using British terms that the context suggests they think are much milder than they are. “Wanker” is an example I have heard used here as if it is a rather fond term, more akin to “silly sausage” than what it actually implies and with none of the aggressive tone that usually accompanies the word. My kids are enjoying the fact that the word “crap” is not considered rude here in the US.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I don’t know about who swears more than the other. I do find that I notice UK swearing more when I ear it, simply because certain words are uncommon in America. I even find the creative insults highly entertaining. One of my favorites for an insult of endearment is “barmy”


  4. When I served in the military I had the pleasure of working with a Brit while in Sarajevo. He set the bar very high for swearing and no one I’ve known since, American or British, has come close. For the record though, I only understood about 1/3 of his rants, the othe 2/3s being either so heavily accented to be understood or simply beyond my kin. By the way, what does “How’s your mum” mean? Cheers, Ben


      • I guess I’ve always thought of profanities as generally being vulgarities based on the sexual act, sex organs, human waste or religious terms.
        Using words which are associated with those things indirectly are like ‘soft’ swearing. Getting as close as one can to swearing, pushing the boundaries, but without causing offence. Words that are used commonly as slang terms therefore carry less impetus and offence when used in the context of swearing. So that’s the point to me, acceptable swearing I guess. Somehow the proximity of balls to the male member makes them a softer profanity than the member itself.

        ‘Bloody’ has always puzzled me in a way, and it seems to be less offensive than of old.
        Of course I was also trying to be funny.


  5. I think it’s like that here in the U.S. as well in different parts of the country. Being from Chicago, the “f” word didn’t bother me. In the south, it’s “bless your heart”, which is pretty much the same as the “f” word but much much more polite.



  6. I think I learned more about swearing in the last 10 minutes reading this post and the resulting comments than I have in my 58 years. I might have to start rethinking my liberal use of *crap*. It’s such a shame. I’m rather fond of the word ;)


  7. Well I’m in Australia so can’t compare the two much but I will say that Australia released a tourism commercial a few years back and it ended in “So where the bloody hell are ya?” to get tourists to Australia :D


  8. What an interesting and much needed blog post, finally someone filling the void on the nuances of swearing! Here in the U.S. I think, at least around my circle, it’s way overused, especially fuck. I like a good swear word smartly used where you realize after hearing the whole sentence it really was the most appropriate word to use.


    • People who claim that swearing is the sign of a poor vocabulary just don’t understand the art form. My mother, on the other hand, understood it well enough to try convincing me that I should save it for when I really needed emphasis. It was a good argument, but I felt I needed emphasis more often than she felt I did. Ah, well, she was wise enough not to make an issue of it.

      Liked by 2 people

  9. The word fuck is the greatest word ever, it’s has no “true” meaning you can use it as a noun, verb, adjective. It truly is a multi-talented word. I had no idea though that “crap” was a bad word across the pond. I’ll have to remember that when conversing with my British buds.


  10. I remember many years ago a senior woman I worked with in a meeting referring to the IT department as a bunch of “cunt sucking slut fuckers”. It did cause a short pause in the meeting and some carefully worded minutes. She is now my mother in law and no less colourful in her language. I regularly use all of the above in conversation. I don’t consider bitch, bloody, shit, crap, bugger as even slightly rude. The only word I wouldn’t use in front of clients is fuck. I don’t typically use cunt just because it just doesn’t work with my particular manner of speech. I would say New Zealanders are very relaxed in their language for the most part. I do mind my language when traveling to the U.S. as I know they have different ideas of what is a rude word.


  11. Great post. Cursing is something I defend as cathartic for myself and I can’t claim to know why others do it or their agendas. I even have it as an important intro/disclaimer in my ‘about’ section; warning people that they will frequently encounter all manner of English as well as Spanish curse words.

    I even wrote a post on why it’s OK for kids to swear.

    Be well :)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hmmm. I’m under the impression that it is, but it’s not in the category of words that makes milder souls fall off their chairs. But if you’re smart, you won’t take my word on that.


  12. If you are familiar with the Army, and I am through my son, “fuckin'” is an adjective for just about anything and everything. I have noticed he manages to keep it to a minimum when he’s not in uniform. My own favorite is crucifix, which is more than a bloody swear word in the Czech Republic – really bad. But when you roll it with a Czech accent, it is a frigging good word!


  13. I only have experience with contractors, and yes they use the F-word quite often, but out of the same mouth comes ‘My pleasure’ when you came down the stairs … swearing and flattering in the same day, very funny…
    I got more confused of sayings I didn’t know, like ‘If I don’t see you through the week, I see you through the window!?’ still don’t know what it means!


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