“Most obscene title of a peer-reviewed scientific article” – an amusing award for a serious academic paper

This post was contributed by Professor Jean-Marc Dewaele, from Birkbeck’s Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication.

This post contains strong language.

As an applied linguist and a multilingual I have always been interested in the communication of emotion in a person’s multiple languages.  It seems that telling jokes in a foreign language, declaring love or promising something in a foreign language does not quite have the same resonance as it typically has in a native language (see also my taster lecture – contains strong language!).

One particularly interesting area is how multilinguals swear.  Indeed, swearwords in a foreign language don’t sound quite as bad as the ones in the native language, and students spending some time abroad are eager to pick up some of these words that their teachers did not want to teach them.  However, these enthusiasts abroad quickly realize that the people around them do not necessarily approve of the liberal use of swearwords.  What sounds like “funny” words to the foreign-language user can in fact be deeply upsetting words to the native language-users. 

I remember how Livia, my trilingual daughter (English, Dutch, French as first languages), aged 7, playing with a Belgian bilingual boy (Dutch, French as first languages), who, when he heard she also had English as a first language, exclaimed that he knew English too, after which he uttered Fuck you!, which made my daughter jump and switch to English: But you can’t say this!  The boy looked surprised at her emotional reaction.  He had clearly no idea that this funny expression would upset his friend.

What matters when swearing is to know how to do it “appropriately”, in other words, know the context in which certain swearwords and expressions may be tolerated or appreciated.  For foreign language-users it may take years, and even then they typically avoid them because the reactions they elicit may differ from native users using the same words in the same situation.  I think that it is because swearing is an indication of “in-group” membership.  However, if you have a foreign accent you clearly don’t belong to the “in-group”, and you’re expected not to use these words, and not make fun of the head of state or queen/king.

In 2010, I published a paper:  ‘Christ fucking shit merde!’ Language preferences for swearing among maximally proficient multilinguals. Sociolinguistic Studies, 4 (3), 595-614. (doi : 10.1558/sols.v4i3.595). I investigated language preferences for swearing among multilinguals using an on-line questionnaire. They consisted of 386 adult multilinguals who had declared that they were maximally proficient in their first and second languages and used both languages constantly.

I discovered that despite similar levels of self-perceived proficiency and frequency of use in the first language and second language, the first language was used significantly more for swearing and first language swearwords were perceived to have a stronger emotional resonance. An analysis of additional interview data confirmed the findings of the quantitative analysis, also highlighting cultural issues in swearing. 

The working title of the paper was Language preferences for swearing among maximally proficient multilinguals until I heard an Anglo-Canadian author, Nancy Huston, who has lived in Paris for many years, being interviewed on France Inter about her swearing behaviour.  She explained that when she needs to express a strong emotion, like sudden anxiety, or when dropping a hammer on her foot, she swears in English. The journalist then asked her Vous dites quoi? ‘What do you say’?  Nancy answers: Je dis Christ fucking shit merde! ‘I say Christ fucking shit merde!’  (“merde” meaning ‘shit’, is a high-frequency French swearword).  She’s surprised at the presence of the French swearword and adds: Ah je peux ajouter merde! ‘Ah, I can add merde!’.

I thought this quote would be the perfect illustration of my paper, namely that while multilinguals generally prefer swearing in their first language, some second language swearwords may creep into their core emotional vocabulary as a result of years of affective socialization in the culture of the second language.

I had to argue with the guest editor and the general editor Sociolinguistic Studies to keep the swearwords uncensored in the title.  I explained that it would make no sense to censor them, as the code-switching would become invisible, and that it was exactly the phenomenon I was interested in. They agreed in the end. 

A few days ago, to my amused surprise, I won the award for “for most obscene title of a peer-reviewed scientific article”.  Merde alors!

30 thoughts on ““Most obscene title of a peer-reviewed scientific article” – an amusing award for a serious academic paper

  1. Really interesting…not sure I completely agree…I’m bilingual …Arabic-English but I do most of my swearing in English.

    • One of the findings was that for speakers of Asian and Arab origin, swearing in the L2 (typically English) was often preferred because it allowed them to avoid the sociocultural constraints from their home culture

      • This is a fascinating finding. I’m a British-born Punjabi mother tongue speaker (started learning English at school) and also never swear in Punjabi. The words seem so much more potent and were never part of my peer group communication. I live in France now (post languages degree) and find myself saying ‘merde’ a lot when with a Francophone if, say, I drop something or we miss the bus, but swearing to myself in English if I injure myself or spill a mug of coffee over my entire laptop when craning my neck to see if that really was Stephen Fry who just walked past…

    • Reason being maybe that’s the country and language English empowered you ?

      Swear amongst the culture you were brought up in may be seen as very offensive ?

      So many effects like culture , belief systems and so on come into the picture .

  2. I think that I swear more within sentences in English (my first language) but when I make an exclamation (i.e. hammer dropped on foot) I often chose Spanish (my second language). A couple of times, when I have been really angry, I have found myself inserting an English swearword into the middle of a Spanish sentence (more or less at the equivalent point of where it would have appeared in the English sentence) and I’ve done this even when the person I’m speaking to doesn’t speak English! I think that swearing to give additional emphasis to other ideas in a sentence works best with English swearwords, but for ‘stand alone’ swearwords Spanish is often what I choose!

    • Briony has just pointed out some really interesting thing about swearing in English, something that I myself, have noticed before. Swearing in English in the middle of a sentence makes more sense than in my mother language, and somehow carries the same strong feeling to me as swearing in my first language, which is Brazilian Portuguese. That is because in English you have a swearing verb, something that we do have in portuguese (just happens to be the same verb) but in English you can turn that into an adverb, whereas in portuguese, due to linguistic differences, you cannot. Then the option some people resource to is to use it as an adjective, but obviously it then becomes much more offensive, it is stressed in the sentence and is not “diluted” by the meaning of the verb. So when I am having an argument and in the heat of the moment let out a “… I told you, stop fucking doing it” , even though it is strong, it still carries most of the meaning of what I really want to say, which is ” stop doing it”. In portuguese I could never say it, because we do not have that use of the verb “foder” (the swearing for “to fuck”). I would use an equivalent that has a lot less impact, ” eu te disse pra parar de fazer merda.” . Because the equivalent in my first language is a lot less aggressive than the swearing in English, the English version has a meaning as strong as the equivalent in my first language and sometimes even stronger. I avoid swearing, it really takes me be extremely angry or truly hurt to let out any swearing (in portuguese or english), but when I do, I express it in English when amongst english speakers (I want them to get the true meaning of what I am saying) and in portuguese when amongst my family in Brazil. I must say, it sounds rude, impolite and unnecessary in both languages, but it communicates a lot.

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  4. Excellent, I was wondering about this issue sometime ago, as I was living in England for a while I asked my Venezuelan friends why to swear in Spanish when you can do it in English, the answer was because in Spanish: I can take my anger out -I really feel every single word I say -. I`m multilingual too, and I hold a degree in applied linguistic. In opposite to this situation, some people in my country – we are Spanish speakers – when they want to express their feelings whether they manage English well or not so well they use English or French words, I guess this is a way to hide their real feelings or trying to be sarcastic, for example, I am sorry, I wish you well, certainly, sure, love you, my friend, and so on. Mi respeto y mi saludo.

    • I don’t know if you would count it as a swearword or not but I like the expression ‘na guara’ in Venezuelan Spanish (Venezuelan Spanish is my second language).

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  6. I completely agree with you. I am Brazilian and I speak English too, however, when I am angry with something I do not say shit … I say MERDA!! Or in the case of fuck you ….I say FODA SE!

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  10. When you curse in Spanish, anybody can understand it. It does not matter from where you are, you can feel the energy that is transmitted.

  11. I come from a long line of multilingual speakers and I do agree with the article, and generally about the research on codeswitching. I can see the point about cultural constraints on swearing altogether, from the Christian context. My Mum reserves her ‘Scheisse’ for absolute emergencies (adding “now I’ve said it”); and my Dad tried arguing that ‘bloody hell’ was once debated in parliament as not being a swearword. So even within those constraints, something is used for the big exceptional event. And codeswitching is just something children and adults do in the family environment without necessarily attributing one function to one language.

  12. This is fascinating. I’m a German-French-English trilingual (though my English suffers from lack of practice in recent years) and I’ve always wondered about why swearing feels different in my different languages. German definitely feels “strongest” (most of the time it feels too strong, so I don’t do it much). In French and English it sometimes feels weird, out of place, or like I’m pretending to be something I am not when swearing in front of first-language native speakers. When I was living in the US as a child, my friends actually told me that I couldn’t/shouldn’t swear like they did, that it felt wrong when I did it.
    When I’m alone I use “fuck”, “shit” or “putain de bordel de merde”.

  13. I simply do not curse. My mother tongue is Spanish, however I was not allowed to curse ever! so I simply do not. I consider myself bilingual but if a want to express strong feelings I can do it in any of both languages.

  14. As interesting as this piece of research might be, I do not believe it has helped anyone but the author. Why is there an academic market for this?

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  16. On moving to German-speaking Switzerland I was surprised and rather shocked at the way that the Swiss swear. I am sure that many Germans will consider them as backwoods peasants – indeed that may be the Swiss objective – to distinguish themselves from the Germans. A typical Swiss expression of disgust would be “es ist eine verdammte Huere Seich” – “it’s a dammed whore pestilence”

  17. I’m curious if you have covered the issue of Italian blasphemous swearwords (“bestemmie”) in your research; it seems to be a rather unique case of swearwords considered extremely offensive (indeed, a religious crime), yet also extremely common in informal language. There are no English expressions that properly translate a swearword-type bestemmia, which is a full-on, overt insult directed at a deity. “Goddamn” is the closes in everyday usage, but not nearly as extreme… A proper taboo-breaking cultural reflex!

  18. It’s an interesting article, I’m not sure I quite agree with everything though. I’m trilingual, and my use of swearing words depends pretty much on what I want to swear about and how strong and ruthless I want it to sound. For exemple, in my native language, I barely swear, cause swearing words sound much softer (phonetically) than my second langauge, Spanish, so I would pick the second one if I want something to sound really rude. But eventually I also would use English, my third language, for a quick swear word like “shit”, which have no much feeling involved.

  19. Carajos , mierdas,mentirosos !todo el mundo insulta cuando esta estresado en su propio idioma,!I t is natural to express the anxiety in one’s mother language!Nobody can deny it! Psychoanalysis studies has prove it!It came from our deep emotions that are expressed in our cultural backghround! For example ,when I am angry I use my mother tongue that is Spanish to express and not English because has no meaning for me! what is fuck?,cunt?bollocks?,nothing has meaning for me because I do not understand the meanings,it is only foreign words ,aliens to my culture!.But whe I say,”vete a la porra hijo de puta” or “mierda” I am expressing something that is meanignful to my culture.It is not true that we do not swear in our first language” Entienden hijos de puta ingleses?

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  21. When preparing to go canoeing with some Irish friends in Connemara, one suddenly exclaimed in frustration, “Cá bhfuil an fucking spraydeck?” (meaning “Where is the fucking spraydeck?”).

  22. Swearing in Irish is terribly satisfying because of the expressive guttural textures of the language but I am most impressed by swearing in Spanish where people say, “Me cago en la leche” which I find hilarious (“I shit in the milk”) but “Me cago en la virgen” is shocking, but also hilarious (“I shit on the Virgin”). Scandinavian swearing is very weak stuff by comparison.

  23. My first language used to be Greek, now taken over by English. I find swearing comes (a bit too) naturally to me and find sometimes it’s a swear word lottery as to what comes out of my mouth if I experience physical pain! Greek is immensely satisfying to swear in, possibly because my father used to swear with wit and fluency, a passionate man with emotions close to the surface and tremendous sense of humour. Generally however, I find there is a social context and a balance between the reactionary and the intense need to be understood, as in swearing in anger. The balance between venting strong emotions and being socially understood shifts a lot, within me anyway.

  24. My first language is French (Canadian French) but having lived in England for 21 years, I swear in English. Mind you, i never really liked the way French Canadians swear (using religious words). I do agree though that English swearwords feel less strong too me than those in my native tongue.

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