I talked last week to London journalist Faima Bakar about the varying reactions to ‘bad language’ as manifested by men and women. In her investigations she is still finding that many males routinely chastise females, telling them that swearing is unattractive and inappropriate.
Both genderfluidity and the questioning of gender norms have fundamentally changed perceptions of feminine behaviour and of masculine responses too. At the same time the effects of social media in empowering women and giving them an equal voice have been transformative. But we can see from the messages exchanged on social media that many men have not evolved, cling to macho attitudes whereby – probably because they feel embattled and insecure – they choose to, or pretend to believe in such dated concepts as ‘ladylike women don’t use bad language.’
Swearing as a male trait is definitely embedded in 20th – century and to some extent 21st -century attitudes and assumptions: According to Jay (2000), individuals having high scores on the trait of masculinity will also swear most frequently, and:
Studies have shown that more honest and more intelligent people swear more – which may be a justification, if one is needed, for women’s effing and blinding in the 21st century!
Despite this evidence, perceptions of those who swear call in question the notions of honesty and sincerity – and intelligence.
Swearing is the language of power and indulging in it is part of the public or private exercising, or performing of power and of the celebration of it. Women’s language, as formerly perceived, was the language of powerlessness or reticence:
In a patriarchal society men impose taboos, then men claim the power to break those taboos – such as by using profane or offensive language. It’s very interesting to me not just that women are now reclaiming power in society and are swearing but that they are consciously using swearing as a statement of that power. This is evidenced, for example, on Twitter where there are many feisty (I’m aware that the word can be male code for ‘uppity’), witty, outspoken women who boast in their profiles or in their tweets that they are ‘sweary’. These tweeters, who include comedians, actors and writers as well as numerous unknown impresarios of obloquy, tease, mock and criticise offensive or unreconstructed males and use very rude words in doing so.
Here’s Faima’s article, with her own original insights and conclusions, in today’s Metro newspaper:
Faima has written on the same subject before, with some contributions by me too. Here is a link to that article, with some additional observations:
On a personal note, although I’m a linguist and obliged to treat ‘taboo’ language with absolute objectivity, and although I challenge the right of others to invoke moral or social disapproval, I still, hypocritically perhaps, criticise my own partner (who is not a native speaker of English) and my teenage son for being pottymouths, pointing out that delighting indiscriminately in expletives (which they both do) nearly always implies a lack of respect for hearers. Linguists assert that language can’t be viewed in isolation, but depends always on context, on the speaker or writer’s intent and on audience. Judgements can be made but based on what they call ‘appropriacy’ – the suitability of an utterance to its time, place and to those on the receiving end. If foul language is used, it should be indulged in only in the right setting – between friends who willingly join in, as part of a private conversation, a performance, even a Twitter tirade.
An update: ten days after Faima’s article was published Debbie Cameron responded on her blog:
And in March Emma Byrne treated the same subject in Elle magazine:
Most recently, Deborah Cameron revisited and updated the subject in a very informative post: