In the last post we looked at ways in which women use, and are judged for using, so called ‘bad language’ while earlier posts addressed the n-word and the b-word. Swearing, perennially a contentious topic, has been trending on social media, in the press and, to an extent, has featured in academic discussion, in the UK at least, since the beginning of this year. The ESL teachers’ periodical The EL Gazette asked me for a short opinion piece on whether and how the subject could be approached in the classroom.

Here is a very slightly longer version of the article they printed…


We have to hope that, although as a nation we are famous for ‘effing and blinding’, ‘bad language’ is not the first kind of language our visiting students encounter. Sooner or later, though, many teachers will decide it’s time to broach the topic, or else their students will demand that they do.

For learners trying to grapple with TV and movie dialogue, song lyrics or real-life or electronic conversations we can begin by helping them decode what used to be called the ‘four-letter words’, the ‘f-word’, the ‘sh-word’, the ‘c-word’. Judging by the language trending on social media and in the UK press we may need to add the ‘tw-word’ too. Nowadays, as surveys have shown, in British English ethnic or gendered slurs – the ‘n-word’, the ‘b-word’ in particular – are just as shocking if not more so, especially for a younger generation much less bothered by old-fashioned sexual or religious oaths.

Teachers will need to negotiate cultural sensitivities very carefully while they explain these terms (and students may lack the surrounding language required to make sense of them; the medical terms for parts of the body or sexual activities for example), then perhaps learners can identify equivalents in their own languages and consider the moral or social assumptions that come with them.

But beware: teaching taboo language at anything but the most basic level demands a lot of teachers. They must understand the linguist’s concept of ‘appropriacy’, the fact that the force of a swearword varies according to who uses it and in what circumstances. Expletives may be used in the heat of the moment to express pain or anger, casually to reinforce friendship or shared interests as well as deliberately to insult and provoke. Teaching them presupposes too an awareness of nuances of meaning – the terms don’t mean exactly the same thing for all ages, genders or nationalities. Finally, you must remind your students that while it’s a good idea to understand swearing it’s almost impossible to swear convincingly in a foreign language, and trying to do that is likely to provoke at best mockery, at worst instant physical retaliation.

                                                                        *  *  *

I hope to follow this, no more really than a squib, with a more detailed consideration of how this tricky subject can be taught – with strategies, examples and ideas for exploitation – and to consider, too, whether what has been called the ‘aesthetic of expletive avoidance’ – deliberately not using rude words – or finding wittier alternatives to those brutal monosyllables may not in fact be more creative, more fulfilling and more productive for students and instructors.

In the meantime, here are links to some relevant recent articles with a bearing on the subject…








Image result for swearing emoji

Linguist Stan Carey has written on ‘expletive avoidance’ as a literary device and also on how alternatives to expletives may be deployed in popular culture. He has kindly shared those insights, which are reproduced here…




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