I grew up in California in the mid-eighties. I’m not sure if this fact is relevant, but I clearly remember my father threatening to wash my mouth with soap if I used foul language. Maybe he’d seen it on TV or read it in a magazine. Maybe he’d meant it as a joke, like when parents say your eyes will turn square if you watch too much telly or a monster will come to eat your belly button if you don’t clean properly. (No? Just me? Sorry kids.) Either way, I was dead scared of swearing when I was younger.
Then I moved to England. And though I’d opened up a bit more to the idea of swearing by that time, I wasn’t prepared for the level of casual profanity the kids used in secondary school. I had to learn to say “shit” instead of “shoot”, “piss” instead of “pee” and “bloody” in front of just about every other word – and they were the innocent ones. “Fuck” and “bitch” were reserved for extreme occasions and if a teacher heard you – well, you might get a bollocking. I quickly learnt to stick up two fingers, not just the middle one.
English as a second f*****g language
Outside English-speaking countries, swearing in English seems to take on another form all together. I’ve met many people that speak English at a very high level and they are usually intelligent, well-mannered and eloquent. Yet many have no qualms in saying fucking this and fucking that, even fuck you – very strong language in completely calm, ordinary situations. This may have something to do with general tolerance – kids seem to say “Scheisse” without much shame in front of adults in German and a quick comparison of censorship rules show that English-speaking countries seem to censor language whereas German-speaking countries focus on content. It may also come down to verbal dexterity – it’s natural that you’re not as adept at choosing the appropriate words in a second language. Films and TV shows that have contributed to the spread of English as a global language probably haven’t helped the situation, either.
But there’s also a scientific reason, explained in this study. Very simply, our native language is the language we connect to emotionally. They encompass cultural and social norms, taboos and swear words. In other words, we’re much more likely to swear in a second language because we are free of the ‘baggage’ associated with swearing in our own language. So when Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen swore in English on the podium, their inner child didn’t bat an eyelid. Incidentally, this idea of an emotional language and a ‘disembodied’ language seems to affect our decision-making abilities, too, according to this podcast by Freakonomics. Which might be one of the reasons why the two drivers are so successful in F1, where English is the main common language.
If you want to know when and how to swear appropriately, remember this: it’s usually better to refrain than embarrass yourself. But if you really want to know how to let off steam, check out this book or one of my favourite websites.