Communication, Email Writing, Learning English

What About Swearing?

If you are like the majority of our TextRanch customers, English is not your first language. You may have devoted many years to improving both your spoken and your written English. However, there are certain aspects of the language that are not covered in traditional classrooms and textbooks, especially slang and swear words.

Swear words are also known as profanity, curse words, expletives, obscenities, foul language, naughty words, and dirty words. In the English speaking world, such words tend to be based on sex or toileting functions. Other swear words are religious in nature. This might be a big change for you if your native language/culture has different attitudes about these subjects.

If your English is strong enough that you can easily read this blog, you are probably already familiar with some swear words and what they mean. Still, you may need some help figuring out the many ways in which these words are used. Even if you never intend to actually say or write any swear words yourself, knowing them will give you a deeper understanding of the English language. At the very least, you will know what not to say and which TV programs should be turned off when a five-year-old is in the room.

Since this is a family-friendly blog, we cannot actually teach you how to swear here. However, we will point you toward some resources and provide some guidelines. Learning to swear naturally in English is a lot tougher than it may seem!

Some Helpful Resources

1. The Dictionary

Kids who grew up in the pre-internet era used to look up the “naughty words” in the dictionary (the thick dictionaries from the library, not the pocket-sized ones). Your 21st century English dictionary is more likely to be online or in your computer or phone, but the swear words should still be there. Each dictionary is different, but hopefully you can find one that includes example sentences to show you how to use swear words—or any other words.

Beyond traditional dictionary websites, there are also websites dedicated to defining slang/swear words and explaining memes. These are usually user-generated, so they aren’t always accurate, so keep that in mind if you decide to check them out.

Unfortunately, even the best dictionaries only include a couple of example sentences per word. That’s not really enough to get a strong grasp on any word or expression that is new to you. Therefore, we recommend checking out some of the other resources on this list.

2. Your English-speaking friends

Most native English speakers learn how to swear from listening to their parents. But some parents do not swear, while others swear in languages that aren’t English.

If you are a student, it should be relatively easy to find someone who can help you master the English swear words. Outside of school, it might be a little tougher. Your best bet is to ask a friend who swears a lot. If you have never heard your friend use any of those words, it’s probably best not to seek help from that person.

Once you find a friend who can teach you to swear in English, you can reciprocate by teaching them how to swear in your native language!

3. Movies

The IMDb website actually has a list called Movies With the Most Cursing. As of this writing, Goodfellas tops the list, followed by Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back and Casino. However, you should be able to find characters who swear in most Hollywood films that are rated PG-13 or R (or even PG if the film came out in the 1970s or early 1980s, before the PG-13 rating existed).

To enhance your learning experience, watch the films on your TV at home with the closed captioning feature enabled so that you are hearing and reading the words at the same time. This is helpful for learning all kinds of words, not just swear words.

4. Comedians

Stand-up comedy is particularly rife with foul language. The comedy routines on late-night network TV programs tend to be heavily censored, but you can find R-rated comedy routines on premium cable channels or via streaming services.

The best place to begin your search is to look up George Carlin’s iconic 1972 “seven dirty words” monologue. It even became the basis of a U.S. Supreme Court case!

5. Music

Among the musical genres, you are most likely to find swearing in rap lyrics. Rock and roll would be #2 on this list, especially hard rock songs (heavy metal, grunge, nu metal, emo) that were released in the 1990s and 2000s. Pop, country, and folk music tend to have milder swear words, if any.

Whichever music genre you choose, beware that the “radio edit” versions of songs will have the swear words bleeped out. The same goes for live musical performances on awards shows or on the aforementioned late-night network TV programs.

A Few Words of Caution…

Swearing can get you into a lot of trouble if you use those words in the wrong place, or in the wrong context. This includes social media as well as in the real world. Some people might think you are rude or uneducated, while others could get angry and start a fight with you.

Most workplaces in the English-speaking world have policies against offensive language, so swearing at work could cost you your job. In extreme cases, when swearing is mixed with threats or any other kind of violent language, someone might call the police. Therefore, be very careful about how, when, and with whom you use swear words.

If you listen to a lot of rap music (or if you watch certain comedy routines), it won’t be long before you start hearing words that are used for members of racial and ethnic minority groups. These are called racial slurs. While both swear words and racial slurs are offensive, swearing is actually more easily forgiven. There is a lot of complex and painful history behind racial slurs, and it’s best for you if you don’t use these words at all.

What if you aren’t sure if a word is okay to use in a business email or academic paper? Or what if you want to use a swear word or two, but you aren’t sure if it sounds like natural, native English? Click the blue box below, and one of our TextRanch editors will give you some feedback. For a longer, more in-depth explanation, we recommend our Ask an Editor feature.

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