Swearing as an interpersonal communication activity: Researching new boundaries and contexts.

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This paper explores swearing as an interpersonal activity in light of globalisation and online media.

As a linguistic taboo, swearing has often been linked with catharsis or tension release (LaPointe 2006). Accordingly, when used in the interpersonal context, it has traditionally been seen as communicating aggression, frustration, or hostility. However, recent research in communication, psychology, and linguistics has presented a more nuanced and diverse picture (Jay, 2009). As an interpersonal activity, swearing is now known to fulfil a wide range of functions, encompassing both negative and positive affect, and ranging from workplace bonding (Daly et al. 2004) to expressing politeness and impoliteness in online interactions (Dynel, 2012). Indeed, it may be argued that because of its taboo and potentially offensive nature, swearing fulfils interpersonal and psycho-social functions that are not easily achieved by other linguistic means (Stapleton, 2010; Vingerhoets et al., 2013).

Stapleton (2010) categorises the main interpersonal functions of swearing as: (1) expressing emotion; (2) creating humour and/or verbal emphasis; (3) group bonding and showing solidarity; and (4) constructing and displaying identity. To date, most swearing research has focused on swearing in English and in face-to-face interactions (Beers Fägersten and Stapleton, 2017).

This paper takes as its starting point the concept of swearing as an interpersonal communication activity, and considers how its communicative functions are being shaped and changed by contemporary norms and contexts, including the growth of digital media, and the spread of swearwords across languages and cultures (see Beers Fägersten and Stapleton, 2017). Online interaction raises issues of changing social expectations, spoken vs. written language norms, and shifts in perceptions of offensiveness (e.g. Thelwall, 2008). Meanwhile, emerging studies of cross-cultural and cross-linguistic swearing (Dewaele, 2010) and of the use of English swearwords in other languages (Beers Fägersten, 2017) raise questions about the extent to which swearing retains its emotional force in translation; and also, about the development of globalised swearing norms and practices.
This paper addresses the Conference Theme in two specific ways: (1) it focuses on an under-researched topic; and (2) it reconsiders cultural and linguistic boundaries, as well as newly digitalised contexts of communication, with reference to communication norms and practices.


Beers Fägersten, K. (2017). ‘English swear words as humor in Swedish comic strips’. Journal of Pragmatics 121:175-187.
Beers Fägersten, K. and Stapleton, K. (2017). (eds). Advances in Swearing Research. Benjamins.
Daly, N. et al (2004). ‘Expletives as solidarity signals in FTAs on the factory floor’. Journal of Pragmatics 36:945–964.
Dewaele, J.-M. (2010). ‘“Christ fucking shit merde!” Language preferences for swearing among maximally proficient multilinguals’. Sociolinguistic Studies 4:595–614.
Dynel, M. (2012). ‘Swearing methodologically: The (im)politeness of expletives in anonymous commentaries on Youtube.” Journal of English Studies 10:25-50.
Jay, T. (2009). ‘The utility and ubiquity of taboo words’. Perspectives on Psychological Science 4:153-161.
LaPointe, L.L. (2006). Profanity. Journal of Medical Speech-Language Pathology 14:vii–ix.
Stapleton, K. (2010). ‘Swearing’. In M. Locher and S.L. Graham (eds). Interpersonal Pragmatics. Mouton de Gruyter.
Thelwall, M. (2008). ‘Fk yea I swear: Cursing and gender in MySpace’. Corpora 3:83-107.
Vingerhoets, A. et al. (2013). ‘Swearing: A biopsychosocial perspective’. Psychological Topics 22:287-304.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished (in print/issue) - 31 Oct 2018
EventEuropean Communication Research and Education Association, 7th European Communication Conference (ECC): Centres and Peripheries: Communication, Research, Translation - Lugano, Switzerland
Duration: 31 Oct 20183 Nov 2018


ConferenceEuropean Communication Research and Education Association, 7th European Communication Conference (ECC)
Abbreviated titleECREA 2018 - Lugano
Internet address


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