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Naughty words What makes swear words so offensive? It’s not their meaning or even their sound. Is language itself a red herring here?

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Dr Rebecca Roache, former Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics staff member, and lecturer at Royal Holloway, University of London, has recently published an essay on swearing in the online Aeon Magazine.  To read the full article and join in the conversation please follow this link:  Dr Roache has previously spoken on this topic, as reported by Prof Roger Crisp on this blog.


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1 Comment on this post

  1. Hello, thank you for this piece, just a couple of quick questions before likely others:

    How are swearing words context-sensitive?. You don’t seem to acknowledge the fact that swear words have, over and above their semantic content, an expressive function — namely the function of signalling the kind of attitude, mood or “evaluative” point of view of the utterer. I think this should be added to your account because it would help explain why the same swear word can “mean” different things (i.e. constitute different components of speech acts in different contexts; such an explanation could refer to the fact that the expressive function of sweaing words modifies their semantic contribution to the speech act performed depending on features of the contex. This is why “nigga” used in a friendly fashion by two afro-americans is usually part of a different speech act as the one performed by a KKK-member trying to insult a black man.

    When are swearing words immoral?You say that swearing is often not immoral, at least in cases where there is nothing more than a breach of etiquette. But this seems to leave out two important possibilities. (a) Sometimes breaching the etiquette can result in a harm, especially if the addressee knows that the speaker knows that he, the addressee, significantly values this particular etiquette or norm. If the harm in question concerns the addressee’s morally relevant interests, the harm, and therefore the offence to which it is semantially and pragmatically linked, will be immoral. (b) Even if no harm occurs, it might still be possible that using a particular swearing word contributes to evaluatively framing a situation in a way that does not fit the facts; for instance you might tell Sam about your argument with Suzy using swearing words as props to mock and delegitimate Suzy as you report the argument. Framing the situation like this might mislead your addressee in a way which is immoral in the sense of breathing your own biases into his understanding of the case at hand.

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