Dirty words in the language classroom


Published 6 October, 2010


Tony Grice, freelance writer and OUP author, considers whether it is appropriate (or necessary) for teachers to teach ‘taboo’ words in the language classroom.


Swear words, vulgarities and curses – I’ll group them together and call them ‘dirty words’ – exist in all languages. They can colour things in ways which their genteel synonyms cannot, and deliver a punch which only a fist can match.


However, the prohibition on them is almost as universal as the words themselves. It extends even to classrooms where language is actually taught – pretty much the one place where you’d expect dirty words to be arranged in an orderly fashion and behaving respectably. For, despite their wide-spread use and usefulness, we do not teach students of English how to curse and swear in the language they are studying. We are uncertain about whether it should be done, and even if we were sure it was OK, we probably wouldn’t do it very well.


Field research shows we speak an average of 80–90 dirty words per day but, despite their universality, the prevailing view is that dirty words are somehow morally corrosive. Even prolific swearers will abhor their use in front of ‘innocents’ and are shocked when children use them, even when they don’t know what the words ‘mean’. Because we are aware that others judge us by the way we speak, we warn our children and students that the use of dirty words will make them appear disreputable and coarse – as if they didn’t know that already.


Everyone knows, for example, that they are barred from formal events, and when one of them sneaked into a Golden Globe Award ceremony a few years ago, in an acceptance speech by the singer Bono, there was outrage and threats of legal action. When scandalised newspapers quoted Bono’s speech, they used asterisks and printed his words as: ‘This is really, really, f***ing brilliant’. I am pretty sure that everyone reading that line knows what the missing letters are, so why do newspaper editors think we have to be sheltered from seeing them in print?


Despite rational talk of ‘standards of decency’, there is yet a trace of a dread of divine punishment in our attitude, an underlying atavistic awe and belief that somehow dirty words are, well, too terrible to see in print. This was brought home to me when I once got a class of post-graduate EAP students, who you would expect to show academic detachment, to read the chapter in Michael Swan’s Practical English Usage on the grammar of taboo words. Some of them said that the shock of finding so many forbidden words in such an august reference book made them feel physically sick.



Psychologist Timothy Jay* has studied the semantic range of dirty words and grouped them under types: sexual, profane / blasphemous, disgusting objects, animal names, racial and gender slurs, deviations (psychological, physical, or social) and ancestral allusions. It’s a limited range of themes but extremely creative and grammatically uniquely flexible. Jay ties their use to social taboos and personality types and points out their obvious cathartic value. They release pressure and redirect aggression – better to shout and swear than silently reach for a weapon.


So, if dirty words are so ‘natural’, so socially useful and so ubiquitous, what is the point of keeping them off the language learning syllabus?


Well, modern language teaching addresses the issue of appropriacy. It tries to match the language that is taught with the needs of students to become more creative letter writers, more persuasive speakers and more attentive listeners, but we never teach students to become more effective swearers. The problem is that the language classroom is probably not the place to learn swearing. Like jokes, dirty words don’t do well under analysis and studying them as if they were normal vocabulary sets strips them of their power. There is no emotional context and you can only listen to explanations of their subtleties; you can’t experience them.


To become an effective swearer a learner needs to find out when, where and how you can use what with whom, and as long as dirty words remain forbidden, they remain dirty. They lose their dirtiness as soon as you stop and think about them, what they actually mean and whether they are adjectives, verbs or nouns. For a learner to understand the rules properly, they really need to see how others feel about them. Studying dirty words kills them.


Therefore, the best thing we can do as language teachers is to tut or giggle when we hear them and continue to play the hypocrite. After all, picking up dirty words is easy – they’re in films, books and poetry, in comedy and on TV, everywhere. The best way to teach this very important part of language is to continue suppressing it.


What are your thoughts on teaching ‘dirty words’ in class?





Timothy Jay: The Utility and Ubiquity of Taboo Words in Perspectives on Psychological Science (March 2009)



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