How to swear across America
Please note: this blog post discusses language that some readers may find offensive.
It was in New York that I learned to tell people to fuck off, and I think I’m a better person for it. From what I have seen, New Yorkers are connoisseurs of the word fuck. They use it as an obscenity, as an insult, as a qualifier, as a term of respect, as an adverb, as an interjection, as a method of asserting personal space, or simply as punctuation. They spread new words based on it; according to geolocation data on Twitter, New Yorkers helped to popularize one of 2014’s trendiest new words, fuckboy.
What Twitter tells us about swearing
That last point comes from the work of the dialectologist Jack Grieve, who studies word formation and distribution on Twitter. Recently, Grieve produced a series of maps based on analyses of tweets that Americans produced between October 2013 and November 2014. Because tweets are often geo-tagged and so reveal the locations of their writers, researchers can use them to track how words spread, where specific words are popular, and where linguistic innovation is taking place.
Some of his most interesting results concern obscenities—which, as has long been known but can now be shown with new granularity, vary in popularity by region. Tell me how you swear, and I’ll tell you where you are. People are more likely to say asshole in the Northeast, faggot out West, darn in the Midwest, and damn, gosh, hell, and bitch in the Bible Belt. Motherfucker is popular in Texas, New Mexico, New Hampshire, and Maine. Shit is popular from New York down the Gulf Coast to Texas. And the word fuck abounds along the nation’s coastal and Southern edges—a sort of long subduction zone, with a hot zone (I would submit) in New York City.
What counts as offensive?
This data reinforces something that we already knew about swearing: because we often swear in order to offend, how we swear hints at what offends us. Damn and gosh (a softened version of God) prevail in the Bible Belt because, as terms relating to the Christian faith, they signify more to those communities. (The creators of the television show Deadwood, which is set in the Dakota Territory in the 1870s, initially planned to use period-accurate swearing in the show; however, they found that swearing in the Old West was mostly blasphemous, and therefore would seem tame to many modern viewers.) In more secular regions, people use sexual or scatological terms as obscenities more often. (Misogynistic and homophobic words, which aim not merely to vent, but to injure—cunt, bitch, slut, whore, faggot—are a matter for another time. We might note in passing the oddity that the liberal West Coast favors the word faggot, while liberal New York City, for example, does not.)
Yet some pervasive swear words seem to enjoy their status because they have lost some of their original meaning. Shit has a large terrain—its subduction zone stretches down the East Coast—likely because it has many applications: he’s done tons of shit (he’s done a lot), he hasn’t done shit (he hasn’t done anything), he’s done shit-all (ditto), he’s shit (he’s terrible), he isn’t shit (ditto), he’s the shit (he’s great), he thinks he’s hot shit (he thinks he’s great), and so forth.
Placeholder swear words
Linguists describe semantic change in terms of five major categories: generalization, in which a word’s meaning becomes less specific; narrowing, in which a word’s meaning becomes more specific; amelioration, in which a word’s meaning becomes more positive; pejoration, in which a word’s meaning becomes more negative; and metaphoric extension, in which a word’s meaning extends to apply to a new domain. Shit appears to have undergone generalization and metaphoric extension; it has gained more uses, while losing some of its coloring of obscenity. (Oddly enough, says the linguist Mark Aronoff, ‘religious terms have largely lost their value as taboo words without extending their range’.) Or perhaps a better way to describe what has happened is that shit has become a placeholder term, with its semantic meaning wiped out except for the connotation of vulgarity. In the examples above, what the word expresses is the sentiment “I am being vulgar”; the word itself has little meaning except to express vulgarity.
The word fuck has likewise become a placeholder vulgarity in some regions, although its rise in popular usage has been more gradual than shit; it seems to have retained a deeper coloring of obscenity, and therefore suits fewer social contexts. (The most famous demonstration of the versatility of the word fuck is a four-minute scene in the HBO series The Wire that uses mostly that word, or variations on it, as dialogue. The speakers are homicide detectives, who presumably are accustomed to strong language.)
Of course, when an obscenity loses the capacity to offend, speakers gain verbal flexibility at the cost of, well, being able to offend. One of my friends—a New Yorker—has found that he can’t insult people, or even get the attention of people he wants to insult, by shouting fuck you or calling them fuckers. This has forced him to seek forms of provocation outside of the usual obscene phrases; recently, he has found some success with political language. Necessity, as they might say in Maine, is a motherfucker.