Thursday, 17 March 2016

Covert swearing

Following on from my last post about mishearing words in connected speech, here's an example of when I deliberately do this: covert swearing.

Covert swearing demonstrates that the taboo of swearing is not about the words themselves, or at least not the sounds of those words. I frequently utter the very same string of sounds found in the worst swearwords, but it's not swearing. We all do it, in fact: it's just that I do it on purpose. I don't know why I do this, but I find it amusing in a daft way.

To ease you in to the idea with an example that is inappropriate but not actually swearing, I'll always say penis instead of pianist. They sound more or less the same. Once you've smooshed together the vowels (basically, you don't really pronounce the second vowel in the first syllable of pianist) it's just a matter of reducing the consonant cluster at the end, which you might well do in connected speech anyway. I don't think people notice me doing this, or if they do they don't let on. I therefore sometimes say to people that Elton John is a penis.

More inappropriately again, when I say if I can... I'll more often than not reduce the initial vowel to nothing, and the second and third ones to schwa, so it sounds like /fəkən/, or in other words exactly the same as fucking (try and just pronounce the consonants and you'll get the idea). I'm almost certain people don't notice this, or they would surely say something. 

And so on. Nice demonstration that words are not just sounds: there has to be deliberate intention to say some particular word as well as the correct string of sounds. And in fact, the sounds can be extremely different from the carefully-pronounced version, as long as the intention is there and there is enough context to allow understanding. See this old post for an example. This is also why every now and then there's a toy-swearing story in the newspapers. 

I'm going to have to stop doing it now I've revealed it, though, else it'll feel weird. 


  1. An emphatic 'fuc..rying out loud' is quite good.

  2. I give my usual blasphemy a touch of nasty: "Fuck Crissake!" sted of "Fer Chrissake!"