What, exactly, is swearing in Australian English? That was the question that arose during an International Cognitive Linguistics Conference session on taboo, looking at the Dutch use of diseases as swear words, which I attended in July this year. The speaker gave examples of swearing from Twitter in Dutch, but basically skipped over the borrowed English “swear words” in the posts. Later talks in the session talked about swearing by patients with Tourette Syndrome, but the speaker avoided swearing (which I found odd). The discussion turned to bloody in Australian English and whether it had fallen off the dysphemism treadmill and moved into simply emphasis. A dysphemism treadmill, like a euphemism treadmill, assumes that a word loses its negative connotations over time, and new negative forms are introduced to take over. A consensus between two British English speakers and myself was that bloody wasn’t swearing, at least in our vernaculars.

If we google “swearing definition”, we get “the use of offensive language, especially as an expression of anger“. Yet what’s considered offensive is specific to an individual. I am not offended by the word fuck, but if you call me an idiot I will take it personally. On the other hand, a couple on my train from Newcastle to York were outraged when a group of young people repeatedly said fucking, but had no trouble allowing anyone nearby to hear about their special birthday present (use your imagination, it got a bit … uncomfortable). If the use of offensive language is the defining factor, then idiot or special present are just as much swearing as fuck or shit.

If we went by the second element of the definition — the use of these words is anger — then half of Australia rarely swears. If I say “Tom’s shirt is the shit”, I’m not angry at Tom or his shirt. In fact, I quite like it (it said “Similes are like metaphors” on it; it was fairly awesome). But no one would say shit isn’t a swear word.

Swearing is thus dependent on context, or a set of homonyms. The shirt that is the shit is contextually dependent on where I am, who I am with, what the cultural understanding is of the people around me, and the socially understood list of acceptable descriptors for Tom’s shirt. In a discussion session about taboo with a group of linguists who specialise in taboo language it is probably OK, as is saying it with a group of friends. Add the lady who wouldn’t swear in a talk about swearing and it’s less OK. Say it in a church and it’s less OK again. But then if I told Tom his shirt is pretty the potential for offence, or at least being taken aback, increases. Pretty is something we tend to say to women — a man wearing a pretty shirt might feel emasculated or effeminate. But pretty is still not considered a swear word.

Is there, then, any such thing as a straight-out swear word? Is there a word that is universally offensive, no matter who says it, who you say it to, where you say it or why you say it? Cunt is supposedly the most offensive word in the English language. Does it hold up to its reputation?

Not in Australian English at least. Cunt is taking on the same use as bastard in some places. “You are a dumbcunt” was prevalent in my high school, just as “you are one brave cunt/bastard”. The second example isn’t an insult, but emphasised courage, implying the addressee was brave to the point of being unusual, beyond simply being courageous (brave fucker or smartarse are similar uses).

So we shouldn’t define swearing as a particular set of words, or a particular set of concepts, but rather a set of contextually dependent and socially determined functions.

Or maybe it’s time to watch your goddamn language.