The Sunday Magazine

The evolution of swearing, from 'bloody hell' to the f-bomb

The f-bomb seems ubiquitous these days — so much so that it may be losing some of its power to shock. But for some, taking the Lord’s name in vain is still a grave offence. Sali Tagliamonte, Chair of the Linguistics Department at the University of Toronto, talks about how the sacred becomes the profane, how the profane becomes mundane, and what our cuss words say about our culture.
=Young women hold protest signs during a rally for reproductive rights at Hyde Park on June 09, 2019 in Sydney, Australia. (Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images)

There was a time when it was against the law to curse, and a time when "bloody hell" and "damnation" would never be uttered in polite company. Now the f-bomb is dropped regularly on the street, on the internet, in films and television, even by U.S. presidential candidates.

"Swearing is one of those things that captures the imagination of a generation, and it can tell us an awful lot about culture and people, and what's going on in our society," said Sali Tagliamonte, who has studied the evolution of swearing. She is the Canada Research Chair in Language Variation and Change, and a professor of linguistics at the University of Toronto.

Sali Tagliamonte is a linguistics professor who studies the evolution of swearing. (Diana Tyszko)

She told Michael Enright, host of The Sunday Edition, about a study she recently co-authored titled "Golly, Gosh, and Oh My God! What North American dialects can tell us about swear words."

"I started looking at G-words because they're so interesting," Tagliamonte said. "They are all words that people substituted because, of course, there was a time back in the day when to take the Lord's name in vain — vain swearing — was a terrible crime."

Swearing an oath is something we still do, she explained, using God's name to put on a stamp on what we are saying to confirm we are serious and sincere.

In this wide-ranging conversation, Tagliamonte also discusses regional and demographic differences in swearing, the reclaiming of offensive words by some groups, and why we swear in certain situations and not in others.

"Swearing is actually very tied to culture and change in society," she said.

Click 'listen' above to hear the interview. 


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