Language Most Foul

Language Most Foul

Language Most Foul

Language Most Foul


A meticulously researched, highly entertaining, idiosyncratic look at the how, why and what of bad language around the world. Have we always sworn like troopers? Does creative cursing stem from not being able to thump someone when they make us mad? And if verbal aggression is universal, what about languages like Japanese that supposedly have no offensive words?

Language once reserved for the footy field (or the labour ward) has broken through the tradesman's entrance, much to the horror of a few refined individuals, but not apparently of anyone much else.

Just how did we become such a bunch of potty mouths, and what does our filthy language say about us? Join Ruth Wajnryb as she wades into such murky waters as:

  • Who are the fashionistas of foul language, and who are the gatekeepers?
  • Why is that when boys say it, it's funny, and when girls do, it's crude?
  • Blasphemy, cursing, cussin' and good old-fashioned swearing: is there really a difference?
  • Is this as down and dirty as we get, or is there something new and worse lurking just around the corner?

In her quest for answers, Ruth is perfectly happy to don her wellies and head for foreign shores. For instance, why is it that in some languages you can get away with intimating that someone and their camel are more than just good friends', while pouring scorn on their mother's morals guarantees you a seat on the next flight out?

An entertaining and idiosyncratic look at the power of words to shock, offend, insult, amuse, exaggerate, let off steam, establish relationships and communicate deep-felt emotions, Language Most Foul is a must-read for anyone who loves language - or has ever stubbed their toe.


Until quite recently, swearing was a subject largely ignored by those who investigate the nature of language. Well, perhaps 'ignored' is going too far. Let's say interest was lacking. Not a lot has changed since twelve years ago, when Timothy Jay, one of the few serious researchers in this field, wrote: 'If all science on language stopped now, we would know very little about dirty word usage or how dirty word usage relates to more normal language use'.

This lack of interest becomes glaringly obvious when you consider the massive amount of literature that has been generated analysing discrete linguistic elements such as the past tense inflection of'-ed' or present tense, third-person singular, final '-s'. While I'm happy to own up to my bias as an applied (that is, not pure) linguist, and while I'm loath to cast aspersions on other linguists' areas of expertise (we're a small academic community and we have to live together peaceably), I need to ask here—as topics for study is there really any competition between swearing and the bits we put on the ends of verbs? If you didn't vote for swearing, this is where you get off. BUS STOPS HERE!

The absence of research interest in swearing is itself intriguing. In 1975, the Australian linguist B.A. Taylor published a serious study of abusive language in the Australian context. He began his paper thus:

If English were … a Germanic language spoken in
Northern Delaware, and particularly if it were the language
of some indigenous tribe, it is pretty certain that some . . .

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