On The Semantic Wonder of Foul Language

"Profanity conveys emotion in a manner that ‘cleaner’ language struggles to—and who wouldn’t want the ability to so powerfully and instantaneously express emotion?"


You might not know it, but there’s a world of wonder behind every so-called ‘bad word’ you’ve ever uttered. See, foul language can be incredibly fascinating to both philosopher and linguist. Of course, most of the time, we think of profanity only through the lens of disgust or amusement. But as I hope to illustrate, there’s a great deal to learn by studying foul language—much of which has a direct bearing on how we relate to one another. So consider this my attempt at unveiling some of the more interesting aspects of foul language and its idiosyncrasies.

Let me begin by noting one of the most basic features of profanity: it always expresses more than it describes. Take an innocent sentence like:

The table is brown.

And now consider a version of the same sentence that’s been given a bit of bad-word flair:

The fucking table is brown.

The difference between the two sentences is evident. In the first, I describe a table in terms of its colour. In the second, I do the same, but what’s clear is that I also feel a certain way about the table. Now, it isn’t apparent from this sentence alone how I feel about the table or its colour—but, one way or another, the piece of furniture seems to matter to me. So with the addition of one small word (‘fucking’), I’ve managed to not only describe the table, but also express a fair bit of feeling about it.

And what’s remarkable is the degree to which that single word conveys emotion. Foul language offers real bang-for-buck in terms of expressive power. But most language doesn’t quite work that way; you typically have to say a lot more to get additional information across. Saying you’re ‘upset’ is one thing; saying you’re ‘sad, frustrated, hurt and confused’, and ‘not in the mood to talk’ conveys a whole lot more. But with foul language, all it takes to convey any mix of anger, sadness, frustration and disgust is a simple pair of words:

Fuck you!

And the same is true of more positive sentiments—an ‘I love the shit out of you’ conveys far more raw emotion than a list of superlatives in your listener’s praise. It’s no surprise, therefore, that some form of profanity appears to populate every linguistic culture. Profanity conveys emotion in a manner that ‘cleaner’ language struggles to—and who wouldn’t want the ability to so powerfully and instantaneously express emotion?

But maybe I’m being a bit fast and loose in my eulogising of foul language here. After all, its evocative power is skewed; it leans on the side of gross, momentary excess, and struggles to mimic the nuances of cleaner poetic language. Kalidasa, for example, will always remain more moving in matters of romantic angst than a drunk, foul-mouthed ex. Similarly, the most powerful rap verses often aren’t the ones laden with foul language—albums like Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly didn’t achieve critical acclaim on account of their songs’ profanity.

Nonetheless, I do hope I’ve illustrated the incredible expressive capacity of foul language. Because this expressivity actually has a significant bearing on semantics, the formal study of language and meaning.

Most approaches to formal semantics rely on what are known as truth-conditional approaches to meaning. The idea behind these approaches is simple: the meaning of a statement is understood in terms of the conditions under which it is true. For example, take the following sentence:

All polar bears have white fur.

As per a truth-conditional approach, in uttering this statement, what I’m really doing is referring to the conditions under which the statement is true—namely, that the entire set of things identified as polar bears is part of the set of things that have white fur. Now, that may sound like an unnecessary, convoluted rehash of the same sentence, but there’s actually a fairly profound idea behind it.

Because linguistic meaning only seems intuitive until you actually reflect on it. In truth, the entire topic is anything but straightforward. Yes, everyone knows what words like ‘coffee’ or ‘book’ mean—but does anyone know what they mean? Do such words merely act as name-tags for things out in the real world? Or are their meanings simply a collection of abstract concepts? If it’s the first option, what about words for things that don’t exist, like ‘unicorn’? And if it’s the second, what goes on each time I refer to my (very real) friends?

A truth-conditional approach gives us a simple answer to the question of linguistic meaning—one that also lets us bracket some of the difficult questions I’ve just alluded to. Under such an approach, the assertion ‘every unicorn has one horn’ refers to how the sets of all unicorn entities and one-horn entities intersect; the statement is true in a world where the former is subsumed by the latter. Whether unicorns are real—and what it even means for something to be ‘real’—becomes a separate question left to the philosopher.

Now, to return to bad words—foul language poses an interesting problem to the truth-conditional project. The issue is that it can’t be thought of in truth-conditional terms, since what profanity expresses is never ‘true’ or ‘false’. Unlike ‘polar bears have white fur’, for instance, ‘fuck you’ can never be judged in terms of truth and falsity. Instead, it just sort of… is. It expresses a lot of emotion, sure, and can be used appropriately or inappropriately, but it certainly can’t be thought of through the same lens as a dry, descriptive statement about polar bears. Similarly, while there’s a clear difference between ‘the table is brown’ and ‘the fucking table is brown’, neither of the two statements is any more true or false than the other.

But surely the profanity in those examples has some meaning, right? After all, there’s no denying that it conveys something—whatever that ‘something’ might be. Speaking in this context, we can say that foul language always conveys some non truth-conditional meaning: things that don’t quite fit the idiom of ‘true’ and ‘false’. But truth-conditional approaches are built on precisely this idiom of truth and falsity. Consequently, there’s no obvious place for foul language in a strictly truth-conditional semantic framework—which, on account of the ubiquity of foul language, represents an explanatory gap in the truth-conditional project.

Such a discussion of truth-conditional and non truth-conditional meaning is not merely academic; these are issues that have a palpable effect on our everyday lives. And nowhere is this more visible than in the case of slurs.

Imagine an acquaintance says to you:

That f*ggot was talking about his boyfriend.

While the term ‘f*ggot’ is deeply offensive, it also does some fairly innocuous work in this example—it specifies who your acquaintance is talking about. To that end, it conveys truth-conditional meaning; the comment is true if and only if there was a homosexual man talking about his boyfriend. But at the same time, the word ‘f*ggot’ is never just a reference to sexual orientation—it also seems to express something about a speaker’s attitude towards homosexual men.

So there’s a layer of problematic non truth-conditional meaning that piggybacks on an otherwise harmless truth-conditional statement concerning a homosexual man talking about his boyfriend. And this is one of the many difficulties with slurs—when used in this manner, they manage to sneak the vile in with the harmless. As a result, they can be slipped into a whole range of otherwise unremarkable discourse, typically to powerful effect. Worse still, since the vile piggybacks on the mundane, responding to it requires breaking the flow of ordinary conversation. To respond to the acquaintance from the example above, you could broadly say one of two things:

Shut up, homophobe!


What did he say about his boyfriend?

One keeps the conversation going; the other responds to the use of the slur. And the fact that listeners have to make the choice between conversation and confrontation is likely one of the reasons slur usage isn’t called out as often as it should be.

With this observation I’d like to come back to points I’d made right at the start of this piece: that there’s much to learn in looking beyond the ‘foul’ in foul language, and that trying to understand some of the quirks of profanity can help make sense of everyday experience. Slurs add to the importance of this study, but the same sense of significance would hold even if we ignored them.

Foul language, whether used playfully or aggressively, behaves in a way that is sharply distinct from drier manners of discourse. It’s also what gives languages much of their colour and spirit; I’d go so far as to say that only poetry animates language more than profanity. To dive into foul language, then, is to explore the living pulse of human expression—and to get into its mechanics is to understand how that pulse ticks.

Now, in the case of slurs, the picture isn’t as rosy. Slurs aren’t some expression of humanity’s spirit to eulogise; they leave both personal and social destruction in their wake, and are sometimes even a matter of life and death. But if anything, that’s all the more reason to look beyond their repulsiveness. After all, any hope of mitigating their destructive power must surely lie in understanding them in the first place. So when it comes to foul language as a whole, perhaps it’d be in everyone’s interest to be a little less revolted, and a little more inquisitive.

This piece is largely inspired by the work of linguists and philosophers like Chris Potts and Elisabeth Camp. That said, it barely scratches the surface of literature on foul language and its semantics. For those interested in getting into the formal literature, this paper by Chris Potts is a great place to start.

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Gaurav Kamath
Gaurav Kamath

Gaurav Kamath is a staff writer at ALMA MAG. He hopes his degree in philosophy will get him more than a job at McDonald’s, but that is still a working hypothesis.