It’s powerful, universal, offensive, and it’s never going away: swearing is one of the most human capacities of language we have. In dystopian fiction, it makes up an intriguingly exotic tidbit of our future world; in A Clockwork Orange, “cal” means “shit” (based on the Russian word for excrement), and in Brave New World people invoke “Ford” rather than God when damning, blessing, or exclaiming passionately.
Of course, the forces that shape our future of swearing aren’t necessarily going to come from literature, but then, what will determine the vulgarities of tomorrow?
Language evolution is a difficult, inconclusive arena. However, one thing is clear about language change: mature generations always seem to think it’s declining, and it seems profanities are much more acceptable now than they were a mere fifty years ago.
Consider the classic word “fuck." Google’s NGram viewer shows that its usage in literature has increased by leaps and bounds since the late 1950s. Maybe the reason is swearing is becoming more acceptable, or maybe, what’s changing is our definition of what “acceptable” is.
To look at our vocabulary ahead, a good place to start is with the history of the very words we use today. In an interview with io9, linguist and author of “The F-Word," Jesse Sheidlower, explains “our standards of what is offensive change over time, as our cultural sensitivities themselves change.” Today, words like “damn” are commonplace, almost archaic, even though they were previously the height of blasphemy and even avoided in print from the 1700s up til the 1930s. Sheidlower explains this is correlated with a decrease in religion as a major power over day-to-day life for most people. Similarly, words related to body parts are becoming less taboo as our acceptance of sexuality grows--the word “leg”, now a neutral term, used to be referred to as “limb” to be less scandalous.
Projecting language change onto the future means identifying new topics that will be considered sensitive, as well as figuring out what our attitudes will even be towards swearing. To many, the power of words like “shit”, “ass”, and “fuck” is declining. They are becoming less and less controversial as discussions of the human body and its functions are more common. Will this mean we will see “toilet humour” nullified? Maybe. What is certain is that as our acceptance of the human body is widening, so is our vocabulary.
The next taboo swear words derive heavily from is sexuality. The traditional idea that sex should be hidden is being slowly ushered out as the need for more comprehensive sex education and rights for minorities, like LGBT and women, improve. In this area however, the swearing conversation is still more loaded; most of these expletives are highly gendered. Consider the power of the word “cunt," which is a more offensive word than “fuck," specifically aimed at women. An explanation for this might be the act of sex is no longer as big of a taboo as the female body. The word “cunt” is used as a misogynistic insult, whereas “fuck” is gender-neutral, increasing its provocative appeal in our vocabulary. People want the most shocking image or sensation to be connected to the use of swearing. Nowadays, imagining people having sex is not as outrageous as the misogyny and perversion that accompanies the image of a woman’s genitalia.
Google’s NGram viewer is a useful tool to briefly examine the evolution of swear words in books. While it doesn't offer a complete representation or history of swearing , it does helps to identify and reflect trends, such as popularity differences between certain words, or how quickly a word becomes acceptable in publication, which tells a lot about the level of taboo surrounding a word.
Take the difference between just two of the most sexist terms in contemporary society; “cunt” is still used far less than “bitch," but its NGram chart shows a significant climb in its usage since the 1960s. This trend suggests that as sexual openness and female sexual empowerment continue to rise (and as misogyny becomes less tolerated), the use of the word will continue to increase exponentially.
A comparison with the word “bitch” shows that it has been in higher usage for much longer and is becoming more popular, but its rate of increase is slightly slower. Current resurgence of "bitch" intersects with feminism and attempts to reclaim the word as a gender-empowering word, rather than an insult. Bitch Magazine, founded in the late 1990s, is an example of a contemporary feminist media outlet that uses the word in an explicit attempt to reclaim it. Andi Zeisler, founder of the magazine, explains: “When we chose the name, we were thinking, well, it would be great to reclaim the word 'bitch' for strong, outspoken women, much the same way that 'queer' has been reclaimed by the gay community. That was very much on our minds, the positive power of language reclamation.”
Unsurprisingly, Sheidlower also points to racism as the next source of uncomfortable content. Generally, slurs that have historically been used against marginalized groups are seen as the worst form of swearing. As marginalized groups become increasingly vocal about their portrayals and the unacceptable use of slurs and offensive language, unfortunately, the controversy surrounding these particular words increases, as does their potency as swear words.
However, it’s important to note that the use of these types of words differs greatly by context. Liberal areas are more likely to see reclamation, while conservative areas are more likely to see them wielded against the groups in question. This was explored in a Twitter-based study by Adobo looking at all the American states by the rate of offensive terminology used. The study found that more conservative states like Louisiana were more likely to tweet slurs, while states with larger black populations had more tweets containing both neutral and offensive anti-black language. It’s clear that language is a large reflection of the issues a population faces, and in times of unrest, loaded words can wield a lot of power for either side. They can even reach the heart of a debate on a group’s rights, demands, and struggle.
Reclamation: A Future Possibility?
When it comes to slurs, the conversation about reclamation is hot; it’s a broad and touchy subject. Some words are further along in the discussion process than others, such as “nigger," although still controversial, while others like “bitch” still tend to provoke a strong media reaction whenever they are used heavily in a popular song, even by women (e.g. "BBHM" by Rihanna and "Bow Down Bitches" by Beyoncé).
Historically, reclamation has coincided with militancy. The word “queer” was first reclaimed in the 1980s by activists in protests during the AIDS crisis and rampant homophobia and in 1991, it was first used in an academic context by theorist Theresa de Lauretis. The internal struggle with the word among the LGBT+ community is largely dependent on context and age; depending on background, the first experiences these people have with words like “queer” are usually set in homophobic contexts, and reclamation for some isn't a motivating reason to relive painful experiences or potentially invite those experiences into their lives. On the other hand, proponents of reclamation view the use of derogatory language as an opportunity to take power from those words by embracing them, turning them into neutral or positive vocabulary so they can't be harmful.
The Internet: A Godsend or Nightmare?
What does reclamation mean for slurs in the future? Answering this is impossible without looking first at the mother of all offensive cesspools: the Internet. The rise of the Internet as a communication platform heralded an impressive loss of formality in language, followed by an increase in the rate at which language changed. Inevitably, the speed, anonymity, and close connection that social media platforms allow gave rise to all kinds of interesting linguistic phenomena, and is what helped make social media a powerful place for swearing. Yet, the potential the Internet provides for reclamation is strong, as it allows for conversations to transcend geographical and social boundaries. Movements focused on cultivating spaces for minorities travel quickly through hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter and #ReclaimTheBindi. However, the Internet is also rife with people who use offensive terms with derogatory intentions. Liberal online spaces, particularly Twitter, are known for their frequent exposures to harassment and slurs or insults targeted to minority demographics.
With the Internet aiding the rise of online spaces and enhancing the so-called filter bubble, it is possible that we will see the rise of an ever greater split in how language is used by people. While the case for reclamation may become more appealing in liberal, activist communities, the reactionary vitriol against political correctness may exacerbate a word’s use as a slur. However, in the long term, what determines the power of a word won’t just be the people on the Internet, but their children.
What the Kids Will Hear
Ultimately, the deciding factor in how future generations will swear is the same as it has always been--the parents. The joy of breaking an unexplained moral taboo by giggling the word “shit” as a child is one that many have experienced. The question is: what will be the words parents choose to say more freely and which ones will they choose to censor more?
It’s easy to see how this will be divided along moral lines; even today, certain expressions are more appropriate to some than others. Before children can enjoy the free linguistic reign of the Internet, they will have to go through taboos set by their parents first. From there, language shifts between generations become inevitable; the future political landscape will also be an active factor in shaping future generations’ linguistic restraints and freedoms. Future generations of online culture of awareness and sensitivity may permeate our lives more completely, causing certain words to simply fall out of usage, but there is a very real possibility that backlash against political correctness and social equality may lead to even more strife--at least before things get better.
Differences in swearing by certain groups of people, let alone individual differences in speech, are hardly a new phenomenon. These differences are typically markers of class, gender, or race. Linguists theorize women swear less than men, for example, because of the implicit expectation to be "proper" and "ladylike". In the future, self-censoring may also be a derivative of identity politics. Not only will reclamation create a divide between reclaimer and oppressor, but this dichotomy may lend more force to words targeting oppressors themselves, like “fuckboy”. Consider the threat people have perceived in Beyoncé’s reference to “Becky with the good hair” in her latest album, Lemonade, pleading victimhood in the way the word “Becky” is applied to white women. These words may not have the heavy history of institutional oppression behind them, but there is a real possibility of their becoming more sensitive, divisive terms in future. Thus, the taboo is created, and a self-censoring attitude towards certain terms associated with it may very well follow. The division in who can say what is the strongest determining factor in taboos and expletives themselves.
In the West at least, it isn’t hard to see how a number of overwhelmingly millennial trends-- i.e., less formality, an appreciation for free speech and increased cultural sensitivity--will overpower older, conservative morals in the long run. Reclamation and the passing of offensive terms are real possibilities amongst a landscape of reactionary debate. Yet just how far this linguistic scene will play out is largely responsive to current generations; in order for the future to see positive changes and transformations in swearing language, people have to start acting now.