The Swearing Voice

Pain of the Tongue – Pain of the Mind

“It always amazes me…that in response to sudden or unexpected pain, people will often actually say “Ow!” or something like it rather than just crying out. It is as though the pain is not quite there until it can be given expression and thereby made actual enough to be dispelled.”

– Conner 2016

The Fire Noodle Challenge is a recent YouTube trend that became quite popular after tourists started discovering one of the spiciest instant noodles found in South Korean convenience stores. American, British and other foreigners not accustomed to spicy food challenge themselves with this rare, extreme level of spiciness. The testers mostly end up  recording themselves swearing (or some other sort of exclamation) from the burning pain.

Even though we often think of a cry of pain as a ‘raw’ reaction, we still find the natural reflex in the form of whole words – especially in swearing (except for children…hopefully). As a common linguistic feature in many societies, there are cultural similarities and specificities in swearing. Together, they hint at the embeddedness of social life in expressing the state of mind of the individual.

A Definition of Swearing

Ljung (2011) provides a linguistic definition of swearing with certain criteria:

  • Swearing takes the form of utterances containing taboo words that are non-literal.
  • Swearing is a formulaic and emotive language.

Non-literal Taboo Words

Taboos are essentially behaviours that ought to be avoided, and are referenced using taboo words. Taboos and their corresponding terms emerge from and ascribed by a history of social ‘rules’, which often possess hierarchical elements from religious and non-religious origins (Shakiba 2014).

For example, taboo words stemming from Christianity use the names of ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ divinities: “Bloody hell!” (abode of lower divinity) and “Oh my God!” (higher divinity). Vulgarity usually determines taboo words from a non-religious context, such as those in association with excrement and sexual intercourse (Ljung 2011). In the Buzzfeed video, a lot of people who were trying the spicy fire noodles said “oh my God!” or “oh shit!

A historical emphasis on social class created an association of how swearing as a ‘lower’ language is mainly spoken by speakers from ‘lower’ classes. Whilst this is widely recognised in various societies, there are also cross-cultural differences that indicate specific associations to class. A common phrase in English is to ‘swear like a soldier.’ In Swedish, they say ‘svära som en borstbindare,‘ which translates as ‘swear like a brushmaker’ (Ljung 2011).

Swearing is symptomatic. This means that the speaker uses swear words to indicate his or her own mental state, where the words are not to be interpreted as their literal meaning (Ljung 2011). So when one of the Buzzfeed staff said “yeah, that would fuck you up,” he did not literally mean that those noodles would have sex with you.

Formulaic and Emotive Language

People find that swear words lose their nuance or ‘punch’ when we replace them with their literal synonyms. If we substitute “are you fucking with me?” with “are you shagging with me?” it does not have the same offensive power (or even the same intended meaning) as the former form. This makes swearing a type of formulaic language as they have specific synonymies that are particular to them (Shakiba 2014).

As an emotive language, an ubiquitous swearing often has the main function of expressing anger, joy, surprise, or any other extreme level of emotion. Degrees of offensiveness can be conveyed in linguistic and non-linguistic ways (Shakiba 2014). Linguistically, “cunt” is considered to be more offensive than “bitch.” Non-linguistically, the same taboo term can sound more aggressive by projecting it louder in volume, or more sarcastic in tone. We can hear that each of the Buzzfeed staff exclaimed in pain in their own unique way – from as mild as “ooohhhh boy…” to the explicitness of “tasty in the front, and just like BAM! BAM! BAM! Punch you in your dick on the way out.

People who speak more than one language tend to view swearing in their first language as more satisfying and delivers a greater emotional punch. At the same time, a recent study shows that people who swear appear more trustworthy because of its honest nature (Edmonds 2017). It seems that swearing is productive in emotional release, for both pain and creating social relationships.

The Swearing Voice

The voice in swearing possesses a very interesting position. There is no restriction to the degree of intentionality underlying each time taboo words are used. From a sociolinguistic perspective, even the ‘raw’ voice is inevitably a construction of culture. From an anthropological perspective, swearing is an example of the embodiment (i.e. the voice) of social etiquette (i.e. taboos).

Whether you are a lover of spicy food who’s bored of your usual local curries, or just looking for an excuse to swear, you can buy some fire noodles here.


Connor, S. (2016) Introduction: Vocus Pocus. Pp. 6-17 in Fisher, J., Kayes, G., Matthews, C. (eds.) This is a Voice: 99 exercises to train, project and harness the power of your voice. London: Wellcome Collection.

Edmond, D. (2017) Why do people swear? BBC News. Available at: [accessed 19 March 2017].

Ljung, M. (2011) Swearing: A Cross-Cultural Linguistic Study. United Kingdom: Palgrave Macmillan.

Shakiba, N. (2014) Review: Swearing: A Cross-Cultural Linguistic Study. Sociolinguistic Studies 8(1): 183-187.


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