Phonology of cusswords: some initial observations

Shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, and tits.

Recognize that list? It’s George Carlin’s famous “seven words you can’t say on television.”

Here’s that same set rendered in broad IPA transcription – I’ve bolded the vowels just so you can pick vowels and consonants apart at a glance:

ʃɪt pɪs fʌk kʌnt kɑksʌkɚ mʌðɚfʌkɚ tɪts

There are 20 consonants, not counting the syllabic r’s [ɚ]. Of those 20, 17 are voiceless; of those, 11 are stops, of which 6 are /k/ and 4 are /t/; the other 6 are voiceless fricatives, /s f ʃ/. The remaining 3 voiced ones are two nasals and a fricative.

There are 9 vowels and 3 syllabic r’s. Of the 9 vowels, 5 are /ʌ/ and 3 are /ɪ/. (In certain British dialects, those /ʌ/ sounds would be /ʊ/. I have not transcribed them as /ə/ because I think there is a useful distinction to be made between the reduced lax /ə/ and the full-value emphasized /ʌ/, which may in some dialects be rendered differently.)

In short, they’re very heavy on /k/, /t/, /ʌ/, and /ɪ/, and on voiceless consonants generally. This is not exactly the usual distribution of phonemes in English. Note that both of the dominating vowels are lax “short” vowels – a phonemic, not phonetic, distinction in English (i.e., we think of them as different from tense “long” vowels such as /i/ and /u/).

So what the fuck? Is this just because of a small sample size? We know Carlin played on the euphony of the list, so we can’t discount selection effect, even though we know that this list includes the rudest words in English.

Other vulgar terms of abuse or exclamation include asshole, bitch, bastard, and douchebag. None of these is perceived as quite as bad as fuck or cunt, or perhaps shit, but on the other hand they might be worse than piss or tits. In these 4 additional words, we see voiced stops and a greater diversity of phonemes:

æshol bɪt͜ʃ bæstɚd duʃbæg

Here we see /æ/ in 3 of 4 words, and /b/ in 3 of 4 as well. We see two “long” vowels, too: /o/ and /u/.

Compare, now, some still impolite but not really “offensive” words that can be used for the same things and in the same context:

screw, poo, crap, turd, pee, twat, snatch, pussy, dick, prick, wang, jerk, boobs

skru pu kræp tɚd pi twæt snæt͜ʃ pʊsi dɪk prɪk wæŋ d͜ʒɚk bubz

A much broader assortment, including several tense “long” vowels, /u/ and /i/. (Have you noticed the utter absence in all of these of /ɛ/ and /e/?) There are also more /æ/. There are voiced stops, and there are several instances of /r/ (really [ɹ] but we’re talking phonemes here) combined with another consonant (often /k/) in a syllable onset or offset. There are still a number of /t/ and /k/, but overall the words appear to be a bit less abrupt and crisp.

And then, of course, there are religious-based ones, such as Christ, damn, and hell. Christ has the distinction of being the only word covered here to have a full-on diphthong (as opposed to a narrowing off-glide on a phonemic monophthong). It also has the /kr/ onset we see in some of the milder naughty words, and it has the set of voiceless stops and fricative that match it to some extent with the naughtiest words. The others certainly lack the crispness and abruptness we get in the sharpest vulgarities.

I have three questions I think are worth following up on:

  1. How does this compare to the distribution of phonemes in expressive language more generally, and in English overall?
  2. What associative effect does this have on the expressive power of other words, and vice-versa?
  3. Tits? That’s the only word here (well, that and its pair boobs) that can’t be used as a term of abuse or a self-sufficient exclamation of anger, frustration, or pain. Wazzup with that?

I can give a partial answer to number 1 right off the top. David Crystal, in an article called “Phonaesthetically speaking” in English Today in April 1995, looked at words considered “beautiful” and compared their distribution of phonemes to those of English generally. In the “beautiful” words he found a strong leaning towards consonants /l m s n r k t d/ in that order, and in the vowels – after the common reduced /ə/ – the most common were /ɪ æ ɛ i aɪ o ʌ/ in that order.

OK, so that’s different enough from our vulgar set, as we might expect from “beautiful” words. But how about English generally? Per Crystal, the top consonants overall in English are /n t d s l ð r m k/ in that order, and the top vowels (again, after /ə/, which is so common in unstressed positions) are /ɪ ɛ aɪ ʌ e i o æ/.

Our statistical base for comparison with the chosen cusswords is not huge, but it looks on the face of it as though there is a phonological leaning. Just why there is a leaning and how it got to be there are very interesting questions. We can certainly point to semantics and social factors for some of the influence on choice of taboo words. But there’s room for phonological associations and maybe even direct sound symbolism to have some effect too.

That effect can include spreading from one word to another (in terms of choice of words or semantic shift of a word), as in question 2. That’s a question that’s worth a substantial paper of its own and I don’t have answers here and now. It would be worth knowing various people’s most preferred vulgarities and euphemisms (and dysphemisms and other expressive language) to get an initial sense of whether there are leanings, and to what extent you can make a word choice seem more or less rude through selection of phonemes. So I’m hoping that readers will post their favourite bad words in the comments. What do you shout when angry, or shout at people, or wish you could shout at people?

And then there’s tits. George Carlin allows that this word isn’t like the others, and it’s really not. Semantically, it has nothing to do with excreta or intercourse (breasts are not genitalia, and anyone who thinks they are should retake basic biology); in our society, breasts are as a general rule expected to be concealed and are focuses of sexual interest, so there’s a little prurience there, but that’s it. Consider the relative offensiveness of the following sets of words and the ways in which you can use them:

cock, dick, prick, dong, wang, pecker

cunt, twat, snatch, pussy, beaver, poontang

tits, boobs, hooters, gazongas, tatas, jugsmelons

I find that the third set seems less abusive and harsh in general – in sense and perhaps also in sound. And somehow among that set of words for mammaries there is just that one word, taken from teat, that is considered too off-colour.

What I find most interesting is the tits/boobs alternation. If you read something meant to be humorous (say in email or on the web) and it mentions breasts, the choice of tits versus boobs (and it generally is one or the other, not any of the remainder) is very much a tone-based and tone-influencing choice: “He weighed his options carefully and chose the one with the biggest boobs”; “He weighed his options carefully and chose the one with the biggest tits.”

I wonder to what extent tits makes one think of the tips, the nipples, due to the sound resemblance of the words (tits, nipples, tips) and also perhaps to the crispness of the /t/ which may bring to mind pointy nipples (that’s pure speculation). I wonder to what extent boobs sounds rounder and brings an image more of the overall shape rather than the nipples, which have become the one thing to conceal.

But I also wonder whether the voiceless stops and lax /ɪ/ vowel make tits seem to belong to the taboo set, while the voiced stops and tense /u/ vowel make boobs seem less offensive.

This is where an experiment or two would come in handy. Not that I’m likely to get any funding to do what seems like playing Joel Veitch’s Touretteaphone. Fuck it, I’ll just have to do it on my own time and money.

30 thoughts on “Phonology of cusswords: some initial observations

  1. Mededitor December 13, 2014 / 12:59 pm

    Although “tits” alone is not a normal expletive, “It’s gone tits up” and “X rips the tits off Y” are common.

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  2. sesquiotic December 13, 2014 / 10:38 pm

    It occurs to me that in some versions of English, shite is preferred to shit. That adds a diphthong to the mix – the same one as in Christ, though. I’m having trouble thinking of a cussword that uses /au/.

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    • Kyle Billie January 3, 2016 / 2:46 pm

      I’m still a student in linguistics so I don’t know to much. But when I think of Carlin’s 7 dirty words their seems to be a pattern in the use of added aspiration at the start of the words and unreleased stops at the end. I assumed starting words with that extra aspiration Accounted for the aggression of the words, but I’m still unsure about the unreleased stops

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  3. John Kelly December 14, 2014 / 4:05 pm

    A different semantic class, to be sure, and whose origins may complicate your phonological considerations, but I can think of some racial epithets/slurs featuring the diphthongs of interest: kike, kraut. They also have feature /k/.

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  4. Stan Carey December 16, 2014 / 2:23 pm

    For a post of initial observations, this is terrific stuff. Tits is an unusual case, but I have heard it used as a standalone exclamation along the same lines as Fuck!. It’s a lot less common, for sure; I’ve heard it only from a couple of people, and I’m struggling to remember any contextual detail.

    In the same kinds of exclamatory context, I would say shite much more than shit, as would many people I know (west of Ireland native English speaker, fwiw). Shite doesn’t work in all of shit‘s slots – I would never say “piece of shite” the way I might say “piece of shit” – but the reverse is also true, albeit in fewer expressions. Something for a future post, maybe!

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  5. CFB December 16, 2014 / 6:54 pm

    I’ve always felt the words boobs and tits to be almost onomatopoeic, helped out with common word partners – “big boobs” and “little tits”. I never think of tits as big…that’s got to be boobs. Tits are by inference small and pointy. And therefore more prone to be used to refer to something being annoying. “Stop being such a tit.” It almost implies someone actually physically poking at you.

    Slut. Another lovely and satisfying sounding word that could be added to Carlin’s list and fits the sound patterns of the other, most fun to blurt swear words.

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  6. Dootlizhshilii December 17, 2014 / 8:23 pm

    IIRC, germanic-root (Saxon, Danish) words in English tend to use these sounds, and all seven of Carlin’s words follow that pattern. To create a euphemism, translate the Saxon or Old English word into something with Latin, Greek, or French roots, e.g., “Rectal-American” for “asshole”.
    @CFB: Could it be that the “tit” in “Stop being such a tit” refers to the bird rather than the body part?

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    • Keith December 17, 2014 / 9:02 pm

      I suppose that there could be a link between silliness and the very small size of a tit’s head.

      That at least is an explanation often given for the French expression of “tête de linotte” (“linnet-head”) for a simpleton, on the grounds that there’s not much room for brains inside a head that small.

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  7. Ryan David Jahn (@RyanDavidJahn) December 22, 2014 / 11:16 pm

    “Tits” and “shit” are the only two regularly used as positive descriptors; “that game is tits,” “that game is the tits,” and “that game is the shit” all mean about the same thing: that game is very good. (But if you say that a game “is shit” it means the opposite of “the shit”; maybe “the shit” originated as a dope reference and “dope,” of course, is also good. “Have you got the shit?”) No one would say, “That game is the fuck” or “That game is the cunt” to mean that it is very good. They could, of course, say, “That game is fucking awesome.” But, so far as I know, “shit” and “tits” are the only two used as indicated above.

    Okay, enough of my possibly-inaccurate observations and uneducated speculation…

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    • sesquiotic December 23, 2014 / 12:24 am

      I think those are very valuable observations. That phenomenon is worth another article in itself, really. My suspicion, entirely unsupported (as yet) by research, is that “the shit” comes from reference to drugs. I actually was unaware of “tits” and “the tits” in the way you have it (just not attested in my dialect), so thank you for that. I find ti funny (as did George Carlin) that we use things we find so agreeable and even desire as terms of abuse. What heterosexual male is not looking for a cunt or a cocksucker? And yet. And as to fuck… which people call “the nasty” etc. (why??!!!! well, I know why, but I don’t like it). If someone doesn’t like a fuck, fuck ’em!

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  8. John Cowan December 25, 2014 / 2:55 am

    For me (and I think history is on my side, despite Robert Browning, twat belongs firmly to the LOT lexical set (which for me is merged with PALM but not CLOTH). Twat with the TRAP vowel seems very strange to me.

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    • sesquiotic December 25, 2014 / 3:00 am

      I admit that I grew up saying it to rhyme with lot, but have fallen under the unwholesome British influence. It doesn’t make a huge difference to the overall pattern, as far as I can see, but it is interesting, and probably merits an article of its own.

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  9. CMH December 25, 2014 / 6:06 pm

    A British colleague has used “Oh, tits!” as an expression of irritation, although I’ve never heard anybody else do so.

    As for boobs vs. tits, boobs is much more acceptable to hear from children…maybe because we say it to them because it sounds so much friendlier. Tits does sound like something pointy, which we don’t let kids play with, while boobs brings to mind something rounded and “safe for children”. Then that difference in accepted usage just widens the gap between the harshness of each one, I suppose. And of course, we have “boob” as a non-swear word for a stupid person, which makes it even less shocking to hear, although the connection with mammaries might have made it less desirable to use. I know I haven’t heard anybody use it that way for years and years.

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  10. Isabel Tifft December 28, 2014 / 8:04 pm

    I find the third category at least as shocking as the first two, not because I’m prudish (I’m a sailor, so REALLY not prudish) but because I’ve heard those words said in the most spectacularly hateful, brutish, aquisitively contemptuous tones. I’m guessing you’ve never been on the receiving end of those words… 🙂

    I’m going to start using “tits” as an expletive. I like the crisp assertive sound. “Boobs” involves pursing of the lips, which is not a hostile gesture, but I can say “tits” easily through gritted teeth.

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  11. pixelpumpkinLeen January 1, 2015 / 4:52 pm

    How can we even begin to discuss ’tis’ vs. ‘boobs’ without going into British vs. American usage?

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  12. Lane Greene March 30, 2015 / 10:38 am

    Steve Pinker has pointed out the very large number of swear words and slurs and general terms of abuse that end in either /k/, and (though fewer) with /g/:

    prick, fuck, suck, cock, dick, schmuck, pork, dork, spic, kike, mick, chink, gook, dyke
    fag, pig, prig, fug (thank you, Norman Mailer), slag, hag, dog, wog

    And then other words that feature them heavily: fucker, cocsucker, motherfucker, nigger, bugger, cracker, honky

    In fact, he once calmly rattled off the list at a lovely interview with me and colleagues in The Economist’s boardroom in New York, right after he had put out The Stuff of Thought, which has a great chapter on this.

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  14. Timothy Grimm March 26, 2017 / 7:36 pm

    From the standpoint of primatology or maybe evolutionary biology, cursing would represent the kind of vocalization that expresses some kind of defensive or violent reaction. As such, wouldn’t it follow that the most effective for the task would be the phonemes that could generate the biggest or deepest sound? (An ape/animal will typically strike postures to give the illusion of greater size or strength.). And as a release of pain/anger. When we hit our finger with the hammer and curse the heavens, we don’t immediately reach for the “Y” in Yahweh, the “E” in Elohim, or the “Ah” in Allah, we go for the strong “G” sound in “God-dammit.” Pain. Scream-release. Not “Yilly-mollum.”
    We also defend and release energy with facial expression, so I tend to look at the facial muscles/expression generated with the different sound generation in given curse/taboo words or pain reaction. Posturing came before association and taboo. We also use the expulsion of air defensively (thinking again of animal behavior, as well as our spitting in certain situations). Think of the sounds (and correlating facial muscles) that we apes are taught to vocalize to generate power and mood in the martial arts classes we take. I also think of the words internationally for “yes” and “no,” and similar concerns. Many curse words are a “no,” a wall, a first line of defense. Finally, it is interesting as well to consider the curse/taboo words created for science fiction stories that follow similar phonetic patterns.

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