Cuss words can be so sexist, I swear

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The etymology of many of the swear words that remain in vogue today reveals their patriarchal origins — a time when sexuality was amoral and misogyny was condoned. Their continued use simply reinforces the puritanical values that birthed them, robbing you of the right to curse meaningfully in today’s world.

A woman scorned is a woman who would like to curse her perpetrator without being forced to linguistically reinforce the very system that condones misogyny.

For years now I have been looking to enrich my vocabulary of swear words, but I want no troublesome arrows in my quiver. There are times when I urgently need to use profanity — for example, against all the harassers on bikes and in cars who would hoot at or brush past me, literally giving me a run for my money. I must have the last word, if not the last hand, in the situation and need to yell something out at these harassers. I become frustrated if the limited choice of words in my outdated assortment ends up actually reinforcing the other party’s value system instead of taking them down.

Here, I'm using the term “swear word” to refer to abuse, words that are audibly directed at the offending party and not just to be muttered under one's breath as a private form of venting.

Let's do some stocktaking.

We have mother******, sister******, son of a b**** (hereinafter referred to as MF/SF and SOB) as well as bastard and several more complex variations of the same, as deployed for instance by Scorsese. (I do not know if I am missing significant, powerful pelt-stones in English but, in Hindi, my first language, we do not have a very wide range). Now to use MF/SF would suggest I have resigned myself to believing that men would be the eternal doers and women, the “done-upons”. The broader connotation is that if some men are not MFs or SFs it is because of their kindness and the goodness of their hearts, though they could (denoting a natural ability) fill those roles if they so wished, because women of course will never have any choice in the matter. As Germaine Greer writes in The Female Eunuch, “All the verbal linguistic emphasis is placed upon the poking element; f***ing, screwing, rooting, shagging are all acts performed upon the passive female...”

And not on my life am I going to rob women of agency.



SOB is again supposed to be offensive to women though there can be ample speculation on what kind of dark legends were unearthed around b****es to put them in this category and represent them as worse than human. A word like asshole circles back, again, to the body. Why is a body part supposed to cause offence? The only insult it causes is to Rabelais’s scatological oeuvre, which his narratives used in the most imaginative ways. Even if it’s a child's idea of grossing out someone, my use of it must not just make the other person feel bad but also tell them how exactly they were abominable.

Some suggest that women should use the “male equivalent” of misogynist terms for men. Many expressions of profanity have already become unisex in their use. In Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing, Melissa Mohr tells us, “With the development of feminism, many swearwords have become more equal-opportunity, not less. B**** can now be applied to men and women. In the 19th Century, shit as a noun was reserved exclusively for men — The West Somerset Word-Book defines it as “‘a term of contempt, applied to men only’, as in ‘He’s a regular shit.’ Now, women too can work, vote, own their own property, and be called a shit”.

But what am I really gaining by calling someone a father****** or brother******? And using these terms now in a gender-neutral way certainly doesn’t alter their sexist history. Even if a woman is saying “Don't be a girl” to another woman or to a man, this is still a reductionist approach wherein the notion that femininity is an unfortunate quality to have remains frozen throughout time.

While the above-mentioned expletives are offensive to women, others do not stray far from sex and its consequences. A bastard, for instance, brings to mind the “illegitimacy” of a childbirth out of wedlock, a moral policing relic from the dark ages. Restoration drama, on the other hand, was busy wishing all sorts of sexual maladies upon its characters. One option is to continue with the old terms and simply use them to vent, without their carrying any of its semantic meaning at all. But in this way we are merely apprising the other person of our anger and not really telling them why we are angry in terms that carry any allegorical weight. So, they are left free to attribute it merely to our “feeling” rather than their “doing” and, alas, the purpose of swearing would be lost. (I myself have had to bite my tongue several times before calling out one of these very names.)


The strictest condemnatory words should be derivatives of qualities that are antithetical to our most cherished human values. And those who commit acts of hatred, violence and malice could then receive, through this new terminology, the harshest castigation.


For all of our forward thinking, the damned spots of regression continue to show. We still shudder to think of the “sins” of the flesh and therefore think the worst ills of the world have to do with sex and the body. Surely it is not a bigger “sin” to be born a bastard than to be communal, cruel or dishonest. Yet these words are mere adjectives, not “swear words”. Our palette of terms of abuse is a reflection of ourselves, of what we consider acceptable and what we let pass. Even if we are able to invest these words with a stronger meaning, the shadow of their sexist etymology would continue to loom large above them.

If we are truly committed to equality, now is our chance to build a novel, gender-neutral vocabulary of profanity. The contemporary swear words make sexism common currency, and putting an end to their use would also mean pushing casual sexism back. Of course, people cannot be made to swear off swearing itself, and it definitely seems to be a safer form of venting out than other acts of physical aggression. But if 5,400 words are created every year, as Global Language Monitor informs us, why cannot there be more innovative cusswords?

Authors, orators, screenplay writers, all such creatives have the power to influence culture through the media they work in. It is common for some words uttered by a popular political candidate to trend on Twitter every now and then. Films that catch people’s imagination leave similar trails. Scribes since the time of Shakespeare have been in the very business of coinage. Not to forget those who have been setting trends since the beginning of time — young people. When I joined college, a mainstream newspaper actually published a list of colloquial words that were in vogue in the university and I eagerly updated myself because I did not wish to fall behind. All these groups of people could set their hearts (and minds) on demolishing the problematic worn-out lexicon of sexual, sexist censure. The strictest condemnatory words should be derivatives of qualities that are antithetical to our most cherished human values. And those who commit acts of hatred, violence and malice could then receive, through this new terminology, the harshest castigation.

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