5. Aesthetics of the obscure: Swearing as horrible play

in Swearing and Cursing


This chapter is concerned with swearing and performances of affect. It discusses transgressive language in the form of yelling and screaming, and conflict that translates into accusations of magic and witchcraft. Swearing here is seen as doing things with words (Austin 1962), in the sense of speaking as doing, when words obtain the power to change reality (Grehan 2004). This perspective on swearing highlights the ways in which transgressive, reality-changing speech is performed: the shrill voice, the words turned into incomprehensible yells, the difficulties in finding words at all, and the use of other communicative means instead: spitting, crying, embodying. Uttered swear words that only faintly resemble “words”, and whose meaning can only be guessed through their embeddedness in context, are, to the linguist, a semiotically very complex aspect of language practice: this is language and yet it isn’t. Noisy performance and embodiment are aspects of swearing practices that are decidedly opaque and even unintelligible. Violent outbursts of offensive speech often involve language that is pure agency but not, by itself, immediately intelligible to others. Linguistic opacity in swearing may signify emotions such as pain, fear, anger and wrath (Jay and Janschewitz 2008), but in ritual settings - as reflected in witchcraft and trance discourses - also has the power and agency to transform the other. Noisy performance and lack of words negate cooperative strategies and behavior, and swearing here is not fun and play, but rather sheer violence and transgression (Williams 2011). While other forms of swearing violate social norms, these forms of transgression threaten existences (Madadzhe 2012; Grehan 2004). Loud, unintelligible, out-ofkey communicative performance therefore creates fear - there is a secret dimension here that is frightening (Taussig 1999) - and signifies an inescapable relation with those who have provoked it, and who are exposed to it. I argue that precisely this aspect of swearing as horrible play invites us to grasp language as reaching far beyond words, and, from an emic perspective, to consider the multiplicity of the speaker. The chapter focuses on swearing and noisy performance and is especially interested in the practices of and perspectives on women. Moreover, the chapter addresses the intercultural semiotics of hostile communicative practices by including a discussion and analysis of performances and practices in migration settings, such as in a Mediterranean tourism context. As such a take on swearing involves listening to what should not have been said, and writing what should not be written, at least from the perspective of the players concerned, I aim at finding alternative ways of discussing “language”: besides referring to more common types of “data” (my own field data), I discuss notes from my personal field diaries, poetic texts, art, and music.

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