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Intercultural Pragmatics

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Volume 12, Issue 2


“Swear words” and “curse words” in Australian (and American) English. At the crossroads of pragmatics, semantics and sociolinguistics

Cliff Goddard
Published Online: 2015-05-22 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/ip-2015-0010


This study seeks to show that Natural Semantic Metalanguage (NSM) analytical techniques allow an integrated semantic-pragmatic approach to the use of “swear words” and “curse (cuss) words”. The paper begins with a semantic exegesis of the lexical items swear word and curse word. This is helpful to delimit and conceptualize the phenomena being studied, and it also hints at some interesting differences between the speech cultures of Australian English and American English. Subsequent sections propose semantic explications for a string of swear/curse words and expressions as used in Australian English, including: exclamations (Shit! Fuck! Damn! Christ! Jesus!), abuse formulas (Fuck you!, Damn you!), interrogative and imperative formulas (e.g. Who the fuck do you think you are?; Get the hell out of here!), and the free use of expressive adjectives, such as fucking and goddamn, in angry swearing. A novel aspect, with interesting implications for the relationship between semantics and pragmatics, is that the explications incorporate a metalexical awareness section, modelling speaker awareness of the ethnometapragmatic status of the word in the community of discourse. The study goes on to address so-called “social/conversational” swearing. I propose cultural scripts to capture some Anglo ethnopragmatic assumptions about how the use of swear/curse words can be affected by perceptions of familiarity, solidarity, and mutuality. Differences between Australian English and American English are discussed at various points.


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About the article

Cliff Goddard

Cliff Goddard is Professor of Linguistics at Griffith University. He is a leading proponent of the Natural Semantic Metalanguage approach to semantics and its sister theory, the cultural scripts approach to pragmatics. His major publications include the edited volumes Ethnopragmatics (2006 Mouton de Gruyter), Cross-Linguistic Semantics (2008, John Benjamins) and Semantics and/in Social Cognition (2013, special issue of Australian Journal of Linguistics), the textbook Semantic Analysis (2nd ed., 2011 OUP), and Words and Meanings: Lexical Semantics Across Domains, Languages and Cultures (co-authored with Anna Wierzbicka; OUP 2014).

Published Online: 2015-05-22

Published in Print: 2015-06-01

Citation Information: Intercultural Pragmatics, Volume 12, Issue 2, Pages 189–218, ISSN (Online) 1613-365X, ISSN (Print) 1612-295X, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/ip-2015-0010.

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