Swearing, profanity, rudeness, or insult. Call them what you want. You shout them, you release them, you throw them into the air in moments of fury. They remove your tension after a blow. They slip out unintentionally, occasionally, and most of the time, it feels very liberating to say them.
The RAE defines palabrota (swearing) as an “offensive, indecent or rude saying” and insultar (insulting) as “offending someone by provoking and irritating them with words or actions.” The insult, then, is a speech act that attempts to attack or humiliate a person at a given moment. For this reason, insults are outside the social norm.
But insults are not only speech acts that attack the positive and, in some cases, negative image of the interlocutors, but they are also capable of reflecting what attitudes, beliefs and qualities are evaluated as negative or positive by the members of a specific speech community. In this sense, insulting statements are part of a particular speech community’s linguistic and cultural heritage and can reflect specific social (anti)values. In this way, the insult, born from words (linguistic terrain), is also extrapolated to the social and cultural terrain.
Although swearing is outside the social norm, it is not always “purely impolite speech acts” since the use of identification of a particular group is also observed. In these cases, they do not have an offensive semantic load but instead fulfil other functions, such as creating solidarity, strengthening ties of camaraderie and friendship, emphasising, and intensifying statements, expressing surprise, drawing the attention of the interlocutor, and identifying the participants in the interactions as members of a group. As in the case of “¡Buena güeón, tanto tiempo! (Chile) (Hey, mate, long time!) or “¡Pedazo de cabrón, cuánto tiempo! (España) (You piece of bastard, how long!).
The linguistic taboo
Not all cultures consider the exact words offensive, but they all have in common that they consider taboo words abusive. The forbidden always arouses social interest.
Three significant taboos are repeated as a theme within swearing. First, there is the eschatological sphere. Rudeness that refers to excrement, dirt, bodily secretions, or the parts of the body that produce them are very common. Then, the sexual sphere. A good part of the bad words refers to the sexual act, especially if, in a particular culture, it is a rather shameful topic. Something curious about Spanish, both Hispanic American and European, is that there are quite a few insults related to those who practice prostitution (hijoputa/hijaputa, hijo de puta, hija de puta) (son of a bitch, daughter of a bitch). Still, none refer to who pays for sex.
Religion and everything related to the sacred are topics that are not expected to be raised outside of a context of solemnity, so creating rude words from this type of word is genuinely transgressive. It corresponds to the third great taboo: the religious sphere. Christianity explicitly says: “Thou shalt not take God’s name in vain,” so bringing up sacred objects in everything mockery is very provocative.
Another type of insult is the one that refers to someone’s low intellectual capacity. On the other hand, in Latin American cultures, it is standard to insult someone by referring to their mother. Here, you can watch a video about linguistic taboos on swearing.
The types of swear words according to countries
[Warning: If you are in a public space where they speak Spanish, I do not recommend reading this part of the article out loud, or more than one person will look at you mean.]
In Spain, it is striking how the religious sphere occupies a vital place regarding insults. For example, they have expressions like “hostia” (host), “me cago en la mar” (I shit in the sea) or “me cago en la hostia” (I shit in the host) or other stronger ones like “me cago en Dios” (I shit in God). On the other side of the Atlantic, in Chile and Argentina, there is a tendency to insult mainly with swear words that allude to the sexual sphere, such as “concha”(shell: a vulgar way to refer to the vagina), “pico” (beak: a vulgar way to refer to the penis), “chucha” (a vulgar way to refer to the vagina), “raja” (a vulgar way to refer to the ass) or “concha de su madre”.
These differences in themes are fascinating because they tell us about what is uncomfortable for a society like the Spanish, Argentine or Chilean and how, through insults, they can release -in part- what they repress as a society.