For a word to qualify as a swear word, it must have the potential to offend. They come from taboo topics – death, disease, excrement, and sex – uncomfortable conversation. So be warned, if you continue reading, there is possibly offensive language used.
Context plays a big role in the criteria to be labelled a swear word. Sex might be a distasteful subject, but not in a gynaecologist’s office. Call your doctor a “dickhead” and he could calmly ask how he is related to a reproductive organ. Some words might be fine with your friends, but you’d never use them in a job interview.
Blasphemy is another category. High and holy things taken out of context; “God” “hell” and “Jesus Christ” are not offensive in a sermon on Sunday morning but can be quite cutting when they’re coming from a place of anger.
My parent’s generation (Baby Boomers) were taught “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never break me.” Their parenting advice was to ignore them, and they’ll go away… suck it up… they are just words.
My generation (Xennials) acknowledged that words have power, and that verbal abuse is a very real thing. Thus, was born the age of positive affirmations or self-talk – the practice of focusing on the good in any given situation and have it impact on your physical and mental health.
There was the Toyota television advertisement that came out when I was in my early twenties. It used the word “Bugger”. It’s official meaning is to ‘penetrate the anus of someone during sexual intercourse’ (insert uncomfortable giggle here). It was used in the ad as an expression of disappointment, where something had gone awry. Watch the ad here if you’re not familiar (the first is the New Zealand version, the second is the Australian).
The Kiwis weren’t sure if they ready for it and there were more than 100 complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), which was quite a high number back then. For comparison’s sake, the recent New Zealand Government ads about ‘keeping it real online’ which suggest ways parents can engage with their children about online pornography (view it here), only received eight complaints.
This approach continues with my daughter and her friends (Generation Z). What they’re doing is removing power from words. Perhaps swear words are losing their power with overuse, but their generation have flipped my world on its head.
I can’t even say it. My group of friends would say ‘the c-word’. If anyone had called me that to my face, I would have been shocked, angered, even a little offended.
I was engaged in a group conversation with a bunch of younger people. I was asked for my take on the subject and happily gave my opinion. It got a few of them riled up, but they listened to my reasons why, educated me on what I didn’t understand, and we met somewhere in the middle with a new shared opinion. One of them looked at me with what I thought to be respect and said, “You’re a good cunt eh.” The shock, anger and offence were nowhere to be found. It’s not words I would use, but I understood the meaning because of the context.
I have a weird sense of pride that they have taken away the horrible meaning of the word and made it positive. It no longer has power for evil.
Context is everything – and of course when you are typing on a keyboard, it’s hard to build context without telling a story. This is what I do. I’m a content marketer and I help businesses tell their story, in their style, to their desired audience, without offending.
Think about how you start an email. Have you ever typed, “I’m just following up on…” or “I’m just checking in to see…” Stop – the word “just” in your written communications makes you sound weak, hesitant, and unsure of yourself. That’s not what your potential customer wants to feel about you. Remove it from the sentence and now you sound confident and assertive (something I have to remind myself constantly of).
Think about how you finish an email. Ever used the line “If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to contact me.” Sure, you’d think it was an encouraging statement, but for some reason the negative part is the only part that is subconsciously put in their head… “don’t contact me.” And that is the opposite of what you’re hoping for. Instead, try “Feel free to contact me.” Or “I look forward to your reply.”
The same can be said for the content on your website, brochures, or newsletters – have a look, is there anything that wasn’t intended to be a negative statement? Especially check your calls to action, these can often be characterless “Email us now.” It’s a little demanding. There is a happy middle.
I will finish with a word of caution. To those older, try not to take offence when ‘those words’ are used in a positive way. And those younger, try not to be disrespectful to ones older who grew up with ‘those words’ being as far away from positive as can be.