Swearing methodologically : the (im)politeness of expletives in anonymous commentaries on Youtube

Marta Dynel


This theoretical paper addresses the (im)politeness of swear words. The primary objective is to account for their nature and functions in anonymous Internet communication, represented by YouTube commentaries (and exemplified by those following snatches of “Borat”), in the light of recent approaches to (im)politeness, notably: second order (im)politeness, necessarily recruiting first order interpretations; intentionbased approach; and relational work. The emerging postulate is that taboo words can display impoliteness (by manifesting aggression, power-building and abuse) or politeness (by fostering solidarity, common ground and humour). The nature and functions of cursing in anonymous commentaries are posited to be largely reminiscent of those appearing in oral interactions. Nevertheless, several characteristics of expletives appear to be peculiar to the discourse of an e-community of practice.


Catharsis; e-community of practice; impoliteness; intention; solidarity politeness; swear word/swearing

Full Text:



Abrahams, R. 1962. “Playing the dozens”. Journal of American Folklore 75: 209-220.

Andersson, L. and P. Trudgill. 1990. Bad Language. London: Penguin.

Andersson, L. and P. Trudgill. 2007. “Swearing”. A Cultural Approach to Interpersonal Communication. Eds. L. Monaghan and J. Goodman. Oxford: Blackwell. 195-199

Androutsopoulos, J. 2006. “Introduction: Sociolinguistics and computer-mediated communication”. Journal of Sociolinguistics 10: 419-438.

Angouri, J. and T. Tseliga. 2010. “‘You have no idea what you are talking about!’ From e-disagreement to e-impoliteness in two online fora”. Journal of Politeness Research 6: 57-82.

Arango, A. 1989. Dirty Words: Psychoanalytic Insights. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson.

Avgerinakou, A. 2003. “‘Flaming’ in computer-mediated interactions”. Rethinking Communicative Interaction. Ed. C. Grant. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. 273-293.

Bailey, L. A. and L. Timm. 1976. “More on women’s – and men’s – expletives”. Anthropological Linguistics 18: 438-49.

Beebe, L. 1995. “Polite fictions: Instrumental rudeness as pragmatic competence”. Linguistics and the Education of Language Teachers: Ethnolinguistic, Psycholinguistic, and Sociolinguistic Aspects. Georgetown University Round Table on Languages and Linguistics 1995. Eds. J. Alatis, C. Straehle, M. Ronkin, and B. Gallenberger. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press. 154-168.

Bell, S. and S. Reverby. 2005. “Vaginal politics: tensions and possibilities in The Vagina Monologues”. Women’s Studies International Forum 28: 430-444.

Beers Fagersten, K. 2007. “A sociolinguistic analysis of swearword offensiveness”. Saarland Working Papers in Linguistics (SWPL) 1: 14-37.

Bousfield, D. 2007. “Beginnings, middles and ends: A biopsy of the dynamics of impolite exchanges”. Journal of Pragmatics 39: 2185-2216.

Bousfield, D. 2008a. Impoliteness in Interaction. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Bousfield, D. 2008b. “Impoliteness in the struggle for power”. Impoliteness in Language: Studies on its Interplay with Power in Theory and Practice. Eds. D. Bousfield and M. Locher. Berlin and New York: Mouton de Gruyter. 127-153.

Bousfield, D. 2010. “Researching impoliteness and rudeness: Issues and definitions”. Interpersonal Pragmatics. Eds. M. Locher and Sage L. Graham. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. 102-134.

Bousfield, D. and J. Culpeper. 2008. “Impoliteness: Eclecticism and diaspora. An introduction to the special edition”. Journal of Politeness Research 4: 161-168.

Brown, P. 1995. “Politeness strategies and the attribution of intentions: The case of Tzeltal irony”. Social Intelligence and Interaction. Ed. E. Goody. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 153-174.

Brown, P. and S. Levinson. 1987. Politeness: Some Universals in Language Usage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Brown, R. and A. Gilman. 1960. “The pronouns of power and solidarity”. Style in Language. Ed. T. A. Sebeok. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. 253-277.

Bryson, B. 1990. The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way. New York: William Morrow.

Coates, J. 1986. Women, Men and Language. London: Longman.

Coates, J. 2002. Men Talk. Stories in the Making of Masculinities. Oxford: Blackwell.

Craig, R., K. Tracy and F. Spisak. 1986. “The discourse of requests: assessment of a politeness approach”. Human Communication Research 12: 437-468.

Culpeper, J. 1996. “Towards an anatomy of impoliteness”. Journal of Pragmatics 25: 349–367.

Culpeper, J. 2005. “Impoliteness and entertainment in the television show: ‘The Weakest Link’”. Journal of Politeness Research 1: 35-72.

Culpeper, J. 2008. “Reflections on impoliteness, relational work and power”. Impoliteness in Language: Studies on its Interplay with Power in Theory and Practice. Eds. D. Bousfield and M. Locher. Berlin and New York: Mouton de Gruyter. 17-44.

Culpeper, J. 2010. “Conventionalised impoliteness formulae”. Journal of Pragmatics 42: 3232-3245.

Culpeper, J., Bousfield, D. and A. Wichmann. 2003. “Impoliteness revisited: with special reference to dynamic and prosodic aspects”. Journal of Pragmatics 35: 1545-1579.

Daly, N., Holmes, J., Newton, J. and M. Stubbe. 2004. “Expletives as solidarity signals in FTAs on the factory floor”. Journal of Pragmatics 36: 945-964

Danet, B. 1998. “Text as mask: Gender, play and performance on the Internet”. Cybersociety 2.0: Computer-Mediated Communication and Community Revisited, Ed. S. Jones. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. 129-158.

Danet, B. 2001. Cyberpl@y. Communicating Online. Oxford: Berg.

de Klerk, V. 1992. “How taboo are taboo words for girls?” Language in Society 21: 277-289.

de Klerk, V. 1997. “The role of expletives in the construction of masculinity”. Language and Masculinity. Eds. S. Johnson and U. H. Meinhof. Oxford: Basil Blackwell. 144-158.

de Oliveria, S. M. 2007. “Breaking conversation norms on a Portuguese users’ network: Men as adjudicators of politeness?” The Multilingual Internet. Eds. B. Danet and S. Herring. New York: Oxford University Press. 256-277.

Dery, M. 1994. Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Dewaele, J.-M. 2004. “The emotional force of swearwords and taboo words in the speech of multilinguals”. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development 25: 204-222.

Dynel, M. 2009. Humorous Garden-Paths: A Pragmatic-Cognitive Study. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Dynel, M. 2010a. “Not hearing things - Hearer/listener categories in polylogues”. mediAzioni 9, http://mediazioni.sitlec.unibo.it

Dynel, M. 2010b. “Friend or foe? Chandler’s humour from the metarecipient’s perspective”. Pragmatic Perspectives on Language and Linguistics 2009. Vol. II: Pragmatics of Semantically Restricted Domains. Ed. I. Witczak-Plisiecka. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing. 175-205.

Dynel, M. 2011. “Women who swear and men who fret: The subversive construction of genders in films: A case study of ‘Lejdis’ and ‘Testosteron’.” Us-Them Conference Proceedings. Ed. M. Sokół. Shaker Verlag.

Eckert, P. and S. McConnell-Ginet. 1992. “Think practically and look locally: language and gender as community-based practice”. Annual Review of Anthropology 21: 461-490.

Eelen, G. 2001. A Critique of Politeness Theories. Manchester: St. Jerome Publishing.

Fraser, B. 1990. “Perspectives on politeness”. Journal of Pragmatics 14: 219-236.

Fraser, B. and W. Nolen. 1981. “The association of deference with linguistic form”. International Journal of the Sociology of Language 27: 93-109.

Freud, S. 1960 [1905]. Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious. Translated by James Strachey. New York: Norton.

Gibbs, R. Jr. 1999. Intentions in the Experience of Meaning. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gordon, M. 1993. “Sexual slang and gender”. Women and Language 16: 16-21.

Graham, S. 2005. “A cyber-parish: gendered identity construction in an on-line Episcopal community”. Gender and the Language of Religion. Ed. A. Jule. New York: Palgrave. 133-150.

Graham, S. 2007. “Disagreeing to agree: Conflict, (im)politeness and identity in a computer-mediated community”. Journal of Pragmatics 39: 248-742.

Graham, S. 2008. “A manual for (im)politeness?: The impact of the FAQ in an electronic community of practice”. Impoliteness in Language: Studies on its Interplay with Power in Theory and Practice. Eds. D. Bousfield and M. Locher. Berlin and New York: Mouton de Gruyter. 281-304.

Harris, S. 2001. “Being politically impolite: Extending politeness theory to adversarial political discourse”. Discourse and Society 12: 451-472.

Haugh, M. 2007. “The discursive challenge to politeness theory: An interactional alternative”. Journal of Politeness Research 3: 295-317.

Haugh, M. 2010. “When is an email really offensive?: Argumentativity and variability in evaluations of impoliteness”. Journal of Politeness Research 6: 7-34

Haverkate, H. 1988. “Toward a typology of politeness strategies”. Multilingua 7: 385-409.

Herring, S. C. 2007. “A faceted classification scheme for computer-mediated discourse”. Language@Internet 1.

Hey, V. 1997. The Company She Keeps: An Ethnography of Girls’ Friendships. Buckingham: Open University Press.

Holmes, J. 1995. Women, Men and Politeness. London: Longman.

Hughes, G. 1991. Swearing: A Social History of Foul Language, Oaths and Profanity in English. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Hughes, S. 1992. “Expletives of lower working-class women”. Language in Society 21: 291-303.

Jay, T. 1992. Cursing in America: A Neuro-Psycho-Social Theory of Speech. Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company.

Jay, T. 1996. What to Do When your Students Talk Dirty. Atrium Publishers Group.

Jay, T. 2000. Why we Curse: A Neuro-Psycho-Social Theory of Speech. Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company.

Jay, T. and K. Janschewitz. 2008. “The pragmatics of swearing”. Journal of Politeness Research 4: 267-288.

Johnson, N., Cooper, R. and W. Chin. 2008. “The effect of flaming on computer-mediated negotiations”. European Journal of Information Systems 17: 417-434.

Kasper, G. 1990. “Linguistic politeness: Current research issues”. Journal of Pragmatics 14: 193-218.

Keith-Spiegel, P. 1972. “Early conceptions of humour: Varieties and issues”. The Psychology of Humour. Eds. J. Goldstein and P. McGhee. New York: Academic Press. 3-39.

Kuiper, K. 1991. “Sporting formulae in New Zealand English: two models of male solidarity”. English around the World. Sociolinguistics Perspectives. Ed. J. Cheshire, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 200-209.

Lave, J. and E. Wenger. 1991. Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Leech, G. 1983. Principles of Pragmatics. New York: Longman.

Leech, G. 2005. “Politeness: Is there an East-West divide?” Journal of Foreign Languages 6: 3-31. Republished as Leech, Geoffrey. 2007. “Politeness: is there an East-West divide?” Journal of Politeness Research 3: 167-206.

Liladhar, J. 2000. “Jenny Eclair, ‘The rotting old whore of comedy’: A feminist discussion of the politics of stand-up comedy”. Working Papers on the Web 1. http://extra.shu.ac.uk/wpw/femprac/liladhar.htm

Holger, L. 2009. “Impoliteness and threat responses”. Journal of Pragmatics 41: 1376-1394

Locher, M. 2004. Power and Politeness in Action: Disagreements in Oral Communication. Berlin/New York: Mouton de Gruyter.

Locher, M. 2006. “Polite behaviour within relational work: The discursive approach to politeness”. Multilingua 25: 249-267.

Locher, M. 2010. “Introduction: Politeness and impoliteness in computer-mediated communication”. Journal of Politeness Research 6: 1-6.

Locher, M. and D. Bousfield. 2008. “Introduction: Impoliteness and power in language”. Impoliteness in Language: Studies on its Interplay with Power in Theory and Practice. Eds. D. Bousfield and M. Locher. Berlin and New York: Mouton de Gruyter. 1-13.

Locher, M. and R. Watts. 2005. “Politeness theory and relational work”. Journal of Politeness Research 1: 9-33.

Locher, M. and R. Watts. 2008. “Relational work and impoliteness: Negotiating norms of linguistic behaviour”. Impoliteness in Language: Studies on its Interplay with Power in Theory and Practice. Eds. D. Bousfield and M. Locher. Berlin and New York: Mouton de Gruyter. 77-99.

Lorenzo-Dus, N. 2007. “(Im)politeness and the Spanish media: the case of audience participation debates”. Research on Politeness in the Spanish-Speaking World. Eds. M. E. Placencia and C. Garcia. Mahwah, NJ and London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. 145-166.

Lorenzo-Dus, N. 2009. “‘You’re barking mad, I’m out’: Impoliteness and broadcast talk”. Journal of Politeness Research 5: 159-187.

Martin, R. 2007. The Psychology of Humor. An Integrative Approach. Burlington, MA: Elsevier.

McEnery, T. 2005. Swearing in English: Bad Language, Purity and Power from 1586 to the Present. London: Routledge.

Mills, S. 2003. Gender and Politeness. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mills, S. 2005. “Gender and impoliteness”. Journal of Politeness Research 1: 263-280.

Montagu, A. 1967. The Anatomy of Swearing. New York: The Macmillan.

Mullany, L. 2008. “Impoliteness, power and gender identity in the professional discourse”. Impoliteness in Language: Studies on its Interplay with Power in Theory and Practice. Eds. D. Bousfield and M. Locher. Berlin and New York: Mouton de Gruyter. 231-254.

Nishimura, Y. 2008. “Japanese BBS websites as online communities: Impoliteness perspectives”. Language@Internet 5 (3).

Nishimura, Y. 2010. “Impoliteness in Japanese BBS interactions: Observations from message exchanges in two online communities”. Journal of Politeness Research 6: 35-56.

Norrick, N. 1993. Conversational Joking: Humor in Everyday Talk. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Pilkington, J. 1998. ‘‘‘Don’t try and make out that I’m nice!’ The different strategies women and men use when gossiping”. Ed. J. Coates, Language and Gender: A Reader. Blackwell, Oxford. 254-269.

Pinker, S. 2007. The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature. London: Allen Lane.

Preece, J. 2004. “Etiquette online: From nice to necessary”. Communications of the ACM 47: 56-61.

Read, A. W. 1977. Classic American Graffiti: Lexical Evidence from Folk Epigraphy in Western North America. Wisconsin: Maledicta Press.

Risch, B. 1987. “Women’s derogatory terms for men: that’s right, ‘dirty’ words”. Language in Society 16: 353-358.

Sapolsky, B. and B. Kaye. 2005. “The use of offensive language by men and women in prime time television entertainment”. Atlantic Journal of Communication 13: 292-303.

Scollon, R. and S. Wong Scollon. 1983. “Face in interethnic communication”. Language and Communication. Eds. J. Richards and R. Schmidt. London: Longman. 157-188.

Scollon, R. and S. Wong Scollon. 1995. Intercultural Communication: A Discourse Approach. Oxford: Blackwell.

Shea, V. 1994. Netiquette. San Francisco: Albion Books.

Singleton, D. 2009. “Unspeakable words: the taboo fringe of the lexicon”. In Advances in Discourse Analysis. Ed. M. Dynel. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing. 130-146.

Smith, S. 1998. “The social meanings of swearing: workers and bad language in late imperial and early soviet Russia”. Past and Present 160: 167-202.

Smith, A. 1999. “Problems of conflict management in virtual communities”. Communities in Cyberspace. Eds. M. Smith and P. Kollock. New York: Routledge. 134-166.

Spencer-Oatey, H. 2005. “(Im)politeness, face and perceptions of rapport: unpackaging their bases and interrelationships”. Journal of Politeness Research 1 (1): 95–119.

Stapleton, K. 2003. “Gender and swearing: A community practice”. Women and Language 26: 22-33.

Stapleton, K. 2010. “Swearing”. Interpersonal Pragmatics. Eds. M. Locher and S. L. Graham. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. 289-306.

Stokoe, E. and D. Edwards. 2007. “‘Black this, black that’: racial insults and reported speech in neighbour complaints and police interrogations”. Discourse and Society 18: 337-72.

Stommel, W. 2008. “Conversation analysis and community of practice as approaches to studying online community”. Language@Internet 5 (5).

Terkourafi, M. 2008. “Toward a unified theory of politeness, impoliteness, and rudeness”. Impoliteness in Language: Studies on its Interplay with Power in Theory and Practice. Eds. D. Bousfield and M. Locher. Berlin and New York: Mouton de Gruyter. 45-74.

Thelwall, M. 2008. “Fk yea I swear: cursing and gender in MySpace”. Corpora 3: 83-107

van Lancker, D. and J. Cummings. 1999. “Expletives: neurolinguistic and neurobehavioral perspectives on swearing”. Brain Research Reviews 31: 83-104.

Wajnryb, R. 2005. Language Most Foul. Sydney: Allen and Unwin. Republished in USA as Wajnryb, R. 2005. Expletive Deleted. A Good Look at Bad Language. New York: Free Press, and as Wajnryb, R. 2005. C U Next Tuesday. A Good Look at Bad Language. London: Aurum.

Wardaugh, R. 1986. An Introduction to Sociolinguistics. Oxford: Blackwell.

Watts, R. 2003. Politeness. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Watts, R., Ide, S. and K. Ehlich. 1992. “Introduction”. Politeness in Language: Studies in its History, Theory and Practice. Eds. R. Watts, S. Ide, and K. Ehlich. Berlin/New York: Mouton de Gruyter. 1-17.

Yates, S. 1997. “Gender, identity and CMC”. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning 13: 281-290.

Data source

http://www.youtube.com/comment_servlet?all_comments&v=vFP-MktgOKU&fromurl= /watch%3Fv%3DvFP-MktgOKU

DOI: https://doi.org/10.18172/jes.179

Copyright (c) 2012 Marta Dynel

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

© Universidad de La Rioja, 2013

ISSN 1576-6357

EISSN 1695-4300