Swearing and Slang–Why Understanding Words Matters


Amanda Platz

“It’s not what you say, it’s what people hear that matters.” Throughout his book Words that Work, Frank Luntz drills home this point. Understanding how people will interpret what you say is crucial to any venture involving words: whether that be speaking in front of your entire division in chapel and realizing that you have swear words in the essay you’re reading, or writing a 1200 word blog post for your English class, understanding how you use words and what those words mean is important. Understanding how those words will impact your audience is even more crucial.

            For example: This Wednesday, I shared part of an essay in chapel that I wrote for my Nonfiction class last semester. This essay contained a personal story in which I had written down part of a conversation between one of my friends and I—a friend who, unfortunately, enjoys swearing and brings out my own tendencies towards misusing swear words. Now, I didn’t have a problem with this. However, I realized as I was about to speak the swear word out into the room that there may be other people in the room who did not have fond feelings towards mild swear words, as I do. Basically, I have no problem with the occasional swear word, but other people in my division may not share my feelings. Especially in a chapel setting. Twice in a row. Before I had time to think, they were out of my mouth, and hanging in the air. Those who knew me best were chuckling. I moved on, finished reading my essay, and sat down.

            It was after chapel that I found out that several of my friends had heard people gasping in the room when I read the swear words aloud. One professor even tensed up as I read the swear words. Now, I emphasize again that it was what I would consider a very mild swear word. In order to avoid using it in this blog post, I will merely say that it was a more impolite word referring to dung. But despite my own nonchalant attitude towards swearing, others did not share my feelings. Especially in a chapel service.

            I heard nothing but complements about my essay from everyone I talked to, however my friends did make fun of me for “being the first person to swear in chapel.” Perhaps I should have considered my words and perhaps removed the offensive words before sharing the essay during a division chapel.

            Understanding how we use words, and how those words are understood by other people, is crucial to writing, speaking, and all other forms of communication using words. From my example, understanding that other people may take offense to swear words being spoken aloud by a speaker in chapel was something I should have taken into consideration before I shared my essay in front of my division during our division chapel. In other experiences, understanding the meaning of certain words, or understanding how words and phrases are used in our current culture, is very important when you write an essay or prepare to speak.

Frank Luntz takes an entire chapter to discuss etymology and how old words sometimes pick up new meanings, or how sometimes new words are invented to explain different ideas. Words change over time, giving new meanings to old words or adding new words to the language to explain. He also analyzes 2007s version of modern slang. Yet even some of these slang terms have different meanings now then what Luntz tells us they mean. For example, Luntz says that that “got game” means “ability that earns the respect of others” (54). However, Urban Dictionary’s primary definition of “got game” is “your ability to flirt or hit on a member of the opposite sex, with style, class, tact, attitude, and charm.” (Urban Dictionary) Clearly, words change over time. Even slang. And understanding the fast-changing terms is important when you speak.

            The word “woke” used to merely be a past tense form of the word “wake.” But now, according to Merriam-Webster, “woke” means “aware of and actively attentive to important facts and issues (especially issues of racial and social justice).” The show Brooklyn-Nine-Nine uses slang words like this with great effect. There is a scene in which Sergeant Jeffords (hereafter known as “Sarge”) tells his coworkers and fellow police officers the events of the night before: he was stopped by another police officer in his own neighborhood, in front of his own home, for no reason other than that he was walking through his neighborhood. His coworkers are all obviously upset, except for Scully, who was simply confused. He starts to act sympathetic before saying “I have no idea what’s going on.” His best friend Hitchcock replies “He was stopped for being black. Get woke, Scully.”

            This scene uses modern slang very effectively, not only to get across the point Sarge had been trying to make—that he was upset because he, a police officer, was stopped while walking in front of his own house, because he was black—but also for comedic effect. Hitchcock and Scully are the oldest and often most out-of-touch with modern society members of the force. Hearing Hitchcock to tell Scully to “get woke” engages the audience, mostly consisting of Millennials and Gen-Z people. Understanding their audience and using words their audience will understand and be entertained by is a great way to not only talk about a serious issue, but also to provide just the right amount of humor to lighten up the tension in the sitcom. It also encourages the generations who use this slang to pay attention and respect the speaker, who took the time to make sure they understood slang that these generations use regularly!

Frank Luntz says that “To create words that work, you have to pay close attention to the vitality of the language. You have to understand how people use words today, and what those words have come to mean” (54). In order to use words effectively, we must understand how those words are used today. Assuming we know how people will understand a word could lead to a massive misunderstanding and cause unnecessary issues—issues that could have been avoided if you had looked up the word, or had simply used a different word.

Understanding that some people do not have a natural affinity for swear words is an important part of learning how to communicate well. If I had merely removed the swear words from my essay, it would have flowed just as well, and no one would have been offended that someone said swear words in chapel. Also, understanding slang words, how those change, and how they can be used even in modern sitcoms, can strongly affect how people understand what you are trying to say. Using slang properly could make you more relatable to young people and encourage them to listen to what you have to say. Using words well and with understanding will ensure that people see you as someone they want to listen to. And if you can throw some slang into your essay, or some pop-culture references, that’s even better