According to the Second Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, there are 171, 476 words in current use in the English language, with a further 47,156 words that have fallen into obsolescence.
Quite how many of these are swear words is unrecorded, but the key ones, the diamonds and pearls, probably number fewer than a hundred.
Which is a miniscule percentage of the total, especially when you consider how much exposure they receive. (Swearing represents between 0.3 and 0.7% of our speech. For comparison, the most common personal pronouns – I, we etc – represent about 1% of speech.)*
So these are major players in the cast of what comes out of our mouths.
And given their magic powers of emphasis, ability to shock and the way in which they enable the human to grope towards his or her full emotional range, especially where anger is concerned, one might assume that everyone in possession of a complete swearing vocabulary is expert in its handling.
But not so.
Eavesdropping on conversations outside West End pubs after work has let out, it can at times feel as though the strong language makes up close to 100% of the conversational recipe. And maybe that accurately reflects just how much some people feel about their employers. But given that the swear word depends on its taboo nature to work properly, overuse is going to see it run out of batteries. (Exhibit A is the word “bloody” – just a few decades ago considered quite a saucy one, now with all the impact of a dry sponge.)
Also, overdo the mix and people like you less. Being too sweary is like having inadequate personal hygiene or watching porn on the tube. It’s off-putting.
The rewards for masterful usage, though, are significant. A reputation as a great curser is a source of admiration. Whether the volcanic rococo stylings of a Malcolm Tucker…
“Do not fucking interrupt me, son, ever. Now get this into the noggin, right? You breathe a word of this, to anyone, you mincing fucking cunt, and I will tear your fucking skin off, I will wear it to your mother’s birthday party, and I will rub your nuts up and down her leg whilst whistling Bohemian fucking Rhapsody, right?”
…or a point blank cannonball of an insult like Al Pacino as Ricky Roma in Glengarry Glen Ross (“You stupid fucking cunt. You idiot. Whoever told you that you could work with men?’), swearing with verve is a thing of artistry. And who wouldn’t want to bathe in the reputation of an artist?
FYI – the correct expression for all those de-flavoured swear words so beloved of people like Ned Flanders – fish hooks and all that – they are called “minced oaths”. Please don’t mince your oaths.
*Jay T. (2009)> The utility and ubiquity of taboo words. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 4(2), 153-161