James Harbeck has a BBC.com article on a subject dear to my heart:
You might think that the definition of ‘bad’ words would be similar around the world. You wouldn’t be entirely right. Strong language – swearing, profanity, whatever you want to call it – is special.
If everyday language is like the earth’s crust and the soil we garden our lives in, strong language is like volcanoes and geysers erupting through it from the mantle below. Our social traditions determine which parts of the crust are the thin points. It’s not enough to feel strongly about something; it has to have a dominating societal power and control structure attached to it. Strong language often involves naming things you desire but aren’t supposed to desire; at the very least, it aims to upset power structures that may seem a bit too arbitrary.
There’s nothing groundbreaking, but it’s a nice writeup with examples from all over:
Faeces is preferred in strong language in fewer places than you may expect. It does show up here and there: Fijian and other Austronesian languages, Arabic, and Albanian, to name a few. In the British-French-German circle, shit, merde, and Scheiße are bad words thanks to cleanliness-focused social controls (should we say anal retentiveness?). But in Sweden, while you might say skit when you’re annoyed, you can even say it in front of your grandmother. Other cleanliness taboos figure in some languages. The cloths you use to clean your backside are especially bad language in Jamaican Patois.
A few places have a special horror of disease. You can use “cholera!” as a cathartic expletive in Polish (if you’re of an older generation) and you can wish cholera on someone in Thai. Much of the Dutch strong language makes use of cancer, cholera, and typhus; if you want to make something offensive in Dutch, just add kanker to it. – “cancer sufferer” is an extremely coarse insult. Poor health seems to upset the Dutch more than violations of the moral code.
Don’t click if you’re offended by strong language or cultural generalizations!