Philosopher Rebecca Roache at Aeon analyzes what makes swear words so offensive; she develops the concept of “offence escalation,” which I was not familiar with and which makes sense to me. She distinguishes swears from slurs and from religious taboo language, though she says up front that the lines are fuzzy, and she provides the requisite list of foreign examples (I particularly liked Mandarin 肏你祖宗十八代 ‘Fuck your ancestors to the 18th generation’ and Korean 당신의 어머니는 일본어 전함을 충족하기 위해 밖으로 수영 ‘Your mother swam out to meet the Japanese battleships’) [N.b.: Apparently this is incorrect Korean — SD]. I was tickled by seeing this exchange from Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, which I recently edited (I was tickled by it there too):
Demetrius Villain, what hast thou done?
Aaron That which thou canst not undo.
Chiron Thou hast undone our mother.
Aaron Villain, I have done thy mother.
And there’s a nice brief discussion of why swear words often fail to function like other words:
Steven Pinker argues that ‘fucking’ is not an adjective because, if it were, ‘Drown the fucking cat’ would be interchangeable with ‘Drown the cat which is fucking’, just as ‘Drown the lazy cat’ is interchangeable with ‘Drown the cat which is lazy’. Quang Phuc Dong – a sweary pseudonym of the late linguist James D. McCawley – thinks, for various reasons, that ‘Fuck you!’ is not an imperative (that is, a command) like ‘Wash the dishes!’ One reason is that, unlike other imperatives, ‘Fuck you!’ cannot be conjoined with other imperatives in a single sentence. We can say ‘Wash the dishes and sweep the floor!’, but not ‘Wash the dishes and fuck you!’ And Nunberg suggests that ‘fucking’ is not an adverb like ‘very’ or ‘extraordinarily’, because while you can say, ‘How brilliant was it? Very,’ and, ‘How brilliant was it? Extraordinarily,’ you can’t say, ‘How brilliant was it? Fucking.’
In short, if you’re interested in swears and swearing, click the goddamn link. (Thanks go to both Pauls.)