Well, I finally kept my promise! After years and years of putting off students’ requests to know more about “bad” language, a few weeks ago I decided to give a B2.2 group the low-down on the wonderful world of English profanity.
Of course, my intention was not to encourage students to use English swear words – in fact they spent most of the class talking about using swear words in their own language – but to satiate their natural curiosity and reflect on how taboo words function both linguistically and socially.
Apart from being taboo, profanity can also be beautifully poetic. Fair enough, swear words are rude, obscene and vulgar – well they would be, wouldn’t they? – but when we curse, insult or blaspheme we are often (although not always) at our most morphosyntactically creative. If you don’t believe me, watch this video or go back and have a closer look at your Shakespeare.
What follows is not so much a lesson as a collection of activities which you can pick and choose from. Have fun and just let those expletives emerge! … Needless to say, on your own head be it! I take no responsibility for any offence, distress or awkwardness caused! ;-)
The video below is a humourous mash-up of the “swearing scene” from The King’s Speech. As a fun lead-in activity, show your students the video and ask them to write down as many of the swear words as they can.
Use the Wordle below for ordering/ranking activities, e.g. degree of offensiveness, reference (sex, parts of the body, bodily effluvia, religion etc), parts of speech (nouns, verbs etc)
Note : It might be a good idea to use the title of this post (F*ck! The f*cking fucker’s fucked! | example context – somebody whose car refuses to start) to illustrate the syntactical versatility of many swear words.
Ask your students to discuss the following questions in pairs or small groups (I recommend screen-projecting this document rather than making photocopies).
After introducing students to the expression “a four-letter word”, you could go on to focus on other “numerical” compound adjectives. Here’s a quick pairwork activity which involves students translating from their mother tongue. As I work in Barcelona the examples are in Spanish, but the document is downloadable and editable so you can easily adapt it to your teaching context.
Videos On Swearing
- A two-part video of Steven Pinker on the science of swearing (part 2 here)
- Stephen Fry on the joys of swearing
- The Sex Pistols swearing when interviewed by Bill Grundy in 1976
- A toddler mispronouncing frog
Texts for discussion
- Should swearing be against the law? (BBC)
- Kids and swearing (The Guardian)
- The King’s Speech given a 12A rating (The Guardian)
- Guardian opinion article on the Feel Free to Insult Me campaign