Saturday, September 24, 2011

Mike Thelwall: "Fk yea I swear" (2008)

This is a corpus-based study on swearing on UK Myspace profiles. From my perspective, the article is mostly interesting because it contains some valuable statistics on the uses of swear words like fuck, cunt, twat, and shit.

It was published in the journal Corpora, but a preprint is available Mike Thelwall's website.

Metaphors with taboo source domains
As one part of the study, Thelwall and a helper cateogized 427 swear words from their custom-tailored corpus of Myspace comments and profiles.

They used a category scheme borrowed from a similar study on the British National Corpus. It includes categories like "Predicative negative adjective," "Emphatic adjective," etc. This taxonomy was proposed by Tom McEnery and Richard Xiao in "Swearing in modern British English" (2004).

Thelwall and his helper found, out of the 427 cases, not a single case of metaphorical use of a swear word. Thus, fuck was never used in a sense that extended its sexual meaning, as in, I suppose, I'm going to take this delicious cake back to my room and fuck it. It's even hard to force such a metaphorical reading on this sentence.

Literal use of taboo terms
He did find some literal (sexual, religious, etc.) uses of some swear words, but they only constituted 3% of all cases.

Using my definition of "literal," I would probably have to categorize the emphatic use of curse words as literal, since that was their most frequent use in the corpus. This boils down to saying that when you process a phrase like fucking tired, you do not retrieve or need to retrieve the sexual meaning of fuck.

A word like bloody (used emphatically) might have a slightly higher tendency to evoke the "blood-stained" meaning, since it is less common as an emphatic adjective relative to its "literal" meaning.

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