Exploring the weakening of fuck in casual conversation

  • Love, R. (Speaker)
  • Anna-Britta Stenstrom (Speaker)

Activity: Talk or presentation typesOral presentation


In contemporary British English, FUCK is a very common swear word, despite its long-standing reputation as one of the strongest ones. This study examines the use of FUCK among British English teenagers in casual conversation, by comparing youth language corpora from two different periods, the Bergen Corpus of London Teenage Language (COLT), recorded in 1992, and a southeast English sub-corpus of teenage speech from the Spoken British National Corpus 2014 (Spoken BNC2014).

The study takes a pragmatic approach to the use of swear words, focussing on their emphatic and potentially offensive roles in dialogic communication. We explore how the forms and functions of FUCK may have changed among teenagers in casual conversation between the 1990s and 2010s, with a view to establishing whether the empirical data can any longer support an interpretation of FUCK as a ‘strong’ swear word.

In coding all instances of FUCK in both corpora using an adapted version of McEnery & Xiao’s (2004) ‘categories of insult’ scheme, we find evidence of semantic broadening indicated by increased usage of FUCK in idiomatic (fixed) expressions, e.g. ‘what the fuck’; a greater presence of figurative and general expletive usage; and general emphatic usage. Furthermore, we find very little evidence of FUCK being used as a potential term of abuse. We conclude that contemporary usage of FUCK by young speakers is resemblant of a relatively mild swear word, offering further resolution of the ‘swearing paradox’ (Beers-Fägersten, 2007), whereby swearing frequency and offensiveness ought to be negatively correlated.

Beers Fägersten, K. 2007. A sociolinguistic analysis of swearword offensiveness. Saarland Working Papers in Linguistics, 1, 14-37.
McEnery, T., & Xiao, R. 2004. British English: the case of FUCK in the BNC. Language and Literature, 13(3), 325-368.
Period5 Jul 2023
Event titleCorpus Linguistics International Conference 2023
Event typeConference
Conference number12
LocationLancaster, United KingdomShow on map