F***: The economics of coarse language

Update: A couple of readers suggested I re-publish this post without the expletives. So, here it is.

A disclaimer: This post's intention is neither to offend nor to provoke, despite the fact that coarse language is often used for exactly this purpose. I believe that no subject should be off-bounds when it comes to discussion and research, and readers who may be offended are kindly advised to stop reading now.

Organizations and Markets links to an interesting article exploring the history, properties and legal implications of the word f***. You can view the abstract or download the full paper for free at the Social Science Research Network. Here's a snippet from this highly readable piece:

A trilogy of events motivated me to start this project. The first occurred during my second year of law teaching. In my Professional Responsibility course, the lesson for the day was attorney racist and sexist behavior. The case I assigned from a leading casebook was liberally sprinkled with f***, c***, s***, b**** and the like. Sensitive to the power of language, I recited the facts myself rather than ask a student as was my norm.

After the course was over, I was reviewing my student evaluations and discovered this: “I was a little disturbed by the way he seemed to delight in saying ‘c***’ and ‘f*****g b***h’ during class. I think if you’re going to say things like that in class, you should expect it to show up on the evaluation.” Now I was the one a little disturbed. How could any educated adult, much less a graduate student in a professional program, be offended by hearing these words read from a court opinion?

I've been meaning to post something on the economics of coarse language for a while now. The author of 'F***' points out that 'according to psycholinguists, its taboo status is likely due to our deep, subconscious feelings about sex' and offers a simple model explaining how the process of 'taboo-ization' operates through individual, voluntary self-censorship and the interaction with law. For the record, I tend to agree with the author's take on jurisprudence in this area and how it is often misguided and incoherent.

At the same time, I disagree with his assertion that 'word taboo is irrational' and with the taboo-isation model on offer. There are plenty of other words and expressions that convey the same meaning as 'f***', ranging from 'having sex' to 'copulating' to 'sleeping together'. Instead, I see using 'f***' as having the same rationale as wearing a tie: it is a signalling device, a means of imparting information about one's character, feelings, intentions, religious beliefs, socioeconomic class or other non-obvious characteristics.

The important fact to grasp here is that while use of the word 'f***' in a social setting can be costly to its users, in many cases it is actually beneficial. To give an example, using the word 'f***' in someone's presence is a way to show you trust that person (we tend to speak way more freely in the company of friends than in the company of strangers). To give a few more, 'f***' may be used to project power or intimidate, to signal the person uttering it is a 'simple chap' or to challenge authority.

F***, therefore, serves a useful function when it comes to social interactions, as it allows the user to communicate information about himself in an efficient manner. In that sense, it is a highly valuable word that has unsurprisingly survived centuries of use, and will continue to thrive in everyday language as long as social taboos allow it to retain its useful signalling properties.


  1. Anonymous Says:

    Interesting post. Whilst not condoning the use of the word in a public setting or in front of children, i often use the word in a private setting with friends to convey my feelings in an 'efficient manner.' If i'm watching sport on tv, the word can usefully and efficiently sum up my feelings at a particular incident. As a child, i was brought up not to swear and still do think that it should be avoided. Unfortunately however, the impact of swearing on TV and genearally lower standards of public behaviour mean that it has become more and more of an everyday word. I still feel disappointed in myself when i do swear, but unfortunately, it can serve an 'efficient' purpose for me and therefore i will probably continue to use it.