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Australians like to think they are egalitarian and there has always been a dimension of this reflected in the use of swearwords in their everyday English. Of course in Australia as elsewhere, there have always been elements trying to stamp them out but attempts have always failed. Australians might object to swearing, but they’ve never shown any sign of giving it up. But “bad” language isn’t always bad either. There are clear benefits in using cusswords — the power of these expressions allow us to let off steam, to spice up what’s being said and in particular show affection, to be funny and to define the gang. Significantly, as many swearwords become more accepted (a form of “verbicide”), some previously mainstream words and phrases themselves become taboo. So what’s new in swearwords, and what does this say about Australians today?
Professor Kate Burridge is a prominent Australian linguist and the current Chair of Linguistics at Monash University. Kate completed her undergraduate training in Linguistics and German at the University of Western Australia. This was followed by three years postgraduate study at the University of London. Kate completed her PhD in 1983 on syntactic change in medieval Dutch. Amongst other things, Kate is also the author of many books, a regular guest on ABC radio and recently presented a TED talk in Sydney on Euphemisms in English.