Swearing in English: What is really offensive?

by Laura Jones
February 17, 2021

What were the first words you learnt in English? If you started learning as an adult, after you nailed hello and goodbye, I’ll bet that fuck wasn’t far behind. Some English swear and curse words are almost universally understood; you can tell someone to fuck off in any country in the world and people get it. We will give you an overview of bad words in English but beware: It is not appropriate in certain settings to use those!

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When swearing in English – what is offensive and what isn’t?

Very few swear words are truly offensive in the UK nowadays. Swearing is acceptable in workplaces and among friends, even in families. It’s up to you on an individual basis to work out when you can use these words. So if your British friend tells you to fuck off, don’t immediately assume you should be offended. Because there’s more than one way to use fuck off and understanding this, and many other swear words, will make you a better English speaker. Never forget culture and context when learning a language.

So let’s dive in. 

The most common swear word in English

Fuck

What a brilliantly diverse word fuck is. Used on its own, it usually signifies annoyance:

“Ah fuck, the kettle’s broken, how am I going to make tea?”. 

Fuck can be joined to other words to change its meaning. Fuck off for example can mean get away from me, or it can be used to signify surprise or shock. It all depends on the context and how you say it.

“Nice tits.”

“Fuck off.” (Leave me alone, you sad, lonely creep.)

“I’m pregnant and it’s triplets.”

“Fuck off!” (Hopefully not coming from the father of the triplets, but a likely shocked reaction from friends.)

“I just won £1 million on the lottery.”

“Fuck off!” (A nice surprise, probably.)

Fuck is also a vulgar way to say have sex as in “We fucked last night.” But this phrase makes you sound like an overexcited teenage boy, so it’s one not to use. Learn more about the use of diverse English words that might not always make sense.

Piss off

Another phrasal verb, piss off is a milder version of fuck off. However, it’s still probably not one to use in front of grandma. It usually means go away, but your tone of voice has a big impact on its meaning. 

“You look lovely today, Jean.” 

“Oh, piss off Greg.” (Depending on the tone of voice, Jean is either angry or flirting. It’s an important distinction Greg will have to make himself.)

It can also be used to express surprise or shock:

“James is coming for a drink tonight.”

“Piss off, he never comes out on Wednesdays.”

Bugger off

With a similar meaning to piss off, bugger off is very British. When a Brit says this to an American it usually causes them to giggle and swoon over the accent rather than be offended. And again, it can be used forcefully to tell someone to go away, or playfully to flirt with someone. 

“Drinking wine again, Carol?”

“Oh, bugger off.” (Again, is Carol angry, playful or flirting? Tone of voice and a cheeky smile will give her away.)
Don’t forget to put on your best British accent for this expression!

Bloody hell

This is another very British swear word. Bloody hell is actually quite mild and it’s used to express anger. 

“Bloody hell, Yuri’s lost the tickets to the concert.”

“Yuri, what the bloody hell have you done?”

Learn how to gossip in English and get all the juicy details!

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Bastard

The earliest definition of bastard is a child with unmarried parents, but the word has morphed away from that. Now bastard is used to call someone nasty or unpleasant. It’s usually used to talk about men:

“The bastard cheated on me.”

It’s also used in Britain to say that something is difficult or unpleasant to do:

“Commuting into London every day is a bastard.”

If you want to experience bastard in a strong northern accent, see this video featuring the brilliant actor, Sean Bean.

Wanker/tosser

These are more swear words which are usually directed at men. They mean a stupid or unpleasant person. 

“Ah Yuri you wanker, how did you lose the tickets?”

“Logan’s a tosser. He never pays for his drinks.”

Bollocks

One of the greatest British swear words is bollocks. It means testicles, but it’s used in some wonderful ways, most often to exclaim when something has gone wrong:

“The train’s delayed and we’re going to miss our flight.”

“Bollocks!”

It’s also used to call out a liar:

“I’ve been working hard on this all day.”

“Bollocks! You were playing computer games for most of the morning.”

And it can be used as a verb, to mean a telling off. 

“My boss bollocked me for coming in late three times this week.”


Just to be clear, we are not encouraging you to start swearing at your lovely English teachers (‘bugger off, I’m not doing that homework,’ is actually quite offensive). But now you should be able to enjoy some great British banter with a side of swear words thrown in.

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Laura is a freelance writer and was an ESL teacher for eight years. She was born in the UK and has lived in Australia and Poland, where she writes blogs for Lingoda about everything from grammar to dating English speakers. She’s definitely better at the first one. She loves travelling and that’s the other major topic that she writes on. Laura likes pilates and cycling, but when she’s feeling lazy she can be found curled up watching Netflix. She’s currently learning Polish, and her battle with that mystifying language has given her huge empathy for anyone struggling to learn English. Find out more about her work in her portfolio.