Swearing like a trooper, a trucker, a sailor and . . . a starling?

At Strong Language, the sweary blog about swearing, I have a new post up about the idiom swear like a [X]. After seeing the phrase swear like a trooper (maybe in Beryl Bainbridge’s A Quiet Life), I got to wondering how it arose; a few hours later I had found more [X]s than I’d ever imagined existed.

Some are common, others less so but familiar, and there are many, many obscure variants, plays on the clichés, and predictable/peculiar one-offs. And that’s before we even look at equivalent expressions in other languages, which is where the starling in the post title comes in (Czech, as it happens).

After looking at why trooper and sailor are the usual objects, I dug into the corpus data, which produced some graphs and lists of fun phrases: swearing like a sailor’s parrot, a drunken bushwhacker, a surly barmaid, and a foul-mouthed trooper stubbing their toe on a slang dictionary, for example.

Table showing frequencies of various words in the expression 'swear like a [X]' and equivalents with 'swears', 'cursing', etc., in four language corpora: NOW, iWeb, COCA, and COHA. The figures for four words are as follows. Sailor: 288. 181, 62, 12. Trooper: 87, 74, 4, 14. Trucker: 24, 18, 4, 3. Pirate: 5, 6, 1, 7.

Sample of data on ‘[swear] like a [X]’ in various language corpora

Stereotypes were immediately apparent: most of the swearers in the expression are working-class men; quite a few are drunk. I wrote a bit about the class and gender side of things. Think fishwives, flyting, and foul-mouthed royalty.

Finally, the post lists versions of the phrase in other languages and dialects: 25, at last count. Comparing these with English is an interesting exercise. If you know a variant in another language, or invented your own, I’d love to hear about it in a comment over there.

In a recent post here, I said that time and motivation to blog had been scarce. That goes double for Strong Language, so I’m glad I found something to get my teeth into before the year was up. It’s also been years since I posted about SL here; an update was well overdue.

Things have slowed down on SL: eight posts this year, from five of our contributors (including me). On the plus side, that means it’s easier to catch up if you want to. I’ve been writing about sweary songs, the verbs unass and ass up, strong language in the films Blue Velvet, The Royal Tenenbaums, and Home Alone (well, sort of), and more.

From our other contributors there are posts on sweary trademarks, sweary brands, taboo avoidance, swearing in politics, swearing in history, the annual Tucker Awards for Excellence in Swearing, and lots more. Fill yer filthy boots.

Finally, a reminder that I’m on Mastodon: @stancarey@mastodon.ie. I’ve been settling in now that the other place is declining rapidly in various unsavoury ways. It’s kinder and less frantic on Mastodon. There’s more moss and alt text, no sponsored ads, no gamified conflict. I like it there.


5 Responses to Swearing like a trooper, a trucker, a sailor and . . . a starling?

  1. Brendan says:

    Brilliant! I’m annoyed that Slovaks don’t swear like Budgies.

  2. Brendan says:

    In saying that it probably would be Australian’s saying that. Sadly I have no idea what the indigenous bird population??? of Slovakia is. Perhaps Elon Knows.

  3. Ed Barrett says:

    I had to look up ‘flyting’ – the Wikipedia article is worth a gander:


    • Stan Carey says:

      Geoffrey Hughes has written about it in his Encyclopedia of Swearing and his shorter book Swearing: A Social History of Foul Language, Oaths and Profanity in English. I imagine there are scholarly works dedicated to the history of flyting, but Hughes was my source. I don’t know the subject well enough to assess the Wikipedia article, but at least it has some respectable-looking references.

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