Insulting (in) The Country Wife: a Pragmatic Analysis of Insults and Swearwords


  • Fabio Ciambella Università degli Studi della Tuscia



This article focuses on taboo language (esp. insults and curses) adopted by characters in William Wycherley’s The Country Wife (1675), aimed at explicitly/implicitly, directly/indirectly offending other characters. To this purpose, I will first combine Alan and Burridge’s socio-cultural model on taboo language (2006) with pragmatic frameworks of impoliteness (Culpeper 1996 and following revisions/integrations) and with Jucker and Taavitsainen’s diachronic model of space pragmatics of insults (2000), and then examine pragmatic interfaces with semantics and morpho-syntax in the comedy. In fact, The Country Wife presents a rich and varied panorama well suited to a pragmastylistic analysis of taboo language, i.e. insults, offences, swearwords, etc. The offensive discourse, albeit primarily concerning pragmatics, has numerous interfaces with various levels of linguistic analysis, from phonetics/ phonology to syntax and lexical semantics, with the main purpose, I will argue, of threatening and undermining the honour of the characters in the play, understood as virtue and reputation, and ultimately, in pragmatic terms, as facework. I believe that power relations among characters are explained in terms of (im)polite conversational exchanges that also highlight social and gender boundaries at a time in the late seventeenth century when such issues were pivotal. Therefore, adopting Wycherley’s best-known comedy as case study for a pragmastylistic analysis of insults I want to offer an in-depth, yet limited, exploration of the conscious exploitation of linguistic strategies by Restoration playwrights.

Keywords: The Country Wife; honour; facework; (im)politeness strategies; pragmatic interfaces