“The foolish and wicked practice of profane cursing and swearing is a vice so mean and low that every person of sense and character detests and despises it.”
— George Washington
“I’ve been accused of vulgarity. I say that’s bullshit.”
— Mel Brooks
Whether you’re staunchly anti-swearing, like George Washington, or unapologetically foul-mouthed, like Mel Brooks, you can’t deny that swear words are a significant part of human communication. So let’s put our knee-jerk reactions aside, don our lab coats and look at swear words with calm, scientific detachment.
Be warned: This article features enough curse words to be rated R. Hey, you can’t make an omelette without cracking some goddamn eggs!
What makes a word bad?
For a word to qualify as a swear word it must have the potential to offend, crossing a cultural line into taboo territory. As a general rule, swear words can be traced to taboo subjects. This is pretty logical; the topic is off-limits so the related words aren’t meant to be spoken either. Certain topics are almost universally taboo — death, disease, excrement — you know, icky stuff. Sex is another classic taboo — as the English “fuck!”, Italian “fanculo!” and Russian “блядь!” illustrate.
But preferred themes for profanity can also reflect differences among cultures. Germans are pretty relaxed about sex and nudity, so they rarely use sexually-themed curse words. These words are uttered so rarely that they still have the power to make people cringe. As a result, “ficken” sounds way dirtier and meaner to most German speakers than the equivalent “fuck” sounds to most English speakers. German swearing parlance keeps things down-to-earth and poop-oriented with “Kacke!”, “Mist!” and the world-famous “Scheiße!” — which is used so often that it’s become as harmless as “darn it.”
But subject matter isn’t the only criteria for curse words: context also plays a big role. Sex might be a taboo subject, but not in a gynecologist’s office. Try insulting someone using medical terms and your victim will probably just be confused: “Did you just call me a reproductive organ head?” Among friends, you might curse quite casually and jokingly, but the same words would come across as terribly insulting during a job interview.
High and holy things taken out of context create another category of swear words: blasphemy. For example, “God,” “hell” and “Jesus Christ” are inoffensive in the context of a sermon, but can be cutting when shouted in anger. So-called “liturgical swearing” is taken to rarified heights by French Canadians. A properly angry Quebecer can unleash a real scorcher like, “Criss de calice de tabarnak d’osti de sacrament!” which translates literally as “Christ of the chalice of the taberlance of the host of the sacrament!” This might sound tame in English, but it’s the French-Canadian equivalent of a hail of F-bombs.
The power of #&@%!
Like antibiotics, curses can lose their power with overuse. Cable TV liberally douses American living rooms in as many “goddamns,” “shits,” “cocksuckers” and “motherfuckers” as Tony Soprano and Al Swearengen can string together. So, did those words make you cringe, or have you been watching too much TV? According to a report from The Parents Television Council, profanity on primetime TV increased by 69% between 2005 and 2010 (and no, we didn’t make up that number). It’s hard to say whether the increase on TV reflected an increase in swearing among average Americans, or whether TV “corrupted” how Americans speak, but the result is the same: more Americans are becoming inoculated against these words — perhaps even to the point of immunity. Taboos change and so swearing must too.
Some taboos disappear — “damn” doesn’t carry the fire and brimstone heft of damnation that it once did — while social changes create new taboos. Before the civil rights movement in the United States, derogatory epithets describing one’s race, creed or sexual orientation were used by all sorts of regular folks who didn’t consider for a second that they were being prejudiced. Today, these words are most certainly taboo. But negative epithets aren’t always pulled out of circulation. They can take 180º turns when they are reappropriated: the “N-word” is the obvious elephant in the room, but less charged examples include “queer” or even “nerd.”
Why do we swear?
“Under certain circumstances, profanity provides a relief denied even to prayer.”
Most of the time, swearing is an emotive reaction. When we’re frustrated, surprised or angry, cursing offers an emotional release. Experiments have even shown that swearing increases the body’s ability to endure pain. To test this, researchers at Keele University in the UK had volunteers hold their hand in icy water for as long as they could stand it.
“When participants repeated a swear word, they were able to hold their hand in ice-cold water for, on average, some 40 seconds longer compared with when they repeated a non-swear word. In addition, participants reported reduced perceived pain in the swearing condition.”
2. Insult, abuse and exclusion
Swear words are not needed to insult someone — a simple “you’re ugly” usually gets the point across — but they do crank up the mean factor. They also act as rage concentrate: why explain to your neighbor that you hate him when “fuck you” puts that gosh darn son-of-a-gun in his place with only two words?
Please note: if you curse at people who can’t hear you (commuters in their cars, athletes on TV), you’re just letting off steam, which belongs to the previous category.
3. Group solidarity
Among friends, swearing has a crucial social function: sharing a lexicon of words, and breaking societal taboos, bonds people together. Ritual insults among friend are not abusive, but actually a sign of belonging to the group. In this context, “fuckface,” dickhead,” “bitch” and “asshole” can all be terms of endearment. People tend to swear more in same-sex groups of peers and when the atmosphere is relaxed. People swear the least when things are really tense.
4. Style and emphasis
As any stand-up comedian can tell you, swear words are powerful tools. More often than not, a well-placed “fuck!” is the alchemical ingredient that turns lead into comedy gold. You can’t make a statement any more emphatic than by dropping an F-bomb where a more timid and prudent soul would use a boring old adverb. Swear words add emotion and urgency to otherwise neutral sentences.
Why does swearing capture our attention?
As far as your brain is concerned, swear words aren’t even words — they are concentrated lumps of emotion. They are even stored in a completely different part of the brain from every other word we know! Formal language is stored in the Broca and Wernicke area in the brain. Swear words, however, are stored in the limbic system — a complex system of neural networks that control emotions and drives.
This is why one patient who suffered from severe aphasia (damage to the language center in his brain after a stroke) could still say “well,” “yeah,” “yes,” “no,” “goddammit” and “shit” — even though he had otherwise lost all faculties of speech. He could even produce these words in the appropriate context, but when asked by researchers to read them off a page he was unable to do so.
This neurological insight helps explain why every effort to eradicate swearing throughout history has failed. Banning words that are actually linked to emotions is just as impossible as banning the emotions themselves. Knowing human nature, that will never fucking work.