Mother Tongues

a journey through language


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The Science of Swearing

Note: this post contains ~naughty~ words. If you have sensitive eyes, cover them now!

When I first started this blog (which is a university assignment), I was told “no swearing allowed.” This was deeply disappointing to me, because ya know, sometimes a swear word just fits perfectly. Take for example, the ever-non-PC Paul Henry, who recently let “clusterfuck” slip on live television:

Video via Nic Hudson on Youtube (thank you to my mother for alerting me to this incident and sending me the link)

Clearly, clusterfuck was the ~ideal~ word for this situation. It just fits so well.

So this post is all about swearing. Why do we do it and where do swear words come from?

But first…

…I’d like to clear up a common misconception. Some people disparage those who swear by claiming that cussing demonstrates a lack of intelligence and creativity.

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This is quite simply a steaming rotten turd of an idea.

A recent study examined this preposterous hypothesis and found that those who know more swear words also have larger vocabularies in general.

They asked participants to rattle off as many profanities as they could in one minute. The study subjects came up with an impressive 533 “taboo” words including classics like shit and more obscure terms like cum dumpster.

Participants then listed as many animals as they could in one minute – this was used as a kinda proxy indicator of the subject’s overall verbal fluency (in addition to some standard vocab tests). A larger repertoire of curse words correlated with a generally larger vocabulary.

So there you have it. As Stephen Fry so eloquently put it,

“The sort of twee person who thinks swearing is in any way a sign of a lack of education or a lack of verbal interest is just fucking lunatic.”

Where do swear words come from?

The words we consider profane usually relate to taboo subjects: like sex (fuck) or body parts  (tits) and functions (shit). They can also include animal names, blasphemy or racial/gender slurs. To some extent, it is institutions of power or broad societal structures, like the media and religion, that define what constitutes a swear word.

“Swear words are the wild weeds of language – wiry and gleeful, flourishing on the edges of horticulture, for there, on the boundary, rejected language growls robust as weeds, like demented nettles sniggering with brambles and thistles making mischief with the grass.”

Jay Griffiths, from Wild: An Elemental Journey

But taboos change over time – which means our swear words do too. Back in the 1800s, all kinds of words we use regularly nowadays were considered scandalous. According to Bill Bryson in his book The Mother Tongue, when referring to a chicken, the words breast, thigh and leg were no-nos. Instead, you would say white meat, first joint and drumstick. Bulls weren’t bulls either – they were male animals or gentleman cows.

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Gentleman cow

Luckily, those days of drastic sensitivity are behind us. Today, we have a range of swear words that vary from the mildly offensive (crap) to the extremely profane (cunt). On a side note, cunt hasn’t always been such a obscene word. It was imply a factual term for female genitalia. Hilariously, a common street name in Medieval England was Gropecunt Lane – presumably this indicated the location of the red-light district.

 

What about expletives in the brain? Turns out, swear words aren’t really words. They’re more like instinctive outbursts of emotion. Normal language is formed in Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area – but swearwords originate in the limbic system, the brain’s emotion centre. This leads us on to ask the question…

Why do we swear?

“Swearing is like using a horn in the car, which can be used to signify a number of emotions.”

-Timothy Jay, in The Utility and Ubiquity of Taboo Words

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Swearing is beeping the car horn

We use swearwords to express anger, frustration or surprise. Take the word fuck as an example. Fuck is an underrated word in the English language – it’s incredibly versatile. I could say “fuck off” if I wish for you to leave. Or I could say “he’s just fucking around” to describe someone who is messing about in a casual manner. I could say “fuck this!” to express frustration and exasperation. Or I could say “fuck yeah!” to emphasise excitement.

Profanity can be used to insult people – and the inclusion of a swear word is especially rude and mean. (Don’t do it, guys!)

But swear words aren’t always bad. They are important for catharsis and anger management. In fact, one study found that swearing can increase pain tolerance. So the next time you stub your toe, feel free to vent with a good curse word or two.

Swearing also has positive roles in a social context. People that share a similar vocab, and who break taboos together, form bonds. Swear words can be used in storytelling, jokes or social commentary. We even use some swear words as terms of endearment in certain social situations (dickhead, bitch, good cunt).

This highlights how social context shapes the meaning – and offensiveness – of swearwords. If you’re at a business meeting, it’s probably not a great idea to sprinkle your speech with fucks and shits. But in less formal settings, in the company of people you’re comfortable with, you’re more likely to drop fucks like a trucker.

And we do swear quite a lot. The average person’s speech consists of 0.5-0.7% naughty words. To put this in context: we use personal pronouns (I, we, you) 1% of the time.

So now you know all about the science of swearing, and I hope I’ve convinced you that swearing isn’t all bad – in fact, sometimes it’s pretty fuckin’ good.


 

Do you know of any interesting taboo words or insults in other languages? Let me know in the comments!

I will be taking a break from Mother Tongues over the next few weeks – but stay tuned for more 🙂

Many thanks to Rebecca who lent me Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson. Rebecca blogs about earth science at Hot Spot – she has some amazing photos from her travels, check them out!

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