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The Science of Swearing

5 Dec, 2011

We’ve all cursed loudly at some point or other if things have gone against us. Perhaps it’s happened to you today. But why do we do it? James Lloyd, in his shortlisted entry for the 2011 Wellcome Trust Science Writing Prize, discusses how swearing can make us feel better.

“Out, you greensickness carrion,” bellowed Capulet to a Romeo-smitten Juliet. “Out, you baggage! You tallow-face!”

Swear words may have evolved since Shakespeare’s day, but cursing has never gone out of fashion. We swear when we stub our toe, we cuss when the GPS sends us down a dead end and we take God’s name in vain when our computer crashes for the fifth time in a row. In other words, we utter expletives to express sentiments that milder words simply wouldn’t do justice to.

It is estimated that around 0.5% of words in typical everyday speech are swear words. Given an average rate of 15,000 words spoken in a day, this amounts to an impressive 75 daily profanities – a figure that even Captain Haddock would be proud of.

Oh my sacred deity!

The taboo of swearing in English, and many other languages, can be traced back to religion. Blasphemy was, of course, only possible once there was a God to curse, and this was strongly prohibited by the third of the Ten Commandments. The word ‘profanity’ itself even has its roots in a Latin word meaning ‘outside of the temple’.

In today’s more secular society, religious swearing has less of an impact. Luckily for serial swearers there exists a whole host of other colourful cusswords from which to choose, most of which are related to bodily functions and sex – a feature that is, unsurprisingly, common to other languages.

Steven Pinker, an experimental psychologist at Harvard University, has proposed that our brains are hard-wired to react to these taboo words: “Once a word is seen or heard, we are incapable of treating it as a squiggle or noise; we reflexively look it up in memory and respond to its meaning, including its connotation.”

It is thought that the amygdalae, two almond-shaped regions located deep within the temporal lobes of the brain, are responsible for this reaction. These emotion-processing centres have been shown to ‘light up’ when we read a swear word, in an automatic neurological response over which we have no control.

So, why do we swear?

Scientific interest in swearing began way back in 1901, with a study entitled The Psychology of Profanity. Its author, G. T. W. Patrick, wrote that swearing occurs when, “there is a high degree of emotion, usually of the aggressive type, accompanied by a certain feeling of helplessness”. One suspects that he spent a lot of his time on the football terraces.

Timothy Jay, a psychologist and world-renowned cursing expert at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, estimates that two-thirds of swearing incidences are related to spontaneous expressions of anger and frustration. He argues that our ability to swear evolved (and persists) because taboo words can communicate these strong emotions more effectively than non-taboo words.

However, Jay also highlights a number of situations where cursing can actually promote social harmony and cohesion. These include “jokes and humour, social commentary, sex talk, storytelling, in-group slang, and self-deprecation or ironic sarcasm”.

Cathartic cussing

Another possible benefit of swearing is the catharsis of spewing out obscenities when, for example, we bang our head or step on a wasp. As Patrick quaintly put it in his 1901 study, “the most striking effect [of swearing] is that of a pleasant feeling of relief from a painful stress”.

In 2009, a team of psychologists led by Keele University’s Richard Stephens set out to investigate this swearing response. Willing volunteers were asked to immerse their hand in a container of ice cold water for as long as possible while repeating either a swear word or a ‘normal’ word. It was found that, on average, the ‘swearing group’ could withstand pain for around 40 seconds longer than the ‘non-swearing group’.

The authors propose that this pain-lessening effect may occur because swearing induces a fight-or-flight response, fueling an emotion such as anger or aggression that increases the heart rate and reduces pain perception. “I would advise people, if they hurt themselves, to swear,” suggests Stephens.

Potty-mouthed science

However, despite such advances, the science of swearing is still far from complete. In his recent review of the topic, Timothy Jay picked out a number of unexplained puzzlers. For example, how exactly do children acquire word taboos? Why do only some sufferers of Tourette’s syndrome swear? Why are there gender differences in cussing habits?

Such questions are likely to be answered by the combined efforts of psychologists, neuroscientists and sociologists. But for now, we can revel in the knowledge that profanities are an integral part of being human; the chocolate chips in the muffin of language; the dashes of sherry in the trifle of speech. Because, as the notorious swearer Lenny Bruce once said, “life is a four letter word”.

James Lloyd

This is an edited version of James’s original essay. Views expressed are the author’s own.

Find out more about the Wellcome Trust Science Writing Prize in association with the Guardian and the Observer and read our ‘How I write about science‘ series of tips for aspiring science writers.

Over the coming months, we’ll be publishing the shortlisted essays in this year’s inaugural competition.

Image Credit: Auntie P on Flickr
One Comment leave one →
  1. Jennifer Garrett permalink
    5 Dec, 2011 9:43 pm

    Great article.
    There was a very amusing repeat of Dr Richard Stephen’s experiment on Stephen Fry’s Planet Word using Brian Blessed as the subject. Apparently Dr Stephen’s inspiration for the research topic came from his wife’s experience during childbirth!

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