How Swearing Works

Firefly and Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

According to the "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," the most offensive word in the universe is "Belgium." The"Firefly" universe, on the other hand, uses invented swears and Chinese curses.

We all know what "bad words" are. Unlike most other language rules, we learn about swearwords and how to use them without any real study or classroom instruction. Even very young children know which words are naughty, although they don't always know exactly what those words mean.

But swearwords aren't quite as simple as they seem. They're paradoxical -- saying them is taboo in nearly every culture, but instead of avoiding them as with other taboos, people use them. Most associate swearing with being angry or frustrated, but people swear for a number of reasons and in a variety of situations. Swearing also serves multiple purposes in social interactions. Not only that, your brain treats swear words differently than it treats other words.

Most research on swearing printed in English discusses swearing in English. Although every culture has its own swearwords, the statistics in this article primarily come from research involving English-speaking people in the United States and Great Britain. Research related to swearing and the brain, however, should apply to speakers of any language.

People learning a new language often learn its swearwords first or learn and use swearwords from a variety of languages. Anyone who learns through immersion rather than in a classroom tends to use more swearwords and colloquialisms. People who speak more than one language often use swearwords from different languages, but feel that the words from their primary language have the most emotional impact. For this reason, some multilingual speakers will switch to a second language to express taboo subjects.

In this article, we'll explore what makes words into swearwords, why most Americans use them and how society responds to swearing. We'll also look at one of its most fascinating aspects -- the way it affects your brain.

Virtually every language in every culture in the world has its own unique swearwords. Even different dialects of the same language can have different expletives. The very first languages probably included swearwords, but since writing evolved after speaking did, there's no record of who said the first swearword or what that word was. Because of the taboos surrounding it, written language histories also include few records of the origins of swearing. Even today, many dictionaries don't include profanity, and comparatively few studies have examined swearing.

Most researchers agree that swearing came from early forms of word magic. Studies of modern, non-literate cultures suggest that swearwords came from the belief that spoken words have power. Some cultures, especially ones that have not developed a written language, believe that spoken words can curse or bless people or can otherwise affect the world. This leads to the idea that some words are either very good or very bad.

While spoken swearwords from different languages don't sound alike, they generally fall into one of two categories. Most of the time, they are either deistic (related to religion) or visceral (related to the human body and its functions). Some expletives also relate to a person's ancestry or parentage. While some linguists classify racial slurs and epithets as swearwords, others place them in a separate category. So the words themselves are similar, but in different cultures people swear at different times and in different contexts.

By the second book in the series, the world of Harry Potter had its own racial epithet -- "mudblood," a repugnant word for wizards of non-magical parentage.

In the Western, English-speaking world, people from every race, class and level of education swear. In America, 72 percent of men and 58 percent of women swear in public. The same is true for 74 percent of 18 to 34 year olds and 48 percent of people who are over age 55 [ ref]. Numerous language researchers report that men swear more than women, but studies that focus on women's use of language theorize that women's swearing is simply more context specific.

So why do so many people swear? We'll look at how swearing works in relationships and social interactions next.


Why People Swear

Star Trek IV

Rather than establishing his place in a group, Spock's swearing in "Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home" humorously demonstrates that he does not belong.

In early childhood, crying is an acceptable way to show emotion and relieve stress and anxiety. As children, (especially boys) grow up, Western society discourages them from crying, particularly in public. People still need an outlet for strong emotions, and that's where swearing often comes in.

A lot of people think of swearing as an instinctive response to something painful and unexpected (like hitting your head on an open cabinet door) or something frustrating and upsetting (like being stuck in traffic on the way to a job interview). This is one of the most common uses for swearing, and many researchers believe that it helps relieve stress and blow off steam, like crying does for small children.

Beyond angry or upset words said in the heat of the moment, swearing does a lot of work in social interactions. In the past, researchers have theorized that men swear to create a masculine identity and women swear to be more like men. More recent studies, however, theorize that women swear in part because they are emulating women they admire [ ref].

In addition, the use of particular expletives can:

Swearing vs. Cursing

A lot of people use the words "swearing" and "cursing" interchangeably. Some language experts, however, differentiate between the two. Swearing involves using profane oaths or invoking the name of a deity to give a statement more power or believability. Cursing takes aim at something specific, wishing for or trying to cause a target's misfortune.

  • Establish a group identity
  • Establish membership in a group and maintain the group's boundaries
  • Express solidarity with other people
  • Express trust and intimacy (mostly when women swear in the presence of other women)
  • Add humor, emphasis or "shock value"
  • Attempt to camouflage a person's fear or insecurity

People also swear because they feel they are expected to or because swearing has become a habit. But just because swearing plays all these roles doesn't mean it's socially acceptable, or even legal. In the next sections, we'll look at social and legal responses to swearing.


Social Responses to Swearing

How much is too much? One "South Park" episode uses the same expletive 162 times.

All languages have swearwords, but the words that are considered expletives and the social attitudes toward them change over time. In many languages, words that used to be taboo are now commonplace and other words have taken their place as obscenities. In American English, the words currently considered to be the most vulgar and offensive have existed for hundreds of years. Their designation as obscenities, however, took place largely during and after the 1800s. In fact, the use of the word "dirty" to describe words arose in the 19 th century, as did the word "profanity" [ ref].

Most languages also have a hierarchy of swearwords -- some words are mildly offensive, while others are nearly unspeakable. This hierarchy usually has more to do with a society's attitude toward the word than what the word actually means. Some words that describe extremely vulgar acts aren't thought of as swearwords at all. In English-speaking countries, however, many people avoid using racial slurs to swear for fear of appearing racist. Women also tend to avoid the use of expletives that relate to the female sexual anatomy out of the belief that the words contain an element of sexism.

A little can go a long way for movies that use
exactly one expletive.

Western society generally views swearing as more appropriate for men than for women. Women who swear appear to violate more societal taboos than men who swear. People also tend to judge women more harshly than men for their use of obscenities. Society in general can also make moral judgments about women who swear and use non-standard English [ref]. In general, women also believe swearwords are more powerful and express more guilt about using them than men do.

Swearing on the Job

Swearing makes up 3 percent of all adult conversation at work and 13 percent of all adult leisure conversation. Source

In many English-speaking communities, expletives also carry connotations of lower classes and lower economic standing. Although people from every economic level use swearwords, many people associate their use with people of lower income and education.

Swearing isn't just a social taboo, though. In some cases, it's illegal. Next, we'll look at expletives and the law.


Swearing and the Law

Just as cultures have different attitudes toward swearing and people who swear, they also have different laws governing people's use of expletives. The Constitution of the United States guarantees that people have the right to freedom of speech in the First Amendment. The First Amendment applies specifically to Congress and the federal government, including the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Courts generally interpret that it also applies to state governments.

United States Supreme Court obscenity cases have involved George Carlin's "Class Clown" and its infamous "seven words," as well as a stage production of "Hair" and Kurt Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse-Five."

So at first glance, it seems like people should be able to swear whenever they want and wherever they want because of their First Amendment rights. However, constitutional law can be tricky, and a wealth of court cases has led to a wide variety of judgments surrounding swearing. Obscenity generally falls into the category of unprotected speech -- speech that is exempt from to the First Amendment rule. Other types of unprotected speech include:

  • Language that incites people to violence or illegal activity
  • Libel and defamation
  • Threats
  • False advertising

The unprotected speech exclusion is one of the reasons why the FCC can create and enforce decency rules for broadcast television and radio.

What to Do When Children Swear

Children mimic words they hear without always knowing what the words mean. When children mimic swear words, parents' normal reactions of shock or amusement often reinforce children's use of the words.

Instead of laughing or becoming upset if you hear your child swearing, you should:

  • Explain that the word is not acceptable for children to use. The concept of a "bad word" can be foreign to children who are just learning how to speak.
  • Offer an alternative word to use when angry or upset.
  • Use humorous substitutes instead of swearwords in front of your children.
  • Remain calm and matter-of-fact. If you get upset, your child may use the word again to try to get attention.

In addition to obscenity, court cases have examined the use of swearing in the contexts of inciting people to violence, defamation and threats. They have generally ruled that the government does not have the right to prevent blasphemy against a specific religion or to prosecute someone solely for the use of an expletive. On the other hand, they have upheld convictions of people who used profanity to incite riots, harass people or disturb the peace.

The First Amendment doesn't generally apply to private organizations, and it has significantly less influence over businesses and schools. Courts frequently rule that organizations have the right to set and enforce their own standards of behavior and judgment. In addition, numerous sexual harassment cases have involved reports of swearing, and some courts have ruled that it creates a hostile environment and constitutes harassment.

Clearly courts, businesses and governments think swearing is different from other speech. Your brain agrees with them. We'll look at swearing and the brain next.


Swearing and the Brain

The cerebral cortex has premotor and motor areas that control speech and writing. Wernicke's area processes and recognizes spoken words. The prefrontal cortex controls personality and appropriate social behavior.

Your brain is a very complex organ, but there are only a few things you need to know about it to understand how it approaches swear words differently from other language:

  • In most people, the left hemisphere is in charge of language. The right hemisphere creates the emotional content of language.
  • Language processing is a "higher" brain function and takes place in the cerebral cortex.
  • Emotion and instinct are "lower" brain functions and take place deep inside the brain.

Many studies suggest that the brain processes swearing in the lower regions, along with emotion and instinct. Scientists theorize that instead of processing a swearword as a series of phonemes, or units of sound that must be combined to form a word, the brain stores swear words as whole units [ref]. So, the brain doesn't need the left hemisphere's help to process them. Swearing specifically involves:

Swearing is connected to the limbic system and basal ganglia, located in the interior of the brain.
  • The limbic system, which also houses memory, emotion and basic behavior. The limbic system also seems to govern vocalizations in primates and other animals, and some researchers have interpreted some primate vocalizations as swearing.
  • The basal ganglia, which play a large role in impulse control and motor functions.

So, you can think of swearing as a motor activity with an emotional component.

Swearing Around the Office

An informal poll of HSW staff revealed the following "alternatives" to swearing -- the words we say when swearing would be inappropriate:

  • Dagnabit
  • Oy
  • Darn it
  • Poop
  • Funky tut
  • Shang-a-lang
  • Jebus
  • Shoot
  • Jeep 'n eagle
  • Son of a monkey
  • Jeezy creezy
  • Sweet cheeses
  • Mother-scratcher
  • Tartar sauce
  • Oh, biscuits
  • Zip -zap

Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies have shown that the higher and lower parts of the brain can struggle with each other when a person swears [ ref]. A New York Times article cites several other studies that involve how a healthy brain processes swearing. For example, the brains of people who pride themselves on being educated respond to slang and "illiterate" phrases the same way they do to swearwords. In addition, in studies in which people must identify the color a word is written in (instead of the word itself), swearwords distract the participants from color recognition. You can also remember swearwords about four times better than other words [ ref].

Swearing can also be a symptom of disease or a result of damage to parts of the brain. We'll look at swearing and brain disorders next.


Swearing and Brain Damage

A wide variety of neurological and emotional conditions can affect a person's ability to speak and lead to excessive swearing. For example, people with various forms of aphasia lose the ability to speak or to pronounce words because of damage or disease in parts of the brain that govern language. Many aphasics retain the ability to produce automatic speech, which often consists of conversational placeholders like "um" and "er." Aphasics' automatic speech can include swear words -- in some cases, patients can't create words or sentences, but they can swear. Also, the ability to pronounce other words can change and evolve during recovery, while pronunciation and use of swearwords remains unchanged.

Damage to any area of the brain can affect the way the brain functions. Damage to areas that process language can lead to aphasia.

Patients who undergo a left hemispherectomy experience a dramatic drop in their language abilities. However, many people can still swear without their left hemisphere present to process the words. This may be because the right hemisphere of the brain can process whole swearwords as a motor function rather than a language function.

Coprolalia is the medical term for uncontrollable swearing and is a rare symptom of Gilles de la Tourette Syndrome (GTS). Published numbers vary widely, but relatively few people with GTS exhibit coprolalia, and more males than females experience it. It generally begins between four and seven years after the onset of tics, peaks during adolescence and tapers off drastically during adulthood. There have been medically documented cases of deaf people with GTS-related coprolalia using sign language to swear excessively.

Studies have made a connection between GTS, coprolalia, and the basal ganglia of the brain. Medical researchers have begun to theorize that basal ganglia dysfunction contributes to or is responsible for GTS and coprolalia. Coprolalia also has interesting parallels to more typical daily swearing -- both tend to be more frequent among younger males.


Lots More Information

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More Great Links


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