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How Swearing Works

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:

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.