How Swearing Works

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.

For lots more information about your brain and language, check out the links on the next page.

Related Articles

More Great Links


  • Angier, Natalie. "Almost Before We Spoke, We Swore." New York Times. September 20, 2005.
  • Austin, Elizabeth. "A Small Plea to Delete a Ubiquitous Expletive." U.S. News and World Report. Vol. 24, no. 13. April 6, 1998.
  • Bartlett, Thomas. "Expletives Deleted." The Chronicle of Higher Education. Vol. 51, iss. 22. February 4, 2005.
  • Berger, Stephen. "Scientists Explore the Basis of Swearing." Johns Hopkins Newsletter. October 28, 2005.
  • Dewaele, Jean-Marc. "The Emotional Force of Swearwords and Taboo Words in the Speech of Multilinguals." Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development. Vol. 25, no. 2 & 3, 2004.
  • "Dirty Words: Oh #@*$." Psychology Today. Vol. 27, no. 3 May 1994.
  • Dooling, Richard. Blue Streak: Swearing, Free Speech and Sexual Harassment. Random House: 1996.
  • Fleischman, John. "When they put it in writing, they were cursing, not cussing." Smithsonian. Vol. 27, issue 1. April 1996.
  • Grimm, Matthew. "When the Sh*t Hits the Fan." American Demographics. Vol. 25, no. 10. December 2003.
  • Kissling, Elizabeth Arveda. "'That's Just a Basic Teen-age Rule:' Girls' Linguistic Strategies for Managing the Menstruation Communication Taboo." Journal of Applied Communication Research. Vol. 24, 1996.
  • Marshall, Paul. "Tourette's Syndrome and Coprolalia."
  • Mbaya, Maweja. "Linguistic Taboo in African Marriage Context." Nordic Journal of African Studies . Vol, 12, no. 2. 2002.
  • Montagu, Ashley. "The Anatomy of Swearing." MacMillan: 1967
  • Rayson, Paul, Geoffrey Leech and Mary Hodges. "Social Differentiation in the Use of English Vocabulary." International Journal of Corpus Linguistics. Vol. 2, no. 1. 1997.
  • Schapiro, Naomi A. "'Dude, You Don't Have Tourette's' Tourette's Syndrome, Beyond the Tics." Pediatric Nursing. Vol. 28, No. 3. May/June 2002.
  • Sigel, Lisa Z. "Name Your Pleasure." Journal of the History of Sexuality. Vol. 9, Iss. 4, 2000.
  • Smith, S.A. "The Social Meanings of Swearing: Workers and Bad Language in Late Emperial and Early Soviet Russia." Past and Present. August 1998.
  • Spivey, Nigel. "Meditations on an F-theme." The Spectator. June 20, 1992
  • Stapleton, Karyn. "Gender and Swearing: A Community Practice." Women and Language. Vol. 26, no. 2. Fall 2003.
  • Tortora, Gerard J. and Sandra R. Grabowski. Principals of Anatomy and Physiology. 9th ed. John Wiley & Sons, 2000.
  • van Lancker, D. and J. L. cummings. "Explectives: Neurolinguistic and Neurobehavioral Perspectives on Swearing." Brain Research Reviews. Vol. 31, 1999.