The surprising benefits of swear words
Swearing was long dismissed as a serious research topic because it was assumed to be simply a sign of aggression, weak command of the language, or even low intelligence.
Now we have plenty of evidence that challenges this view, leading us to reconsider the nature and power of swearing.
Whether we are fans of swear words or not, many of us are likely to resort to them from time to time.
To estimate the power of swear words and find out where it comes from, we recently conducted a review of more than 100 scholarly articles from different disciplines on the topic.
Impact in several areas
The study, published in the scientific journal Lingua, shows that the use of taboo words can profoundly affect the way we think, act and relate to each other.
People often associate cursing with catharsis, the release of strong emotions. However, it is undeniably different and more potent than other forms of language use.
Interestingly, for speakers of more than one language, catharsis is almost always more incredible when cursing in the first language than in any later learned language.
Cursing arouses emotions. This can be measured in various signs, such as increased sweating and sometimes an increased heart rate.
These changes suggest cursing may trigger the “fight or flight” function.
Neuroscience research suggests that swearing may be located in different regions of the brain than other speech regions. Specifically, it may activate parts of the “limbic system” (including the basal ganglia and amygdala).
These deep structures are involved in aspects of memory and emotion processing, which are instinctive and difficult to inhibit. This may explain why swear words can remain intact in people who have suffered brain damage and have difficulty speaking as a result.
Laboratory experiments also show cognitive effects. For example, we know that swear words attract more attention and are better remembered than other words. But they also interfere with the cognitive processing of other words/stimuli, so it appears that swear words can sometimes interfere with thinking as well.
This may pay off, at least sometimes. For example, cursing has produced pain relief in experiments requiring people to dip a hand in ice water. In these studies, vocalizing a swear word leads to greater pain tolerance and a higher pain threshold than neutral words.
Other studies have found increased physical strength in people after cursing.
But cursing not only influences our physical and mental being but also affects our relationships with others. Research in communication and linguistics has shown a variety of distinctive social purposes of swear words, from expressing aggression and causing offense to enhancing social bonds, humor, and storytelling.
Swear words can even help us manage our identities, show intimacy and confidence, and increase attention and dominance over other people.
The bottom line
Despite having such a remarkable effect on our lives, we currently know very little about where swear words get their power.
When we hear a swear word in an unfamiliar language, it sounds like any other word and will produce none of these results. There is nothing particular about the sound of the word itself that is universally offensive.
So, the power does not come from the words themselves. But, likewise, it is not inherent in the meanings or sounds of the words: neither euphemisms nor similar-sounding words have such a profound effect on us.
One explanation is that “aversive conditioning,” the use of punishment to prevent further swearing, generally occurs during childhood. This may establish a visceral connection between language use and emotional response.
While this hypothesis sounds correct, it is only weakly evidenced in a handful of studies investigating memories of childhood punishment for swearing.
There are almost no empirical studies of the links between such memories and adult responses to swearing.
To understand why swearing profoundly affects us, we need to investigate the nature of people’s memories of swearing.
What were their significant incidents with swearing? Did swearing always bring unpleasant consequences, such as punishment, or were there benefits also? What about people’s continuing experiences of swearing throughout life?
After all that, our research shows that swearing can sometimes help people bond with each other.
We think it may be possible that swearing shows a similar pattern of memory as music: we remember and like best the songs we heard during adolescence.
That’s because, like music, cursing possibly takes on new meaning in adolescence.
It becomes a meaningful way to respond to the intense emotions we tend to have during this time and an act that signals independence from parents and connection with friends. Therefore, swear words and songs used during this time can become forever linked to meaningful and memorable experiences.
Research should also examine whether there is a link between memories of cursing and the effects observed in the experiments. This could show that people with more positive memories respond differently than those with negative memories.
A final point to consider is whether cursing will begin to lose its power if it becomes more socially acceptable and, therefore, will be devoid of its offensive character.
For now, however, it indeed remains a slip-up.