Scientifically speaking, swearing is good for you. It deadens pain and enlivens our emotional discourse. We know that its effects are physiological as well as psychological; it raises our heart rates and releases adrenaline whether we use it. And taboo language is so fundamental to the way we communicate that even potty-trained chimps can invent their own swearing.
With so many advantages, it’s not surprising that people often ask me what the most effective swear word is, and I know my answer usually disappoints them. As with so many things in science, the answer is “it depends.”
For swearing to work, there has to be a frisson of taboo about it. This isn’t just a value judgment; experiments prove that minced oaths — the “sugars” and “fudges” — just don’t work as pain relief, nor do they offer the same catharsis to people suffering from Tourette syndrome.
What’s more, we have a limited window in which to learn what constitutes “real” swearing. In languages we learn before adolescence, the swear words carve deep emotional paths. Experiments show that swear words learned early are pulse quickeners, memory sharpeners and pain killers. But no matter how diligently you study a language after adolescence, you’ll never feel the same way about its strongest components.
For the same reason, the past is indeed a different country when it comes to swearing. As social mores change, taboos shift. Words that would have caused our grandparents to have conniptions now pass without remark. In my native British English, the blasphemies barely cause a twitch of the emotional needle. Conversely, racial slurs frequently appeared in my grandparents’ nursery rhymes and books, but for my generation and beyond, the emotional payload of those terms can be devastating.
All this makes it damnably difficult to pin down the power of a particular profanity. For decades, scientists have looked for something auditory or physical in the act of swearing that explains the catharsis it creates. There has been conjecture that short words, words with powerful fricatives (“F”) and voiceless velar stops (“K”), just feel better. Sadly, the research doesn’t bear this out. We can’t design a more cathartic swear word based on its sound or spelling. Strong language earns its place though use and custom. As we grow up, we note its impact on those around us, and that gives us both the yardstick and the visceral training required to truly internalize the power of those words.
The most cathartic swear word is never going to be a universal. It’s always going to be a product of the values of the people who surrounded you growing up. In particular, it depends on the emotional responses of the people whose opinions mattered most to you when you first tried out those words. For me, it was the clip around the ear I got for calling my little brother a tw-t. For you, there will be some other emotive moment that unveiled power. Without knowing it, the laughter of a friend, the disappointment of a parent, the fury of an enemy taught you how to swear.
Research shows that children start swearing by age the age of six – or younger – and we tend to swear about 0.5 to 0.7% of the time, which can amount to dozens of curse words a day, depending on how much you talk.
Swearing, the critics say, may make us appear ill-educated, rude and untrustworthy, as our mothers might have tried to drill into us. But it could have some surprising benefits, from making us more persuasive to helping relieve pain.
Our curses may not even use the same part of the brain the rest of our vocabulary inhabits. Swearing is handled by the brain differently than regular language, according to Richard Stephens, a psychologist and author of Black Sheep: The Hidden Benefits of Being Bad. While most language is located in the cortex and specific language areas in the left hemisphere of brain, swearing might be associated with a more rudimentary, older area of the brain.
“Aphasics usually have damage to the left hemisphere and often have difficulty with speech. But there are plenty of recorded cases in which aphasics can use stereotypical language more fluently – meaning they can sing songs or swear fluently,” Stephens says. “Research with people who suffer from Tourette’s syndrome, in which some have swearing tics, suggests that swearing is associated with a deeper lying brain structure – the basal ganglia.” Other words that described parts of the body, however, were not as offensive; for instance, a four-letter c-word considered very offensive today was in street names and surnames. “There’s evidence that people weren’t upset by it,” she says. “Tightly knit communities saw each other naked more often during a time when no one had much privacy. So the body was less charged with taboo.” Of course, the types of taboo words we use differ from culture to culture. In English, the terms “swear” and “curse” point to the religious origins of our taboo words. In the Middle Ages, the English took particular offense to religious oaths and the word “damn”, says Melissa Mohr, the author of a recent book on swearing.
That all changed during the Renaissance, she says, and the sexual terms gained more power. “So in places where the Protestant Revolution didn’t happen, the religious swear words are still more powerful,” she says. That means that in places like Spain and Italy, insulting religious figures – or even artefacts – can be very forceful.
In Asian cultures, many of the curses are tied up with social status, ancestors and saving face.
There are several hidden benefits of swearing
“There’s a myth that Japanese doesn’t contain swear words,” says Mohr. “Not only do you have words for nearly anything in terms of sex and excrement, but the Japanese have a lot of insults related to losing face. So calling someone a fool – baka – is much worse in Japanese than in English. There are many ways to insult in Japanese so in a way you don’t have to swear in the way we do [in English] as much to get your point across.”
In sign language, in which it takes more time to add to a sentence manually, short cuts like changing the location of a sign can add vulgarity to or alter the meaning of a word.
“For example the nose is a location for many signs about pejorative things, like 'ugly', 'boring', 'snob', 'piss',” says Donna Jo Napoli, a professor of linguistics at Swarthmore College. “So making a sign at the nose is a way to add nastiness to it.” In another example, tapping your chin with your thumb twice while holding your hand with the middle-finger out is a sign for an offensive phrase involving someone’s mother since a similar gesture, with all five fingers straight out is the sign for “mother”.
But recent research also shows there are several hidden benefits of swearing.
The most obvious advantage of swearing is to communicate effectively. By swearing, we not only communicate the meaning of a sentence, but also our emotional response to the meaning – our emotional reaction to something. It also allows us to express anger, disgust or pain, or indicate to someone that they need to back off, without having to resort to physical violence.
Studies have shown that swearing can increase the effectiveness and persuasiveness of a message, especially when it is seen as a positive surprise. It might even work with politicians.
A study published in 2014 found that when reading a blog post by a fictitious politician, the post with swear words increased the perceived informality of the language and improved peoples’ impressions of the source – though when asked outright, it didn’t change the likelihood of voting for the politician. The researchers also hypothesise that the findings are specific to the context of an internet blog post, which also makes sense, given the fact we tend to swear more often online. (In a recent exploratory study for example, Twitter users were found to swear about 1.15% of the time, or 64% higher than when we speak.)
Research suggests the amount of potential benefit you get from swearing depends on how taboo the curse word is to you
In a series of studies, Stephens and his colleagues illustrated how swearing can increase tolerance to pain. Students who repeated a curse word were able to keep their hand in a bucket of ice water longer than those who uttered a neutral word.
“As well as the pain tolerance change, participants also showed an increase in heart rate. When you swear your heart rate goes up even more, which suggests an emotional response to the swearing itself,” Stephens said. “This response is the stress fight or flight response and it works as an analgesic.”
Research suggests the amount of potential benefit you get from swearing depends on how taboo the curse word is to you, which likely depends on how often you were punished for using them as a child. A study published in 2013 found that people who were punished for swearing more frequently as children had a higher skin conductance response (a measure of physiological arousal) when they read a list of swear words out loud in a lab as an adult.
Contrary to popular belief, swearing has been shown to be a form of politeness. A study in New Zealand for example examined the interactions and use of the term “fuck” by a team of workers at a soap factory. Researchers from Victoria University of Wellington found that while the workers regularly swore amongst themselves, they didn’t swear as much with colleagues from other teams.
They concluded that in this work context, the word “fuck” was associated with expressions of solidarity, and was used to bond members of the team, ease tensions and equalise members with different levels of power and responsibility, “as if they are saying ‘I know you so well I can be this rude to you.’”
There are clearly times when swearing is beneficial, but what does swearing say about the speaker?
Many of us probably know from experience why we tend to hold our tongues in front of our bosses and our grandmothers – swearing can make you look bad. More specifically, swearers have been rated as less competent and less credible in research from the 1970s. Of the Big Fivepersonality traits, taboo fluency is positively correlated with neuroticism and openness/extroversion and negatively correlated with agreeableness and conscientiousness.
The upper middle class swears significantly more than the lower middles class
Happily for some though, that’s not the full story.
Recent research has also largely debunked the assumption that swearing is necessarily a function of low class or lack of education and language fluency. Timothy Jay and his colleagues found that the tendency to swear correlated with verbal fluency more generally, and was not a result of having a deficient vocabulary. And as Stephens discusses in Black Sheep, research from the University of Lancaster published in 2004 shows that though swearing reduces with increasing social class, the upper middle class swears significantly more than the lower middle class, suggesting that at some point on the social ladder, people don’t care about the effects.
“When everyone is on his or her best behaviour, you can get these odd social occasions where everyone’s trying to be polite, no one’s speaking and nothing’s happening,” he said. “If you think the situation calls for chummy swearing you might get the social situation moving a bit even if it’s unintended.”
Word Origin & History
Fuck is a difficult word to trace, in part because it was taboo to the editors of the original OED when the "F" volume was compiled, 1893-97. Written form only attested from early 16c. OED 2nd edition cites 1503, in the form fukkit; earliest appearance of current spelling is 1535 -- "Bischops ... may fuck thair fill and be vnmaryit" [Sir David Lyndesay, "Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estaits"], but presumably it is a much more ancient word than that, simply one that wasn't likely to be written in the kind of texts that have survived from O.E. and M.E. Buck cites proper name John le Fucker from 1278. The word apparently is hinted at in a scurrilous 15c. poem, titled "Flen flyys," written in bastard L. and M.E. The relevant line reads:Non sunt in celi
In the three-day period queried, shit appeared in 10.5 million U.S. Facebook interactions, fuck in 9.5 million, damn in 6.3 million, bitch in 4.5 million, and crap in 2 million.
After these top five, male users and female users split. Perhaps in an effort to assert their heterosexuality, male users use fag more often than female users, and the homophobic slang appears in more than twice as many male interactions as female interactions. Pussy and dick are also more common among male users, while cock is more popular among females. Darn has the biggest gender gap, coming in at No. 8 for females and No. 13 for males. Doucheis last out of the words examined, with 54,000 mentions over the three-day period, though slut outranks it among female users.
In general, the older the age group, the less popular sexual or gender-based profanities are. While shit, for example, remains fairly consistent across age groups, fuck, bitch, dick, and fag drop steeply with age, and damn, crap, and darnreplace them. It’s unclear, however, whether people’s habits change as they age or whether these patterns simply reflect cultural differences between generations.
Fuck is most popular in the West, the only region where it outranks shit. Darn and fag are also most highly ranked in the West, and it’s the only region where cockoutranks dick. The top eight for the South and Midwest are identical, and the two regions split at cock and pussy, both of which are more popular in the South, and asshole, which is more popular in the Midwest. Dick and pussy are ranked most highly in the Northeast.
Unsurprisingly, bloody takes the No. 3 spot in Britain and No. 4 spot in Australia. In the lower ranks, bugger and bollocks are also more popular among the British, and Brits use arsehole over asshole. Brits and Australians seldom used darn, probably because the word comes from 18th-century New England. Cunt, which takes No. 17 in the U.S., is No. 8 in Britain and No. 5 in Australia, where it is apparently used much more casually (a Facebook group with 51,000 likes observes that cunt is replacing mate in Australian parlance). For the most part, Canada shares the U.S.’s profanities, although fuck is No. 1 in Canada and pussy is much more highly ranked in the States.