The science of swearing
Who knew there’s a science of swearing? The main thing we all know about swearing is it’s a bit naughty. But it seems there’s a whole lot more to it.
Just about every language and culture in the world has it’s swear words. And they are all related to either, God and religion, or bodily functions, or sex. Think about it. In whatever language you prefer. God, sex and poo!
Linguistically speaking, they’re all just a set of syllables or sounds: words. And for most of them we use other words that aren’t taboo. (I just used one, did you spot it?) So if it’s not the idea behind them, why are they so taboo?
Well, Michelle Drews(1) says that taboos are formed in childhood. That’s when we learn what’s bad, whats frowned up, what will get us into trouble. And that message gets hard wired into our brains. So it starts as a societal thing, and becomes a brain thing. Words that we’ve learnt are taboo bring out an emotional response. They trigger the fight or flight instinct. Or at the very least, they make us feel a bit naughty.
There’s a bit of the brain that deals with those dangerous words. It’s called the amygdala, and it’s linked to both fear and pleasure. It processes all the stuff that’s taboo. As you know, sometimes strokes affect speech. But sometimes they can still swear. That’s because the swear words are processed in that different bit of brain. It’s also why some people (not all) with Tourettes swear. The condition stimulates the amygdala more than normal.
Timothy Jay and Kristin Jaraschewitz (2) looked into swearing from a psychological viewpoint. Is it bad or dangerous? After studying swearing amongst children they concluded the words in themselves aren’t harmful. They are just words after all. And again, we use words that mean the same thing (fuck/make love, shit/poo, hell/heck). But because of the taboo, they are seen as dangerous. And so they can be used as weapons, to intimidate or harass. And that’s not a good thing. Obvs. Then they really become dangerous.
But there’s also a lot of positive things about cussing. Swear words enrich a language. They help us express ourselves. We know that there’s times when only a swear word will do. They can be used to get a laugh. And they can help to indicate a relaxed atmosphere. Swearing can help bind groups of people. Help them feel like they belong in a group.
Oh and one last thing. People who swear when they hurt themselves have a higher pain threshold than those who don’t. So there you go – swearing is the new asprin!
We’re guessing since you’re here with us, you like to indulge in the odd swear word. We’ve got a great selection of especially sweary cards for you. But if you’re not quite sure about it, there’s stuff for you too.
- Michelle Drews, The Science of Swearing, Harvard Science Review 23.01.2014
- Timothy Jay and Kristin Jaraschewitz, The Science of Swearing, http://www.psychologiccalscience.org