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Globe Magazine

Curses! A foul-mouthed defense of swearing

Unleashing four-letter words can feel good (especially in Boston traffic) — and it might even be good for you.

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With my left hand sunk in a bowl of ice water, I chant a mantra to deliver me from suffering: [expletive deleted]. [expletive deleted]. [expletive deleted]. The words are emotionless and delivered at speaking-voice volume, a counterpart to a moment ago when I repeated “spoon” instead.

I’m trying my own homespun replica of an experiment in which a British psychologist studied the narcotic power of expletives: Uttering curse words led study participants to report less pain and endure the frigid water for about 40 seconds longer than when they spoke neutral words.

When I conjured flatware, the cold bore into bone and I squirmed until my iPhone stopwatch read 49.09 seconds. But now, reciting “[expletive deleted],” I’m comforted by a word as potty-mouthed as it is familiar.

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I swear. So do you, probably. Taboo words — the broad name researchers use for curses, obscenities, epithets, and other manner of vulgarity — make up as much as 0.7 percent of the more than 15,000 words an average person speaks every day, says Timothy Jay, a psychology professor at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams who’s been studying cursing since the 1970s. (In comparison, pronouns like “we,” “us,” and “our” account for 1 percent.) We encounter them virtually everywhere, from rush-hour traffic to our Twitter feeds and beyond. “The big picture of swearing is much more complex than people think it is,” Jay says. “It’s interwoven into sports, entertainment, sexuality, emotion.”

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And, yet, we sure have some strange attitudes toward the dirty words we say. We bleep them for broadcast TV and don’t print them in publications like this one, even as the Internet transports all order of obscenity into our homes.

This election cycle, some Americans seriously believe the word “[expletive deleted]” — uttered to impugn the masculinity of Ted Cruz — is the worst thing to come out of Donald Trump’s mouth on the campaign trail. In 2012, the town of Middleborough famously approved a proposal that calls for penalizing individuals who swear in public with a $20 fine. Similar laws are on the books in places like Arlington, Virginia, which recently upped its public-swearing fine from $100 to $250. And last fall, a Brookline teacher nearly lost his job, allegedly for saying the word “[expletive deleted]” around two high school students outside of school hours.

I say it’s time to ease up on our hand-wringing about swearing and welcome the words as the four-letter linguistic miracles that they are.

While most of our language is processed by the cerebral cortex, says Melissa Mohr, the Somerville-based author of Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing, curses substantially involve  the limbic system, the part of the brain that governs our fight-or-flight response. An event that elicits anger, frustration, joy, or another emotion triggers our swearing habits, and the upshot is that bad words become a uniquely human way to convey feelings through symbolism instead of physicality or violence.

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“We don’t evolve things that don’t have some purpose or value,” adds Jay. “That’s what swearing is all about: emotional expression.”

The swearwords we love and loathe today largely evolved from two categories: words that refer to religious taboos and words that relate to human anatomy. The first group is made up of things we’d scarcely recognize as swears at all: the blood of Christ, by God’s nails, anything relating to “any part of God’s body, basically,” Mohr says. The second are variants of words that continue to strike a chord because they vividly refer to sexual and bodily functions: [expletive deleted], [expletive deleted], [expletive deleted], [expletive deleted]. (“How is the Globe letting you swear? What’s it going to look like?” Mohr asks.)

From their earliest identified incarnations in ancient Greece and Rome through today, deeming words offensive depended on what a culture considered off-limits. Amid the ecclesiasticism of the Middle Ages, the phrase “by God’s bones” was vastly offensive, while “[expletive deleted],” now considered one of the most offensive slurs for a part of the female anatomy, didn’t register. By the Victorian period, English speakers arguably reached the height of prudishness — even the word “leg” was unfit for public discourse. (“Lower extremities” was the clean alternative.)

Today, swearing has gone mainstream. One conservative advocacy group tallied a 69.3 percent increase in profanity in prime-time broadcast programming between 2005 and 2010. While it’s hard to say if we’re truly swearing more than ever, there’s little reason to suspect it’s diminishing. Instead, it may be getting more accepted. “I think young people are growing up with a sense that these words and the context in which you can use them and still be considered a polite, educated person is much wider than it is” for people of older generations, Mohr says.

As a new, foulmouthed dad, I’m dreading the day when my son repeats one of my vulgar word choices in front of his grandparents. That said, I’d be a fool not to expect it. According to a 2013 study in The American Journal of Psychology by Jay and his wife, Kristin Janschewitz, children know 42 taboo words by the time they reach kindergarten, with that vocabulary expanding most rapidly before age 3. That’s about the age I was when repeat viewings of Top Gun taught me my first swearwords. (I still have a special place in my heart for the phrase “cargo plane full of rubber dog [expletive].”) But I’m not going to stop swearing just because there’s an impressionable set of ears listening. Why would I? Swearing is [expletive deleted] awesome.

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The benefits of expletives are obscured by their power to offend, but they do more than help relieve pain. They also help us express intimacy and solidarity and foster group identity — think of employees who trash-talk the management over beers. Then there’s humor. “George Carlin, Richard Pryor, and Lenny Bruce made a living dancing on the edge,” Jay says, “and other people who wouldn’t say those kinds of words paid a lot of money to watch them.” Speaking with Jerry Seinfeld on the show Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, even President Obama gave an endorsement. “Bad stuff or stupid stuff is happening constantly, right? Every day,” he said. “That’s when cursing is really valuable.”

As a writer who occasionally uses swearwords in his work (and is occasionally paid for it), I appreciate their versatility, especially “[expletive deleted],” that big f-word. With just slight modifications, it can be an adjective, a verb, a noun, a sign of emphasis, a mark of indignation, and any number of other things. No other syllable contains such grammatical multitudes.

When you see swears as a kind of blessing, you begin to question the conventional wisdom that paints curse words as, well, curses. I take particular issue with the notion that swearing is a sign of stupidity. A November 2015 Language Sciences study coauthored by Jay found that a bigger lexicon of swearwords correlated with having a larger vocabulary in general. And suggesting that colorful swears such as “[expletive deleted]” are indicators of inferior intellect ignores how often people make themselves into idiots by misusing vanilla language. Sitting at the brunch table, who truly sounds less intelligent: the person who says, “I’m so [expletive deleted] tired,” or the person who says, “I’m literally falling asleep,” even as he sips his coffee and chews his gosh-darn cantaloupe?

I’m only asking for more honesty in our collective understanding of swearing, not a free-for-all. Even unapologetic potty mouths like me understand that swearing etiquette depends on compromising for context: Saying “[expletive deleted]” when in sudden agony is innocuous, but calculating your profanities to attack a person is not. And while I won’t wash my son’s mouth out with soap if I hear him swear in the backyard, he needs to know that swearing isn’t fit for the dinner table, school, or, very often, the workplace. In a CareerBuilder.com survey, 81 percent of employers or hiring managers said swearing brings an employee’s professionalism into question. In high-profile settings, swearing even threatens to bring fines. “The bottom line is that people who can punish for your speech will assert that authority,” Jay says, “whether it’s your parents or the NFL or the FCC.”

Aside from the social costs, swearing has diminishing returns — the emotive edges of the words dull with overuse, and chronic swearers don’t reap painkilling benefits. (I selected “[expletive deleted]” for the ice water experiment because I don’t say it frequently enough to be inured to it.) In my opinion, blithely swearing to buy time while thinking up your next syllable, the scatological equivalent to the placeholder “um,” really is a sign of stupidity.

The paradox is that retaining the taboo value of dirty words is vital to their purpose. If “[expletive deleted]” becomes commonplace and benign, we risk people turning to uglier words and sentiments to shock. But by waiting for the right place and the right time to unleash an expletive, the word retains its magic. “To me, it’s not ‘Don’t swear at all,’ ” Mohr says. “Maybe it’s ‘Don’t swear too much,’ so you’ve still got the word when something is worthy of it.”

Back with my hand in freezing water, this seems an appropriate occasion for a repetition of “[expletive deleted]’’s. And while I don’t know if it’s because I think the word should help me or because “[expletive deleted]” really has profound strength, it makes the cold tolerable. I don’t writhe. I don’t wince. I simply bear it for 1 minute and 27.42 seconds — an extra 38 seconds of endurance, thanks to the magic of cursing.

Now I just need a [expletive deleted] towel.   

Jeff Harder is a freelance writer in Connecticut. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.