In praise of profanities: why swearing might actually be good for you
As a habitual swearer, I might be biased, but apparently intelligent people are more likely to do it, and it indicates linguistic fluency, rather than a limited vocabulary. And that’s not the only good thing about ‘effing and jeffing’… (For those of a delicate disposition, be reassured that no actual swear words follow.)
Swear words encompass vulgar, blasphemous, obscene and otherwise offensive terms. Hate speech, obviously, shouldn’t be in your vocabulary, but the rest do have a place. Magnus Ljung, Professor of English Language at Stockholm University, describes swearing as ‘a way to give additional emphasis to…speech, often in combination with other emphasising techniques like stress, intonation and tone of voice. The contribution of swearing in such situations is the added strength supplied by the taboo words.’
How swearing helps
In her book, Swearing is Good for You, Emma Byrne says: ‘Swearing is one of those things that come so naturally, and seems so frivolous, that you might be surprised by the number of scientists who are studying it. But neuroscientists, psychologists, sociologists and historians have long taken an interest in bad language, and for good reason. Although swearing might seem frivolous, it teaches us a lot about how our brains, our minds and even our societies work.’
Swearing is a fairly normal reaction to sudden, unexpected pain, like stubbing your toe. And uttering a few expletives can help people cope with pain.
Studies from Keele University have shown that repeated swearing enables people to keep their hands in ice-cold water longer than when reciting a neutral word. The university also explored swearing’s effect on strength and stamina tests – performance significantly improved in both.
Dr Richard Stephens, senior psychology lecturer, said: ‘Quite why swearing has these effects on strength and pain tolerance remains to be discovered. We have yet to understand the power of swearing fully.’ However, he cautioned, ‘Our findings suggest that over-use of swear words can water down their emotional effect. Used in moderation, swearing can be an effective and readily available short-term pain reliever. However, if you’re used to swearing all the time, our research suggests you won’t get the same effect.’
Research at Keele in 2020 sought to discover whether new, made-up swear words such as ‘fouch’ and twizpipe’ worked. They didn’t.
Other positives have been uncovered. Various studies have shown that inter-colleague swearing can help with team-building, stress and maintaining solidarity.
An international research team reports that swearers are less likely to be associated with lying and deception. Dr David Stillwell, a co-author, says: ‘Swearing can be evidence that someone is telling you their honest opinion. Just as they aren’t filtering their language to be more palatable, they’re also not filtering their views.’
How things change
We swear more than we used to, apparently. In 1939, Clark Gable’s ‘Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn’ in Gone with the Wind was strong enough to land the producers a $5,000 fine. Today that wouldn’t raise an eyebrow. The British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) carried out a survey last month, to update its film rating, which revealed that six out of ten people swear habitually. Almost a third use strong language more frequently than five years ago. Public swearing seems less acceptable the older we are: 48.9% of 45- to 54-year-olds said they wouldn’t do it, compared with 65% of 55- to 64-year-olds and 75% of over-65s.
One word that’s increased its power to offend, regularly topping the ‘worst words’ charts, is the C-word. According to sex historian Dr Kate Lister in her Ted Talk on the topic, ‘see you next Tuesday’ has had a rough ride. She explains that it’s the oldest word for the vulva, and wasn’t included in the Oxford English Dictionary until the 1970s. Listen to the talk HERE.
Spelling it out
Bleeps may be used in films and TV programmes, and asterisks in print, to avoid upsetting viewers and readers, but deployment varies. The Guardian says: ‘We are more liberal than any other newspapers, using language that most of our competitors would not.’ In its style guide (the approved language use for the newspaper is HERE), The Guardian dismisses asterisks as ‘a cop-out’ and I agree: is the sight of the complete word any more shocking than ‘f*ck’, when your mind automatically substitutes the letter U for *?
Novelist Charlotte Brontë was no fan of removing letters either, saying, ‘The practice of hinting by single letters those expletives with which profane and violent people are wont to garnish their discourse, strikes me as a proceeding which, however well meant, is weak and futile. I cannot tell what good it does – what feeling it spares – what horror it conceals.’
And letters themselves, as acronyms used in texting, such as WTF, FFS, FML, are now part of the sweary vocabulary. The BBFC says it will classify their use in films as if the actual words were used.
Although I do swear a lot, it’s under my control. If I’m around children, in a formal situation, or with people who hate it, I simply don’t do it. But I relish letting rip when it’s right. So will I continue to swear? Abso-f***ing-lutely…
Adrienne Wyper is a health and lifestyle writer and regular TNMA contributor.