Swearing has become a normal part of society’s universal conversation. Whether you’re in the nosebleeds cheering on your favorite team and a hearty “f--- yeah!” helps to get the crowd rallying together, or you’re running to answer the phone and stub your toe along the way, something about yelling “damnit!” makes it easier to stomach the sharp pain in your pinky toe.
The cathartic practice of swearing is born from a general pool of 10 expressions, which are exercised at a rate of 0.5 percent of a person’s daily 80- to 90-word output, according to the Association for Psychological Science. It has become a natural part of human speech development. In fact, through childhood and adolescent trial-and-error we test words to see where the line of appropriateness is drawn in certain social circles.
Throwing out the word “motherf-----” in a business meeting is out of place compared to happy hour in your local bar. All curse words were not created equal and should be carefully tailored for each befitting situation. Lacing the word f--- into a sentence immediately escalates the meaning of the phrase and should not be held to the same standards as using the less provocative “crap” in the conversation, according to psychologist Dr. John Grohol.
F--- can be traced back to the 16th century Norwegian word “fukka” and Swedish “focka,” meaning “to copulate,” or have sexual intercourse. It’s a harsh word that’s adapted a wide array of meanings used outside of its translational definition. Profanity precedes a long history, each word with its own etymology found hundreds of years ago derived from different nationalities, cultures, and regions, all molded into the exclusive club of expletives.
The Freedom of F U (Speech):
The First Amendment in the Bill of Rights stands as one of the coveted founding tenets of America’s democratic society. But — and this is a big but — there’s a little legal loophole the Supreme Court calls “unprotected speech,” which explains an instance where speech can be restricted. Slander, libel, and words of instigation, also known as “fighting words,” are all examples of language bearing power to inflict harm on others. It's one of the most basic human lessons and laws of the land — hurting others is illegal.
This is where it gets tricky. In 1964, former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart attempted to define profanity. He famously explained he could not describe it, “But I know it when I see it” (Jacobellis v. Ohio). He exemplified the difficult society has providing a universal definition that captures how every person interprets what is to be considered offensive. Studies on how people react to certain curse words and taboo phrases were categorized with visceral or social reactions, according to the Harvard Science Review.
Neuroscientists from Weill Medical College of Cornell University searched the brain to understand how swearing reverberates inside the intricate wiring of our minds using the neuroimaging technique PET (positron emission tomography) scans. By 1999, they found the amygdala, which is responsible for processing emotion and memory, was highly active when exposed to swear words.
But because the amygdala is also connected to the memory function part of the brain, repetition decreases the activity. Basically, if you grew up hearing your older brother or sister slinging some curse words around their friends, the likelihood of curse words shocking you in other social circles lowers. The emotional potency of the curse is diluted as it's used more and more. So save your s--- for when you really need it.
The amygdala is part of the limbic system, which is emphatically involved in interpreting and expressing emotions — intrinsic to cursing. Swear words are an important component of human beings’ emotional language. But, going back to legalities, obscenity is considered a type of unprotected speech because offensive words constitute a form of harm, especially for the vulnerable and young.
Sticks and Stones
Does the childhood rhyme hold any merit? It turns out psychological studies reveal context is everything. Verbal harassment and aggression causes clear negative and harmful psychological effects, while the isolated cursing is much less detrimental. A study published by the American Psychological Association found when children are victims of obscene telephone calls, there was little difference in the amount of damage caused from having a few curse words thrown into the conversation and not having any at all.
When it comes down to it, cursing isn’t all about verbally drilling fear into a perceived attacker. Flip the coin and you'll see it has its positives, too. Take pain, for starters. Dropping the F-bomb and other expletives are more than just an expression of agony, but also a way to alleviate it.
To test the theory, researchers measured how long college students could keep their hands immersed in cold water and compared their time to how many curse words they dished out in the challenge. They were allowed to repeat an expletive, chant, or neutral word of their choice. When participants cursed, not only did they report less pain than those who abstained from swearing, but they also lasted in the water for 40 seconds longer.
Researchers speculate the brain circuits linked to emotion, such as those found in the amygdala, have evolved over the years. Inside that almond-shaped group of neurons is a defense reflex that turns on when a person is suddenly injured or trapped. The lash out of language is the mind’s interpretation of verbal fighting designed to intimidate their attacker. It dulls the pain and soothes the fear as adrenaline follows closely behind the “ass----” aspirin you just swallowed.
But it’s more than just a way to defend ourselves; cursing has become a way to express happiness, sadness, stress, fear, surprise, and to vent emotional buildup. Expletives have become an undeniable part of how we create camaraderie, defiance, and identify with others. Its emotional usefulness in relieving pain has allowed taboo speech to weave itself into our everyday with no f---s given.