When I was younger, I had a copy of Even More Terrible Tudors by Terry Deary which I read cover to cover more times than I’d like to admit. One of the historical titbits I found very entertaining was how a school friend of Edward VI was apparently punished by a teacher for proclaiming “thunderous oaths!”—evidently incredibly rude at the time. Obviously, centuries later, we’ve moved on—but we haven’t moved beyond rude words and being punished for using them. Arguably, swear words are a necessary part of language: they’re universal to all cultures and their meaning is often immaterial; it’s the emotional state their use expresses that’s important.
As Jay (2008) says, “our use of and reaction to swear words tells us who we are and where we fit in a culture […] our identities are marked by our use of [them].” He splits swearing into two types: propositional and non-propositional. Non-propositional swearing is a purely emotional, automatic response, generally as a result of stress, surprise or pain. Conversely, propositional swearing is intentional, and it’s strongly affected by context. Before we swear, we analyse our surroundings: where we are and whether we’re in public or not, and who we’re with: are they friend, acquaintance or stranger? Is their status higher than ours? Are they older, younger, or the same age? Are they male or female? Only when we deem it appropriate and it won’t reflect on us negatively will we swear—unless, of course, we’re purposefully behaving in a threatening or aggressive manner.
Obviously, humans aren’t born knowing all of this. Theoretically, we begin learning that some words are forbidden when we’re told off by our parents for using them (Jay, 2006). This doesn’t necessarily put us off of using them, though—it just teaches us not to use them around certain people. Hence, when we grow up and have our own children, we tell them off for swearing because our culture has taught us that it’s the right thing to do (Jay, 2006). Ironically, being punished for swearing is actually an integral part of learning how to swear. Research suggests there are strong effects of gender on swearing: men tend to swear more frequently than women, and both men and women will swear more around people of their own gender (Jay, 2008). Thelwall (2008) and similar studies have presented evidence that this effect is decreasing over time, suggesting the difference is down to people acting according to gender stereotypes. As these stereotypes lessen, women are starting to swear just as much as men.
There have been a number of studies into the psychological effect of swearing, and particularly its effects on pain tolerance. Production of swear words has been linked to language processing areas in the left frontal and temporal lobes of the brain, and emotional processing in the amygdala (Jay, 2008). Stephens, Atkins and Kingston (2009) carried out an experiment in which participants had to submerge a hand in a tub of water at either 25°C (control) or 5°C, and were asked to keep their hand under for as long as they physically could. During this time, they repeated one of a number of words provided to them, some of which were swear words. A significant number of the participants who swore could keep their hand under at 5°C for, on average, 40 seconds longer than those who didn’t. Hypothetically, swearing induces heightened fear and aggression which, in turn, activates the fight or flight response, which temporarily heightens pain tolerance. A follow-up study by Stephens and Umland (2011) suggested that the more someone swears in their daily life, the less of an effect swearing will have on pain.
Like it or not, profanity is a part of our culture. Each time we stop being offended by a word like crap or damn, we fill the gap with a new one. While thunderous oaths isn’t remotely rude anymore, c*** was an anatomical term a couple of centuries ago—it’s now considered to be one of the most offensive words in the English language by many. Likewise, racial and ethical slurs are currently among the most taboo, but as our social state changes and offensive humour becomes more widespread, such slurs are becoming less shocking. Doubtless, we’ll find something else to fill the gap, and doubtless, in another five hundred years, people will find the swear words we use now just as funny as we find ones from the Tudor era.
Jay, T. & Janschewitz, K. (2008). The pragmatics of swearing. Journal of Politeness Research, vol. 4(2), pp. 267-289
Jay, T., King, K. & Duncan, T. (2006). Memories of Punishment for Cursing. Sex Roles, vol. 55(1), pp.123-133
Stephens, R., Atkins, J. & Kingston, A. (2009). Swearing as a response to pain. NeuroReport, vol. 20(12), pp. 1056-1060
Stephens, R. & Umland, C. (2011). Swearing as a Response to Pain-Effect of Daily Swearing Frequency. The Journal of Pain, vol. 12(12), pp. 1274-1281
Thelwall, M. (2008). Fk yea I swear: Cursing and gender in a corpus of MySpace pages. Corpora, vol. 3(1), pp. 83-107
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This article was written by Helice Stratton and edited by Robert Vilkelis. Both of them are members of the Bugle Team.