In praise of swearing

8 min read
Artwork by Nicolae Negura

He just blurted it out, seemingly out of nowhere, after Ohio representative Tim Ryan challenged him on his knowledge of Medicare for All, a comprehensive plan to transition the US to a healthcare system where a single government-run plan provides insurance coverage to all Americans.

“But you don’t know that. You don’t know that Bernie.”

I do know, I wrote the damn bill!

The audience exploded with laughs and cheers. It’s not the first time a politician uses “damn” or other foul language to drive the argument home, and like many times before, it worked wonderfully.

I’m no stranger to swear words. I come from the north of Portugal, a place where you’re bound to hear a “foda-se” or two. It’s not that my household was a veritable banquet of profanity — it wasn’t —, and I certainly don’t want to imply that everyone in the north of Portugal is swearing their way out of everything — they’re not —, but we tend to resort to cursing a bit more frequently than our neighbours to the south.

We use it to express a variety of emotions: pain, frustration, even the occasional display of affection. But even so, must of us, as children, are taught that these are dirty words. That cursing is inappropriate, a refuge of the lazy and uncultured, the reflection of a low class upbringing.

I’m not sure if parents really believe this, or if they’re just hoping to avoid the social awkwardness of an impromptu trip to school because their three-year-old child just blurted “fuck” in the middle of the cafeteria. Nevertheless, the fact that swearing is taboo is precisely why we like it.

Not all swear words are alike, as Timothy Jay, a professor of psychology at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, explains in an article published on the Association for Psychological Science. They can be sexual references (fuck), profanity or blasphemy (goddamn), ancestral allusions (bastard), substandard vulgar terms and offensive slang.

“Taboo words can be mildly offensive to extremely offensive, and people will often use a more mild euphemism to replace a swear word when in mixed (or unknown) company,” he wrote.

It’s all politics

While it’s true that most of us tend to soften our speech whenever we don’t know the present company, some research suggests that swearing in public can actually help you win over people. For example, this 2005 study that revealed that using the word damn in a speech about lowering college tuitions increased the persuasiveness of the speech. Or this 2014 experimental study showing that a politician’s use of swear words increased the general impression by the voters.

That wasn’t always the case, though. The most popular research on the subject during the 70s, 80s or 90s shows that swearers are perceived as untrustworthy or incompetent. But as four-letter words become more prevalent in the songs we hear, books we read, TV shows we watch, and even among our representatives, they become more commonplace and acceptable in our culture.

Politicians don’t have a devil-may-care approach to language. On the contrary — they study their speeches and talking points, word by word. So if they’re swearing, there’s a good reason for it. Cursing acts as a speech intensifier, it establishes an informal, even friendly relationship with the receiver. By talking like everyday men and women, without the pomposity and pretension of “proper English”, it’s easier to sound, and appear, more relatable.

President Donald Trump is certainly known for the inflammatory expletives on his statements: “Would I approve waterboarding? You bet your ass I’d approve it.” And they’re always very well received by his audience, who are mostly blue-collar, low to middle class workers, who finally feel heard. And swearing is not just heard from the red side of the isle. Democrats are also fond of salty language, like when Tom Perez, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, told an audience in Las Vegas that Trump “doesn’t give a shit about health care.”

A complex code of friendship

But this goes beyond politics.

Swearing can actually be good for us, claims Emma Byrne, who wrote a book on the subject. Emma is a robot scientist, whose interest in neuroscience led her to dive into the science behind salty language. Using peer reviewed studies, she emphasises, “I argue that swearing is likely to have been one of the first forms of language that we developed, and it’s been helping us to deal with pain, work together, manage our emotions and improve our minds.”

She defends that humans have long realized that making certain alarming sounds could prevent physical altercations, signal threats or certain emotional states, and make others laugh. For example, in the workplace. “From the factory floor to the operating theatre, scientists have shown that teams who share a vulgar lexicon tend to work more effectively together, feel closer and be more productive than those who don’t,” Byrne wrote.

And research backs it up. Psychologists have found that swearing in the workplace can have very positive effects, “including stress-relief, communication-enrichment and socialization-enhancement.” In other words, assuming you’re not throwing around vulgar language related to someone’s gender, race, religion or sexual orientation (which, thankfully, we’re a lot more sensitive to), or singling-out Gary from Accounting, a harmless “goddamn” here and there can actually build a sense of camaraderie.

But even more interesting, Byrne notes that women sometimes resort to vulgar language to assert their position in male-dominated offices, to “fit in”.

“Being a woman in a male dominated field, I rely on it to camouflage myself as one of the guys. Calling some equipment a fucking piece of shit is often a necessary rite of passage when I join a new team.”

Thanks to a long and sexist history, Byrne was told, swearing is still seen as a gender transgressive act. “It’s a hallmark of being one of the boys, especially if you’re a girl.” I’ve been told, in multiple occasions, that swearing “is just not ladylike.” That it’s “ugly, coming from such a pretty girl.” Women are not supposed to curse. They’re supposed to be gracious, ladylike, and accept each adversity and toe stub with the utmost elegance. Seen, not heard. And so, in a way, swearing really is an act of rebellion.

That fucking hurts

Vulgar words can also increase your ability to withstand pain, as Richard Stephens discovered. Stephens is a senior lecturer in Psychology at Keele University, and in 2012, he conducted an experiment where subjects would submerge their hands in ice water while repeating either swear words, or neutral words. He found that subjects using swear words could keep their hands submerged almost 50% longer than the other subjects, and the pain they described wasn’t as intense. I’ve never A/B tested this experiment, but when my toe finds its way into all kinds of corners, barking a curse does feel satisfying.

Swearing comes from a specific part of the brain, according to linguist Benjamin Bergen, who also wrote a book about it. He found that offensive slurs and obscenities don’t come from areas that govern normal speech — Broca’s area, which produces words, and Wernicke’s area, which has more to do with the comprehension of language. He’s seen that patients who have damage in these two regions often develop aphasia, and can have trouble talking, reading, and writing. Surprisingly, they can still swear just like the rest of us — swearing isn’t processed in the left-hemisphere like the rest of our speech. Plenty of scientists suggest that swearing is processed in lower — spatially speaking —, more primal regions of the brain, typically associated with emotion, instinct, and impulse control, like the limbic system, and the basal ganglia.

Berger also debunked the idea that profanity harms our children’s development. We keep telling ourselves, and our kids, that these words are dirty, but the irony is that swearing is our own creation. These words are only powerful because we make them. We tell our kids they’re bad, and instead of curing them of their afflictions, we’re just making them interesting.

There’s a reason why, every time we travel abroad to a country whose language we don’t speak, ordering food and cursing are always the first words we want to learn. For better or for worse, swear words are powerful. They tell us a lot about ourselves, about how our brains and societies work. And, in Bernie Sander’s case, they can always be of use to snub someone who, in retrospect, would have been better off if he’d stayed quiet.

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