Why would a psychological scientist study swearing? Expertise in such an area has different practical significance inside and outside the community of psychological science. Outside the scientific community, expertise on taboo language is justification for frequent consultation about contemporary issues that are perennial: Is swearing harmful? Should children be allowed to swear? Is our swearing getting worse? One of us has been interviewed over 3,000 times by various media with respect to the questions above, as well as those about the use of taboo words in television, advertising, professional sports, radio, music, and film. In addition to consultation with mass media, expert testimony has been needed in cases involving sexual harassment, fighting words, picket-line speech, disturbing the peace, and contempt of court cases.
Considering the persistent need for an expert to consult for the above issues, it is odd that swearing expertise is weighted so differently when swearing is viewed from the perspective of psychological science. While hundreds of papers have been written about swearing since the early 1900s, they tend to originate from fields outside of psychology such as sociology, linguistics, and anthropology. When swearing is a part of psychological research, it is rarely an end in itself.
It is far more common to see strong offensive words used as emotionally arousing stimuli — tools to study the effect of emotion on mental processes such as attention and memory.
Why the public-versus-science disconnect? Is swearing, as a behavior, outside the scope of what a psychological scientist ought to study? Because swearing is influenced so strongly by variables that can be quantified at the individual level, psychological scientists (more than linguists, anthropologists, and sociologists) have the best training to answer questions about it. Another explanation for the relative lack of emphasis on this topic is the orientation of psychological science to processes (e.g., memory) rather than life domains (e.g., leisure activities), a problem described by Paul Rozin. Arguably, a more domain-centered approach to psychological study would better accommodate topics such as swearing and other taboo behaviors.
Regardless of the reason for the relative lack of emphasis on swearing research per se inside psychological science, there is still a strong demand from outside the scientific community for explanations of swearing and associated phenomena. To give the reader a sense of the work that we do as psychological scientists who study swearing, let’s consider some of the common questions we’re asked about swearing.
Is swearing problematic or harmful?
Courts presume harm from speech in cases involving discrimination or sexual harassment. The original justification for our obscenity laws was predicated on an unfounded assumption that speech can deprave or corrupt children, but there is little (if any) social-science data demonstrating that a word in and of itself causes harm. A closely related problem is the manner in which harm has been defined — harm is most commonly framed in terms of standards and sensibilities such as religious values or sexual mores. Rarely are there attempts to quantify harm in terms of objectively measurable symptoms (e.g., sleep disorder, anxiety). Psychological scientists could certainly make a systematic effort to establish behavioral outcomes of swearing.
Swearing can occur with any emotion and yield positive or negative outcomes. Our work so far suggests that most uses of swear words are not problematic. We know this because we have recorded over 10,000 episodes of public swearing by children and adults, and rarely have we witnessed negative consequences. We have never seen public swearing lead to physical violence. Most public uses of taboo words are not in anger; they are innocuous or produce positive consequences (e.g., humor elicitation). No descriptive data are available about swearing in private settings, however, so more work needs to be done in that area.
Therefore, instead of thinking of swearing as uniformly harmful or morally wrong, more meaningful information about swearing can be obtained by asking what communication goals swearing achieves. Swear words can achieve a number of outcomes, as when used positively for joking or storytelling, stress management, fitting in with the crowd, or as a substitute for physical aggression. Recent work by Stephens et al. even shows that swearing is associated with enhanced pain tolerance. This finding suggests swearing has a cathartic effect, which many of us may have personally experienced in frustration or in response to pain. Despite this empirical evidence, the positive consequences of swearing are commonly disregarded in the media. Here is an opportunity for psychological scientists to help inform the media and policymakers by clearly describing the range of outcomes of swearing, including the benefits.
Is it bad for children to hear or say swear words?
The harm question for adult swearing applies to issues such as verbal abuse, sexual harassment, and discrimination. When children enter the picture, offensive language becomes a problem for parents and a basis for censorship in media and educational settings. Considering the ubiquity of this problem, it is interesting that psychology textbooks do not address the emergence of this behavior in the context of development or language learning.
Parents often wonder if this behavior is normal and how they should respond to it. Our data show that swearing emerges by age two and becomes adult-like by ages 11 or 12. By the time children enter school, they have a working vocabulary of 30-40 offensive words. We have yet to determine what children know about the meanings of the words they use. We do know that younger children are likely to use milder offensive words than older children and adults, whose lexica may include more strongly offensive terms and words with more nuanced social and cultural meanings. We are currently collecting data to better understand the development of the child’s swearing lexicon.
We do not know exactly how children learn swear words, although this learning is an inevitable part of language learning, and it begins early in life. Whether or not children (and adults) swear, we know that they do acquire a contextually-bound swearing etiquette — the appropriate ‘who, what, where, and when’ of swearing. This etiquette determines the difference between amusing and insulting and needs to be studied further. Through interview data, we know that young adults report to have learned these words from parents, peers, and siblings, not from mass media.
Considering that the consequences of children’s exposure to swear words are frequently cited as the basis for censorship, psychological scientists should make an effort to describe the normal course of the development of a child’s swearing lexicon and etiquette. Is it important to attempt to censor children from language they already know? While psychological scientists themselves do not establish language standards, they can provide scientific data about what is normal to inform this debate.
Has swearing become more frequent in recent years?
This is a very common question, and it’s a tough one to answer because we have no comprehensive, reliable baseline frequency data prior to the 1970s for comparison purposes. It is true that we are exposed to more forms of swearing since the inception of satellite radio, cable television, and the Internet, but that does not mean the average person is swearing more frequently. In our recent frequency count, a greater proportion of our data comes from women (the reduction of a once large gender difference). We interpret this finding as reflecting a greater proportion of women in public (e.g., many more women on college campuses) rather than a coarsening of women. Our forthcoming research also indicates that the most frequently recorded taboo words have remained fairly stable over the past 30 years. The Anglo-Saxon words we say are hundreds of years old, and most of the historically offensive sexual references are still at the top of the offensiveness list; they have not been dislodged by modern slang. Frequency data must be periodically collected to answer questions about trends in swearing over time.
Thus, our data do not indicate that our culture is getting “worse” with respect to swearing. When this question arises, we also frequently fail to acknowledge the impact of recently-enacted laws that penalize offensive language, such as sexual harassment and discrimination laws. Workplace surveillance of telephone and email conversations also curbs our use of taboo language.
Do all people swear?
We can answer this question by saying that all competent English speakers learn how to swear in English. Swearing generally draws from a pool of 10 expressions and occurs at a rate of about 0.5 percent of one’s daily word output. However, it is not informative to think of how an average person swears: Contextual, personality, and even physiological variables are critical for predicting how swearing will occur. While swearing crosses socioeconomic statuses and age ranges and persists across the lifespan, it is more common among adolescents and more frequent among men. Inappropriate swearing can be observed in frontal lobe damage, Tourette’s disorder, and aphasia.
Swearing is positively correlated with extraversion and is a defining feature of a Type A personality. It is negatively correlated with conscientiousness, agreeableness, sexual anxiety, and religiosity. These relationships are complicated by the range of meanings within the diverse group of taboo words. Some religious people might eschew profanities (religious terms), but they may have fewer reservations about offensive sexual terms that the sexually anxious would avoid. We have yet to systematically study swearing with respect to variables such as impulsivity or psychiatric conditions, (e.g., schizophrenia and bipolar disorder). These may be fruitful avenues along which to investigate the neural basis of emotion and self-control.
Taboo words occupy a unique place in language because once learned, their use is heavily context driven. While we have descriptive data about frequency and self reports about offensiveness and other linguistic variables, these data tend to come from samples that overrepresent young, White, middle-class Americans. A much wider and more diverse sample is needed to better characterize the use of taboo language to more accurately answer all of the questions here.
Their study, which will be published in the Social Psychological and Personality Science journal, concluded “a consistent positive relationship between profanity and honesty; profanity was associated with less lying and deception at the individual level and with higher integrity at the society level”.What does psychology say about swearing? ›
Science has also found a positive link between profanity and honesty. People who cursed lied less on an interpersonal level, and had higher levels of integrity overall, a series of three studies published in 2017 found.Why do we curse when we're angry? ›
It releases stress
As it turns out, there's some science behind why cursing when you're angry or frustrated makes you feel better. "Cursing can be an effective emotional release, especially for anger and frustration," explains Laura MacLeod, LMSW practicing in New York.
Swearwords are socially and emotionally indispensable, vital parts of our linguistic repertoires that help us mitigate stress, cope with pain, increase strength and endurance and bond with friends and colleagues — it's not for nothing they are described as “strong language”.What does it say about someone who swears alot? ›
Researchers and authors have argued that people who curse a lot are lazy, have a more limited vocabulary, and lack education and self-control.What swearing does to your brain? ›
The emotionality and/or catharsis associated with swearing suggests that it might activate the basal ganglia, amygdala and other parts of the limbic system; these are deep structures in the brain that play a central role in processing memory and emotion.Is swearing a measure of intelligence? ›
Most studies that look at swearing conflate intelligence and vocabulary. A wide vocabulary may indicate intelligence, but it's not the same thing. Sounding smart and being smart are wildly different. It might be more accurate to say that cursing indicates a broad vocabulary.What was the first cuss word invented? ›
Fart, as it turns out, is one of the oldest rude words we have in the language: Its first record pops up in roughly 1250, meaning that if you were to travel 800 years back in time just to let one rip, everyone would at least be able to agree upon what that should be called.Is cussing good for your mental health? ›
Studies show cursing during a physically painful event can help us better tolerate the pain. Experts say using curse words can also help us build emotional resilience and cope with situations in which we feel that we have no control.Why do people cuss when they get hurt? ›
Swearing in response to pain may activate the amygdala which in turn triggers a fight-or-flight response. This then leads to a surge in adrenaline, a natural form of pain relief.
A curse implies damning or punishing someone, while a swear word suggests blasphemy — invoking a deity to empower your words.Does God get angry and punish us? ›
So while God is not human, he does get angry. And he has good reason for reacting to human behavior with anger. In fact, God wouldn't be good if he didn't have strong reactions to evil and injustice.When did the F word become offensive? ›
Historians generally agree that "fuck" hit its stride in the 15th and 16th centuries as a familiar word for sexual intercourse, and from there it evolved into the vulgarity we know today.What is the normal age to swear? ›
Other research has found that children start swearing around age two and that it becomes more adult-like by ages 11 or 12, authors at the Association for Psychological Science noted in 2012.Why do people use the F word so much? ›
Swearing can be an important form of expression for many people; we see it as a way to get in touch with our emotions. Think of poetry, both written and spoken word, music, movies, any sort of media where the artist is expressing themselves–swear words are a common find.What is it called when someone swears all the time? ›
Coprolalia is a medical term meaning “the obsessive, excessive, and/or involuntary use of obscene language, including scatological words.” This language can also include socially inappropriate and insulting utterances, even if they do not contain curse words (e.g., due to her coprolalia, she sometimes involuntarily ...How do you break a swearing habit? ›
To help you curb the habit, etiquette expert Jacqueline Whitmore suggests having a swear jar at your desk. Every time you slip up, you can put a dollar in the jar. Not only does this hold you accountable, but you can use it as a rewards system, too.Is swearing part of your personality? ›
Swearing is positively correlated with extraversion and is a defining feature of a Type A personality. It is negatively correlated with conscientiousness, agreeableness, sexual anxiety, and religiosity.Does swearing give you dopamine? ›
Swearing releases chemicals in the brain like dopamine and epinephrine. These can induce analgesia, or the ability to withstand pain.What condition makes you swear? ›
#1 People with Tourette don't always blurt out obscenities.
Known as coprolalia, this only affects about 1 in 10 people with Tourette. Coprolalia is a complex tic that is difficult to control or suppress, and people who have this tic often feel embarrassed by it.
Uttering curses in cyclist and strength test yielded more power than neutral words, a new study has found. Drop those F-bombs, shout the S-word, and let those mofo's fly: A new study has found that swearing out loud can boost physical performance, strength, and power in exercise.Does swearing show lack of vocabulary? ›
You might have been told swearing shows a lack of intelligence or a limited vocabulary. But experts have revealed this is not the case, and the use of profanity can in fact be a sign of a smart person. Studies have shown those with foul mouths are more articulate and have a larger vocabulary than their peers.Why do some people not swear? ›
it is because they have been taught by their parents or people around them, for not saying bad words to others. they also have a good moral in their heart which they do not like to say bad things to others.What is the German F word? ›
Ficken means to f*ck, mit jemandem ficken = to f*ck someone etc. Germans use ficken only in a sexual sense. Most f-expressions in English are translated using some form of Scheiß or Arsch.What is the oldest word in the world? ›
Mother, bark and spit are some of the oldest known words, say researchers. Continue reading → Mother, bark and spit are just three of 23 words that researchers believe date back 15,000 years, making them the oldest known words.Is cussing a form of harassment? ›
VERBAL HARASSMENT includes threatening, yelling, insulting or cursing at someone in public or private. VERBAL ABUSE can lead to serious adverse health effects. This form of harassment can be particularly damaging since it goes unnoticed and unresolved.What is a cussing disorder? ›
Coprolalia is the medical term used to describe one of the most puzzling and socially stigmatizing symptoms of Tourette Syndrome—the involuntary outburst of obscene words or socially inappropriate and derogatory remarks. Other examples may include references to genitals, excrement and sexual acts.Does swearing calm you down? ›
One thing's for sure, swearing helps reduce stress levels faster, scientist Dr Emma Byrne says. “Studies show that when you put people in stressful situations and tell them they can't swear, their stress increases and their performance is negatively impacted,” the author of Swearing is Good For You says.Does the Bible say do not swear with anything? ›
“12 But above all, my brethren, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath; but your yes is to be yes, and your no, no, so that you may not fall under judgment.” James is clearly echoing Jesus' words. The Bible teaches Christians should not take oaths.Is saying oh my God blasphemy? ›
"If you say something like 'Oh my God,' then you're using His name in vain, but if you're saying something like OMG it's not really using the Lord's name in vain because you're not saying 'Oh my God. ' It's more like 'Wow.
Matthew 5:34 In-Context
34 But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God's throne; 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King.
Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: 'It is mine to avenge; I will repay,' says the Lord” (Romans 12:18-20). God will repay, so leave room for His wrath. You don't need to take it into your hands when you know it is in His. God will deal with this.What sins makes God angry? ›
Proverbs 6:16-19, NIV There are six things the LORD hates, seven that are detestable to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked schemes, feet that are quick to rush into evil, a false witness who pours out lies and a person who stirs up conflict in the community.Will God take revenge for me? ›
Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary: 'If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.What is the e word? ›
e-word (plural e-words) Any word beginning with e, especially one referring to something electronic, or one that is (often humorously) treated as controversial in a given context (for example, evolution, evangelical or enlightenment). quotations ▼What does the G word mean? ›
(euphemistic) The word goddamn.What's the H word? ›
Noun. h-word (plural h-words) (euphemistic) The word hell/Hell.Is it OK to let your kid swear? ›
Elementary and middle school:
Absolutely no cursing at home. For young children, behaviors at home become imprints for behaviors in the world. Small children are not able to distinguish what's appropriate in different environments.
Schools should have an expectation for all students to be respectful of one another. Cursing in any form can be offensive and disrespectful to many students. If nothing else, all students should refrain from this practice because of this.How do you punish a child for cursing? ›
If you've created a rule about swearing and it continues to happen, a negative consequence may be necessary. If your child swears when they are angry, a time-out can be a good way to teach them how to calm down before they say something that will get them into trouble. A “swear jar” is another means of discipline.
On average, the most profanities per episode can be found in US crime drama series, The Wire, with an average of 102 swears per episode. The Sopranos, following the exploits of warring mafia families, is high on both lists alongside slum comedy Shameless and Orange is the new Black.Is the F word allowed on TV? ›
Federal law prohibits obscene, indecent and profane content from being broadcast on the radio or TV.Who says the F word most? ›
When host Jimmy Fallon told Jackson that Hill is first on the list, The Banker star replied: “That's some bulls***.” Hill has used a total of 376 curse words in film history, followed by Leonardo DiCaprio who has cursed 361 times. Jackson came in third with 301 curses used throughout his career.Is swearing a coping mechanism? ›
It can be considered an act of sublimation, whereby we channel our anger by swearing instead, in what is seen as a 'healthier' outlet to help release our negative emotions. Harmless & Humorous Coping Mechanism.What are the negative effects of swearing? ›
Since swearing is considered taboo, these words are usually judged as shocking, and the swearer may be considered antisocial and offensive. Consequently, swearing can negatively impact how the swearer is perceived by others, which may lead to social isolation and depression.Is swearing a defense mechanism? ›
Those allowed to curse lasted longer, indicating a fight-or-flight response in which their heart rate climbed and they became less sensitive to pain. And Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker believes we curse as a defense mechanism; we want to startle the listener.What type of behavior is swearing? ›
Swearing is positively correlated with extraversion and is a defining feature of a Type A personality. It is negatively correlated with conscientiousness, agreeableness, sexual anxiety, and religiosity.What is the syndrome where you can't stop swearing? ›
Tourette syndrome is a condition that affects the brain and nerves, causing people to make repeated movements and sounds, also known as motor and vocal tics, that they cannot control. The symptoms usually begin in childhood, can vary from mild to severe, and change over time.What is the average age to start swearing? ›
Other research has found that children start swearing around age two and that it becomes more adult-like by ages 11 or 12, authors at the Association for Psychological Science noted in 2012. “By the time children enter school, they have a working vocabulary of 30 to 40 offensive words,” the report continued.What is the difference between swearing and cursing? ›
Swearing and cursing are often used interchangeably, but there's a subtle difference in their origins. A curse implies damning or punishing someone, while a swear word suggests blasphemy — invoking a deity to empower your words.
Thus, there are two categories of swearing: Propositional and non-propositional. Propositional swearing includes dysphemistic, euphemistic, abusive, idiomatic, and emphatic swearing.What is the weakest defense mechanism? ›
Displacement is the worst defense mechanism for your relationships. Not only does it not fix the problem, but it pushes people away.Is swearing a form of harassment? ›
If it is viewed that the cursing is specifically directed toward an individual or group of individuals by virtue of their gender, age, race, national origin, religion, disability status or veteran status, it could be perceived as discrimination or harassment and represent the start of an illegal hostile work ...What are the three forms of swear? ›
- he / she / it swears.
- past simple swore.
- past participle sworn.
- -ing form swearing.
Coprolalia is the medical term used to describe one of the most puzzling and socially stigmatizing symptoms of Tourette Syndrome—the involuntary outburst of obscene words or socially inappropriate and derogatory remarks. Other examples may include references to genitals, excrement and sexual acts.Why is swearing not allowed in school? ›
Schools should have an expectation for all students to be respectful of one another. Cursing in any form can be offensive and disrespectful to many students. If nothing else, all students should refrain from this practice because of this.