The Case for Cursing
Swearing can increase your ability to withstand pain, according to one study.
Other words used to express hurt or frustration instead of explicative language: dad-gummit, darn, con-sarnit, darnit, dangit, dag-nabbit, dang, dangit, derby, doam, and my favorite darn or ouch.
By Kristin Wong
July 27, 2017
You know when you stub your toe and involuntarily utter an expletive? You probably didn’t give it much thought, but you might have been on to something.
As children we’re taught that cursing, even when we’re in pain, is inappropriate, betrays a limited vocabulary or is somehow low class in that ambiguous way many cultural lessons suggest. But profanity serves a physiological, emotional and social purpose — and it’s effective only because it’s inappropriate.
“The paradox is that it’s that very act of suppression of the language that creates those same taboos for the next generation,” said Benjamin K. Bergen, author of “What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains and Ourselves.” He calls this the “profanity paradox.”
“The reason that a child thinks the F-word is a bad word is that, growing up, he or she was told that it was a bad word, so profanity is a cultural construct that perpetuates itself through time,” said Dr. Bergen, a professor of cognitive science at the University of California, San Diego. “It’s an affliction of its own creation.”
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. For the sake of modern discussion, both words are defined as profanity: vulgar, socially unacceptable language you don’t use in polite conversation.
The paradox is that profane words are powerful only because we make them powerful. Without their being censored, all of the words we designate by a first letter and “-word” would just be average terms.
In “The Stuff of Thought,” Steven Pinker, a cognitive scientist and a professor at Harvard, listed a few functions of swearing. There’s emphatic swearing, for instance, which is meant to highlight a point, and dysphemistic swearing, which is meant to make a point provocatively.
But swearing is beneficial beyond making your language more colorful. It can also offer catharsis. A study co-authored by Richard Stephens, a senior lecturer in psychology at Keele University, found that swearing can increase your ability to withstand pain. So when you stub your toe and howl an expletive, it might help you tolerate the pain better.
In his experiment, Dr. Stephens asked subjects to come up with a list of words, including swear words, that they might use if they hit their thumb with a hammer. Then they were asked to come up with a list of neutral words to describe a chair (like wooden, for example). He then asked them to submerge a hand in ice water for as long as they could, while repeating a word from either list: a swear word or a neutral one.
Participants who repeated a swear were able to keep their hand submerged in the ice water for almost 50 percent longer than those who repeated a neutral word. Not only that, swearing also made participants feel like the pain wasn’t as intense. Researchers concluded that swearing had the effect of reducing sensitivity to pain. Who knew four letters could be so soothing?
“For pain relief, swearing seems to trigger the natural ‘fight or flight’ stress response, as well as increased adrenaline and heart pumping,” Dr. Stephens said in an email. “This leads to stress-induced analgesia — being more tolerant of pain.”
Another study Dr. Stephens conducted, currently under review, tested the effect of swearing on strength. During bicycle and hand-grip exercises, researchers asked subjects to repeat curse words and neutral words while pedaling against resistance and squeezing a hand dynamometer, then recorded their results. In both cases, swearing improved performance.
Though swearing is mostly harmless, Dr. Bergen wrote in his book, slurs are the exception. There are clear benefits to using profanity, but when profanity targets demographic groups, it can foster prejudices, Dr. Bergen wrote.
Now, to clarify: These words, of course, don’t have any intrinsic, mystical power that confers superhuman strength and endurance. It is simply the act of speaking a taboo word that makes it cathartic, according to researchers, and that applies to emotional catharsis, too.
“There must be evolutionary advantages to cursing, or we would not have evolved to do it,” said Timothy Jay, an emeritus professor at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts who has written extensively about profanity. “We can express our emotions, especially anger and frustration, towards others symbolically not through tooth and nail. Cursing is coping, or venting, and it helps us deal with stress.”
Curse words can help you more accurately communicate your emotions, which contradicts the folk belief that people use profanity because they lack vocabulary skills.
“This is the ‘poverty of vocabulary’ myth, that people swear because they lack the right words due to impoverished vocabulary,’’ Dr. Jay said. “Any language scholar knows otherwise.”
Dr. Jay was the co-author of a 2015 study, published in Language Sciences, that tested the ability of people to generate words beginning with a given letter. It ended up debunking the poverty-of-vocabulary myth.
“We found that people who could generate a lot of letter words and animal names could also generate the most swear words,” Dr. Jay said. “So as fluency goes up, so does the ability to say swear words, not the other way around.’’ He added, “Fluency is fluency.”
Some research also finds a link between swearing and honesty. For example, a study published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science concluded “profanity was associated with less lying and deception at the individual level.”
Dr. Jay said other research showed that people perceived those who use profanity as more honest, too. The idea is that liars have to use more brain power and require more thinking time to make up lies, remember lies or to just avoid telling the truth. Truth tellers, on the other hand, get to the point faster, which might mean speaking impulsively and without a filter.
“We believe that when people use profanity they are indicating their emotional state to us, and it’s not something that people always do,” Dr. Bergen said. “Lots of people hide their emotions for lots of reasons, and I think that we infer from someone swearing that they must not be doing that. They must be truthfully conveying their emotional stance. If you want people to think that you’re telling the truth, then swearing might help with that.”
In social settings, swearing can serve as a connector. Every generation has its own slang, which includes profanity. When you use that language, it’s almost like a password that gives you access to people hip to it, Dr. Bergen said. This can work even if you avoid swearing. As Dr. Bergen explained, people with religious beliefs often avoid swearing and may use other phrases, like “shut the front door,” to replace profanity. This signals who you are socially, he said.
Still, there are detractors who argue that profanity is unnecessary and should be censored. They’re right: If the foul-mouthed among us want to preserve the benefits of cursing, we need these detractors to ensure that profanity stays profane.