These days swearing seems almost ubiquitous, especially among my generation, and especially on the internet. Let’s stop and ponder: what is the point of all this profanity?
This gigantic and meticulously reasoned essay takes an exhaustive (but hopefully not exhausting) look at swearing from almost first principles — and, as you may have guessed from the title, finds it lacking.
Note: if you swear and aren’t interested in re-considering the habit, there’s no point in reading this post. It’ll probably just annoy you.
The Motives for Swearing
Swearing is a hammer used to drive many nails. Different types are used by different people for different reasons. People swear:
- In imitation, because those around them swore when they were growing up, and humans learn by mimicry.
- To fit in among peers (or people they admire) who swear.
- To stick out in a culture that proscribes swearing; to sound edgy and contemporary, feel like they’re ‘living dangerously’, and experience the thrill of breaking taboos. (A subset of this: people who like to perform and play the clown often combine swearing with overstatement or ridiculousness for comedic shock value.)
- To blow off steam (especially as a single-word expletive when something goes wrong).
- To pack an emotional punch and vent feelings about a particular person or thing, either directly at the target of the feelings, or to a third party.
- To buy time. Swear words can be used as filler (the way people use “um”, “uh”, and “like”), buying extra time while also sounding edgy.
- By habit, because by now they’ve been swearing for so long it’s become ingrained.
The Types of Swearing
There are many shades of blue. Taxonomically, the different types of ‘bad words’ really don’t belong in a single bucket. Some are pretty much meaningless. Others are literally a command that the (hypothetically) very worst possible thing happen to someone (or something) else.
First, there are religious oaths, or curses: things that specifically are forbidden by one or more religion, or the use of religious language to express a bad wish for somebody or something.
Second, there are biological and behavioural references. Most of these are scatological or reproductive, though they can sometimes overlap with the previous category by referencing proscribed behaviour.
And then there are euphemisms, or minced oaths. These are usually ‘softened’ versions of otherwise-unacceptable words from one of the previous categories.
The Research on Swearing
A handful of recent scientific studies (and one book) are frequently trotted out in defence of swearing, and have spawned countless news stories about swearing.
You may have read about swearing:
being a sign of verbal fluency,
increasing pain tolerance, and
being associated with honesty.
In my opinion, the studies investigating these topics aren’t nearly as clear-cut or methodologically sound as they are made to sound in the various clickbait news articles. Let’s look at three of the oft-cited studies.
The vocabulary study (Jay and Jay, 2015) indicates that those who can list the most swear words can also list the most non-swear words … but knowing lots of swear words is separate from how much someone uses swear words. The correlation isn’t surprising. Anyone who is well-read is bound to have run across just about every offensive word in common use, and a number of archaic ones besides. The study insinuates that people who know lots of swear words are verbally fluent. But I think what’s actually happening is that you can’t become verbally fluent without learning lots of swear words.
[Citizen Science Report: I was curious, so I self-administered the CWAT as rigorously as I could. I tried to avoid reading the other parts of the study that listed example words until I had administered the test, so I didn’t make it easier for myself. I also did the swear words first, so they would be hardest. I generated 20 (~2x avg) offensive words, even though I don't use swear words; 24 (~1x avg) words for the animal prompt; and a mean of 29 words per A-F-S prompt (~1.5x avg). However, I had already started this essay at the time, so swear words were more likely to be in working memory than they usually are. Another problem with my test is that (in keeping with my philosophy on the topic) I was bowdlerizing my list as I wrote, which is (as far as I can tell) slower than writing full words. To be fair, I bowdlerized words for all five prompts, so that the ratios would be consistent even if the totals were not. (A few months previously, I did it the test in a spreadsheet, only bowdlerizing swear words, and in the opposite order: I could list ~3x more swear words; over 2x A-F-S; and a hair less than 2x animals. Notice that the ratios are similar, even though the totals were higher.) So, while this supports my hypothesis, it’s very sloppy n=1 citizen science at best, and probably largely apocryphal.]
There is the curious case of people withstanding cold better when they swear. (Stephens, Atkins, & Kingston, 2009) Perhaps swearing has its place. However, the study was small (n=67), and the control wasn’t apples-to-apples, so it’s unclear if the hypoalgesic effect was the result of swearing per se. It would have made more sense if the control was one of the non-swear words from the first group, “five words you might use after hitting yourself on the thumb with a hammer”, rather than one of the “five words to describe a table”. Also, frequent swearing dilutes the effect3. (What would the results have looked like for a control group that sang loudly, meditated, or shouted gibberish?)
Another idea is that swearing is associated with honesty. (Feldman, Lian, Kosinski & Stillwell, 2017). Their research was threefold: self-reported swearing correlated with a lie scale, profanity on Facebook correlated with linguistic analysis for deception, and correlation between state-level integrity & Facebook profanity use in the US. Here’s my take. The first study (n=276) seemed weak, because swearing was self-reported, and people who are more honest would be more likely to be honest about how much they swear! (Also, it has the same issue as the verbal fluency study: “[...] we expected that the daily usage and enjoyment of profanity would be reflected in the total number of curse words written”. As I mentioned above, I disagree with this assumption. Rather than a cause, profanity might just be a symptom of frankness. The lie scale is clever: they used a scale where they asked unrealistic personality questions, and then took assent to indicate dishonesty. However, this would also catch self-delusion, and the particularly saintly, so it’s not perfect. The second study seemed somewhat more robust. The main weakness was that there was no measure of actual unethical behaviour or lying, only linguistic analysis techniques that had a ~67% success rate in a previous study (once again, this could be honest self-delusion.) It could also have to do with how much control people had over themselves and the image they project on the internet. Study three I can’t really comment on, other than to repeat what the authors said: integrity is hard to measure at the state level. In their conclusion, the authors write “[...] the three studies were correlational, thus preventing us from drawing any causal conclusions. Second, the dishonesty we examined in Studies 1 and 2 was mainly about self-promoting deception to appear more desirable to others rather than blunt unethical behavior. We therefore caution that the findings should not be interpreted to mean that the more a person uses profanity, the less likely he or she will engage in more serious unethical or immoral behaviors.”
On the flip side, there is research (Coyne, Stockdale, Nelson, & Fraser, 2011) on exposure to, and use of, profanity in children being correlated with physical and relational aggression. This is interesting, but the study is small (n=223), and was done by someone with a moral agenda that makes me leery of reading to much into it.
At this point, credible scientific evidence on both sides seems sorely lacking.
So, until more maledictology research is conducted, all we have is the irrefutable logic of random bloggers on the internet:
The Dumbness of Swearing
First, using swear words to pack an emotional punch is almost always a bad idea. It helps no one. Not me, not my surroundings, not the person I am talking to. If something has got me all worked up, it’s much more productive to take a few deep breaths, and reason through why I am worked up, and then, if necessary, calmly explain my concern to the other person involved.
Second, there is the question of curses and religious oaths. Expressing super super bad wishes for anyone, even a super super bad (seeming) person or thing, seems like a super super bad idea, regardless of whether my “curse” has any real effect. If hell existed, and people could be condemned there, the people who deserve to be condemned there would be condemned there without my help, and the people I wanted to go there who didn’t deserve to wouldn’t be condemned even with my help — and if hell doesn’t exist, then it has no effect other than to pollute my own mind and surroundings with bad vibes about people that I probably don’t understand in the first place. If there is nothing to believe in, religious oaths are completely useless, and have no meaning, but maybe are a way to articulate and formulate bad wishes. If there is something to believe in, religious oaths are a BAD IDEA in all capitals. Pascal’s Wager rides again: take a look at the upside (none, in either case), the downside (from almost nothing, to almost everything), and how confident you can be that God doesn’t exist (not very). You can do the cost-benefit analysis yourself.
Biological references are a different animal. However, you’re still (in most cases) calling something charged, unpleasant or disgusting into your awareness every time you swear. In addition, you are potentially alienating anyone listening to you who is over the age of eighty-five, part of the religious majority (83.7% of the global population as of 20101), or who shares the peculiar ideas of this B-list internet pundit. Perhaps most important, though, is the fact that biological references are meaningless noise. Try substituting the literal meaning of every swear word you use and see how copulating smart you sound.
If there’s any truth to the ideas of sound symbolism (phonosemantics) and linguistic iconicity — ideas as old as the hills, that have resurfaced in more modest ways — euphemisms would fall close to biological references. However, if it’s about meaning, and euphemisms are meaningfully isomorphic to the curse they represent, then they would be in the same category as the curse — the same way that words, meaningless on their own, represent concepts, and concepts can get you thrown in jail or worse. (Side note: I would argue that it is impossible to actually censor much of anything, because humans can create isomorphisms out of thin air, without even explicitly defining what they are referencing, and then carry on their merry way saying all kinds of obscene or heretical things in the context of fiction or a parable of vegetables, and no authority can ever say definitely that they aren’t talking about vegetables, or knitting.)
One final note on euphemisms: they are also dumb, because they are knotweed that takes over and pollutes the language. Perfectly good words get used as euphemisms, and take on the baggage of their skeevy associations, and then they can never be used in their original legitimate meaning without dragging the garbage in with them. This is a great loss to the language. My proposed solution: use words that other people use as euphemisms fearlessly … in their original sense. If enough sensible people use the perfectly good words that are in danger of becoming so laden with unwanted meanings as to be unusable, it will water down the unsavoury connotations, and prevent them from completely swallowing the original meaning of the word. (My sister points out that using euphemisms in their original sense fearlessly is great in theory, but it doesn’t work so well in the real world. She has a point.)
In summary, swearing is lazy. Habitual swearing is for people who:
- Cannot control their emotions, or don’t want to
- Cannot think of the right word, or won’t bother
- Are slow thinkers who need to buy time
- Are afraid of being different
- Know it’s dumb, but aren’t paying attention, and do it mechanically
But these arguments haven’t quite gotten to the root of why I think swearing is dumb. Swearing is a vehicle for a contemptuous, dismissive, arrogant attitude about the people and objects the swearer denigrates.
This attitude is antithetical to the sincerity, humility, and tolerance required of good citizens and healthy societies. It is the verbal equivalent of spitting. Though one can swear without this attitude and express this attitude without swearing, because swearing is a convenient and now culturally-sanctioned way of expressing this attitude, it encourages it.
What’s the alternative? The alternative to swearing is … not swearing.
If you need the just right word, in speech or in writing, you can often come up with colourful language that is far more apt and evocative than any swear word in common usage.
I’m not advocating for censorship. I don’t even like censorship! There are exceptions to every generalization (including this one). I think it’s possible, or even likely, that for some people, some types of swearing, some of the time, is harmless or even justified.
A friend pointed out that people who have had a legitimately hard life have in some sense ’earned the right’ to strong language. I both agree and disagree. Agree, that they have “earned the right” in some sense; disagree, that it is necessarily helpful for them (or those around them) if they exercise that right.
Another possible exception is biological terms, when used as labels rather than slurs. It’s hard to argue that there’s anything worse about using a short Anglo-Saxon word that means the same thing as a longer Latinate word, and is more satisfying to say. I can’t figure out any reason why the words themselves are vulgar, other than that people are more likely to use them vulgarly. The only difference is the difference in current and historical usage. Whether one should avoid them, even in their literal meaning, simply because the have become associated with the disrespectful attitudes of the other people who use those words, is hard to say.
Once in a while, I run across cases where literature uses swear words in a way that do not seem replaceable or omittable without lessening the quality of the work. I can think of maybe a handful off the top of my head, from all my reading of salty literature.
Caveats to the Caveats
Despite the caveats, I do not think the current culture of normalizing swearing, of just about any type, by just about anybody, at just about any time, is wise.
While I’m not advocating for censorship, I think swearing is dumb, overused, and potentially harmful. Smart people should consider whether it’s a good idea, rather than swearing just because everyone else does.