The expression of profane language has been the main legal battleground of free speech for the last century. You can easily switch on your TV any night during the week and hear comedians impugning the competency of the political and religious leaders of the world without worrying about consequences they could face if they lived a few centuries before. This is a sign of great progress in the history of humanity and I must say we live, luckily, in the age of freedom of speech. Well, we do except when it comes to certain words. Why?!
Why do we want to swear?
This isn’t at all an easy question and to even approach answering it you must know a few ways in which people tend to swear:
- Abusive swearing – used specifically to humiliate and insult somebody. Those can mostly relate to excrement such as you piece of shit, you asshole, shove it up your ass or sexuality such as motherfucker (incest) and wanker (masturbation).
- Dysphemistic swearing – an euphemism is a substitution for an expression that suggests something unpleasant to the listener whereas a dysphemism has the opposite logic and is used when the speaker wants you to think how hideous something is. Excrement is part of our lives and you like it or not, you can’t get through without having to mention it. Then again people don’t want to think of it and they make up synonyms to protect themselves. We have general terms like waste, medical like bowel movement, formal like excrement, terms we use with kids like poo and many more. What’s crucial is that you can’t use these terms interchangeably. This is why the doctor won’t say they need your poo samples and similarly you won’t ask your kids if they need to defecate.
- Reaction swearing - This is when, during a romantic evening, the topic of conversation suddenly changes to dignifying sexual activities or religion after you just spilled red wine on your new trousers and you yell shit, fuck or Jesus or combinations of the three. If you’re Polish remember that even though you exclaim kurwa when you stub your toe you wouldn’t shout whore in English after you injured yourself or you would sound really silly!
- Habitual swearing – bizarre constructions such as what the fuck where swear words are used purely for their shock value rather than meaning, often overused by speakers.
Anyone who speaks a foreign language knows that the kind of things we swear about vary in different languages. If you risk translating swear words literally from language to language results can be often comical. Nevertheless, there are universal concepts – categories in which most of the world’s swear words fall into:
- Excretions and associated organs (piss, shit, ass) Those are all strong words and the reason why is that epidemiologists consider many diseases to be spread through our bodily fluids. In old English language you could curse somebody by saying a pox on you and in Polish for instance you can swear by shouting cholera.
- Sexuality and associated organs (fuck, dick, cunt) Why is it a source of negative thought if sex itself is pleasurable? It isn’t when you consider all negative aspects of sexuality such as prostitution, incest, child abuse and rape. Those are no small matter to humanity, are controversial and for that reason continue to be emotionally charged.
- Religion based (Jesus, hell, damn). Those is nowadays moderately mild way of swearing unless in more religious societies, especially Catholic societies, like where I grew up, in Poland.
The answer to that question is buried deep in the neurobiology. Swearing activates the areas of our brain associated with negative emotions concentrated in the right hemisphere. A very interesting feature of the neurobiology of swearing is that swearing is processed involuntary only which means you can’t chose to ignore a certain word in terms of the inevitable arousal that is associated with it. To prove that theory saying things are processed automatically in our brain there’s a simple test to use in sociology. My former teacher tried this on the group of students, including me, and the results were rather surprising. The task was to simply name the colour in which the word on the board is printed. ‘’Don’t read it’’ – he said – ‘’Ignore what it spells but just pay attention to the colour’’. Black, green, red, blue… Even though the task requires you to ignore what the word spells, try as you might, you can’t do it after a lifetime of literacy. Our brains process words automatically. It means that swearing forces the listener to think unpleasant thoughts.
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