Warning: the following article contains explicit language. That should be fairly apparent by the title but we’re legally obliged (we think) to put it into plain language. If you’re easily offended or don’t have a sense of humour, we suggest skipping this one. Consider yourself warned.
If you’ve spent any time in one of our presences – whether IRL or online – you would have noticed that swearing is kind of a part of our culture. But there’s more to swearing than just letting off steam. As it turns out, it’s actually good for your health. Hell yes!
Emma Byrne, scientist (and now author) working in the fields of artificial intelligence, robotics and swearing, published the evidence-based book, Swearing is Good For You. In it, she explores the effect that swearing has on us. While swearing is typically regarded as lazy language and an indication of lower intelligence, Byrne argues that it is not only natural, but both physically and mentally beneficial, too.
The history of swearing
Before we dive into the dirty-word details, let’s pause and take a look at the history of swearing.
Professor Timothy Jay of Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts has written extensively about profanity and has little doubt that it has evolutionary advantages.
Quoted in an articlefor The New York Times, he says, “There must be evolutionary advantages to cursing, or we would not have evolved to do it. We can express our emotions … Cursing is coping, or venting, and it helps us deal with stress.”
In the wild, chimpanzees use their excrement to mark their territory or express irritation. When taken into captivity, primates are taught sign language – including the signing for “dirty” in reference to excrement. Without being taught, chimps will start using the sign for “dirty” the same way humans use our own excremental swearwords: to reprimand or to express anger amongst their troop. So, in the same way they fling faeces to express anger in the wild, captive chimps sign “dirty” at each.
But wait – it gets better. The chimps that learn this sign language will internalise it and pass it onto the next generation without human involvement – and the foul-fingered fun continues.
But what the fuck counts as swearing, anyway?
Since all offence barometers are not created equal, how do we benchmark what constitutes a dirty word, anyway?
In the 1970s, comedian George Carlin did a famous sketch which pointed out the seven words you can’t say on television. To this day, it is still regarded as a stand-up comedy masterpiece. But did you know that the seven words sketch is so notorious that it kicked off a legal battle that is still taught in law schools today? It resulted in a landmark US Supreme Court decision which declared the words being used as an invasion of privacy against listeners without warning. Fifty years later, those seven words – shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker and tits – are still the same seven words that you can’t say on (daytime) television.
The words “swearing” and “cursing” tend to be used interchangeably, but there are actually slight differences in their meanings. Swearing suggests blasphemy (invoking a deity to empower your words) whereas cursing implies damning someone. Together, both types are defined as profanity: the seven words you can’t say on TV, or the words not deemed socially acceptable.
And while experts agree that profanity is not only harmless but has clear links to numerous benefits (we’ll get to them, sit tight!), slurs are the exception.
“When profanity targets demographic groups, it can foster prejudices” and cause “increased symptoms of anxiety and depression”, says Dr. Benjamin Bergen, author of What the F: What Swearing Reveals about Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves.
So, what are the benefits, anyway?
Let off bloody steam!
We’re all familiar with the need to reach for a string of our favourite four-letter words when getting hot under the collar – and it’s for good reason!
“People often swear when they’re stressed or faced with a challenge. When they swear, they experience a release in physiological and psychological stress,” says Dr. Kyle Zrenchik, co-founder of All In Therapy. “What a tremendous gift we have: no pills, so side effects, no co-pays. We have a totally natural, free and readily accessible way to take the edge off of things, even if just a little bit,” he 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,” says Dr. Byrne. Surgeons and pilots who were allowed to swear on the job performed better in high-stress situations than those who were not allowed to swear. “The cathartic effect of a well-placed expletive – a feeling that you’ve done something considered taboo – gives emotional release.”
Take the fucking edge off
There’s no question that you’ve stubbed your toe and roared off a string of expletives, right? Well, evidence suggests that this response might actually be able to help you tolerate the pain better.
In an oft-quoted study from Keele University, co-authored by Richard Stephens, researchers found that swearing can increase your ability to withstand pain. In the experiment, participants were asked to submerge their hand in ice water for as long as they could, repeating either a swearword or a neutral one. Participants who repeated a swearword were able to keep their hand in the ice water for almost 50 percent longer than participants repeating a neutral word. Researchers concluded that swearing had the effect of reducing sensitivity to pain.
“Swearing seems to trigger the natural ‘fight or flight’ stress response, as well as increased adrenaline and heart pumping. This leads to stress-induced analgesia – being more tolerant of pain,” Dr Stephens reports.
But… There’s a catch. The same effects were not seen in participants who were self-described as prolific swearers – defined as up to 60 words per day. (Damnit!)
Another study by Stephens (currently under review) tested the effect of swearing on strength and power performance. In the study, participants were asked to repeat profanities while pedalling on a bicycle squeezing a hand dynamometer. In both cases, greater maximum performance was observed in the foul-mouthed group.
Make a fucking connection
Using colourful language doesn’t just have health benefits. Research coming from “down under” in Australia and New Zealand shows that swearing among friends and colleagues is a strong signal of group trust. Colleagues that joke with each other in ways that transgress polite speech (and this includes swearing) report that they trust each other more.
“Every generation has its own slang, which includes profanity,” says Dr. Bergen. “And when you use that language, it’s like a password that gives you access to people.” The same holds true for replacing expletives with phrases like “shut the front door”. It sends out a clear social signal as to who you are.
“Swearing has such an emotional impact,” says Dr. Byrne. “You’re demonstrating that you have a sophisticated theory of who you are talking to… and that you’ve worked out where the limit is between being shocking enough to make them giggle but not so shocking that they’ll be mortally offended. That’s a hard target to hit right in the bullseye.”
“Using swearwords appropriate for that person shows how well you know them and how well you understand their mental model,” concludes Dr. Byrne.
In the study, Dr. Timothy Jay tested the ability of people to generate words beginning with a given letter. It found that people who could generate a lot of letter words could also generate the most swearwords, not the other way around.
“A folk assumption… is that taboo words are used because speakers cannot find better words with which to express themselves because speakers lack vocabulary,” Dr. Jay says. “The ability to generate taboo language is not an index of overall language poverty… Fluency is fluency,” he adds.
Trust me, for fuck’s sake
A study published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science found that “profanity was associated with less lying and deception at the individual level.” Other research shows that people perceive 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. Truth tellers, on the other hand, get to the point faster which might mean speaking impulsively and without a filter,” says Dr. Jay.
Dr Bergen agrees. “We believe that when people use profanity, they are indicating their [true] emotional state.”
“If you want people to think that you’re telling the truth, then swearing might help with that,” Bergen adds.
There’s fokol happening in parliament
In a recent parliamentary session, South African president Cyril Ramaphosa dropped the f-bomb in response to a question asked by Julius Malema. In case you missed it, what unfolds is a highly entertaining moment where the president is asked to withdraw his use of “fokal” from parliamentary lexicon.
Watching Uncle Squirrel reduced to a pile of giggles will certainly get you LOLing, and there’s no doubt that his use of profanity makes him even more approachable. In fact, a study in the Journal of Language and Psychology has investigated why vulgarity works in the parliamentary setting. It found that a candidate’s use of swearwords improved their general impression.
So while many people think that profanity should be limited and reflects badly on oneself, the evidence is clear: it’s beneficial to both your health and many aspects of your relationship with friends and peers alike.