Why do people swear? Why does using a swear word make us feel better? How do we choose which word we use?
Luckily for you, the Association of Psychological Science’s Perspectives on Psychological Science just published an article that answers these important scientific questions in an article by Timothy Jay (2009). If swear words hurt your eyes, you may want to stop reading now.
Jay notes that swear words (or taboo words, as he calls them) can include sexual references (fuck), those that are profane or blasphemous (goddamn), scatological or disgusting objects (shit), animal names (pig, ass), ethnic/racial/gender slurs (fag), ancestral allusions (bastard), substandard vulgar terms and offensive slang. Taboo words can be mildly offensive to extremely offensive, and people will often use a more mild euphemism to replace a swear word when in mixed (or unknown) company.
How do we choose what word to use and when? We make choices about which word to use depending upon the company we’re in, and what our relationship is to that company, as well as the social setting. We’re more apt to use less offensive terms in mixed company or in settings where more offensive swear words might result in recrimination (such as work). For instance, people are more comfortable and are more likely to use technical terms for sexual references in mixed crowds, and to reserve the taboo words for same sex crowds or with their sexual partner. Most people feel uncomfortable saying, “Fuck” in a business or public crowd, instead falling back on less offensive words like, “Damnit.”
As Jay notes, “Swearing is like using the horn on your car, which can be used to signify a number of emotions (e.g., anger, frustration, joy, surprise).”
Taboo words can be used for a variety of reasons, including to achieve a specific reaction from others. Swearing injects a direct, succinct emotional component into the discussion, usually in order to express frustration, anger or surprise (up to two-thirds of our swearing is for just such expressions). These insulting swears can be name calling or wishing someone harm, so it’s no wonder they are often a defining feature of hate speech, verbal abuse, sexual harassment and obscene phone calls.
Swearing is beneficial in ways that people may underestimate or take for granted. Swearing is often cathartic — it often frees us of the feelings of anger or frustration we hold and allows expression for them. It can also be a useful substitute to physical violence (who would rather be punched out than to withstand being sworn at?).
Swear words can also be used in a more positive manner, in the form of jokes and humor, sex talk, storytelling, self-deprecation or even social commentary. Imagine when you want to emphasize how great you feel something is, a swear words emphasizes the positive feelings you have for that object, situation, person or event (“This concert is fucking awesome!”). Sure, we could just say “This concert is awesome,” but the addition of the swear word emphasizes the emotional reaction we have toward it — and easily conveys that emotional reaction to others.
Virtually all people swear, and people swear pretty consistently throughout their lifetime — from the moment they can speak to the day they die. Swearing is almost a universal constant in most people’s lives. Research, according to Jay, has shown we swear on average from 0.3% to 0.7% of the time — a tiny but significant percentage of our overall speech (frequently-used personal pronouns occur at approximately 1.0% rate in speech). Swearing is more common than you might think. But personality research suggests that people who swear more, not surprisingly, score higher on traits such as extraversion, dominance, hostility and Type A personalities. Swearing is not just for the uneducated or people of a lower socioeconomic class — it knows no social boundaries in its expression.
Swearing is a natural part of human speech development. We learn which words are taboo and which words are not through our normal childhood development. We also learn that not all swear words are equal, as Jay notes — “Fuck you! represents a greater level of anger than crap!” We then learn that we may be able to say a swear word in one social context, but not another.
Jay’s article was a bit of an eye-opener for me as well, as I didn’t know that swearing was really as commonplace as he notes, and I never much considered the beneficial effects of swearing. Jay calls on more psychological research to be done on this topic, and after reading his article, I’d have to agree.
Jay, T. (2009). The utility and ubiquity of taboo words. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 4(2), 153-161.