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Is Swearing a Useful Language Tool?

Is Swearing a Useful Language Tool?

New research on the use of profanity suggests that there may be more to swearing than a lack of refinement. In fact, researcher Dr. Richard Stephens, a psychologist at Keele University in England, believes that swearing could be considered a very useful language tool, helping us deal with pain and express deep emotions.

In Stephens’ previous research, he showed how swearing can help people cope with pain. In his new study, he chose to focus on how a person’s emotions can affect the fluency of swearing.

“These psychology studies demonstrate that there is more to swearing than routine offense-causing or a lack of linguistic hygiene. Language is a sophisticated toolkit and swearing is a useful component,” said Stephens in an article appearing in the academic newsletter The Conversation.

“When I am giving talks on the psychology of swearing I usually end with transcripts of the final utterances of fatal air-crash pilots, captured on the black box flight recorder because, unsurprisingly, many of these feature swearing. I use it to emphasize an important point: that swearing must be important given its prominence in matters of life and death.”

For the study, Stephens investigated the link between swearing and emotion. Psychology student Amy Zile asked volunteers to play a first-person shooter video game with the aim of causing a heightened emotional response. A much calmer golf video game was used for comparison purposes.

After playing the game, participants were asked to think of as many swear words as they could for a full minute. This is known as the Swearing Fluency Task, a method developed by psychologists in the U.S. The participants who had played the first-person shooter game had a raised state of aggression and performed better in the Swearing Fluency Task compared to those who had played the golf video game.

The findings show a direct connection between swearing and emotional arousal. Although this may seem obvious, the research was able to confirm such a link objectively. The findings cast new light on opinions around whether swearing may be considered to be a socially acceptable way of expressing emotion.

“We appear to have established a two-way relation between swearing and emotion. Not only can swearing provoke an emotional response [as shown in the swearing and pain research] but raised emotional arousal has been shown to facilitate swearing, or at least one aspect of it, swearing fluency,” said Stephens.

Source: Keele University

Is Swearing a Useful Language Tool?

Traci Pedersen

Traci Pedersen is a professional writer with over a decade of experience. Her work consists of writing for both print and online publishers in a variety of genres including science chapter books, college and career articles, and elementary school curriculum.

APA Reference
Pedersen, T. (2018). Is Swearing a Useful Language Tool?. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 2, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 11 Feb 2017)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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