You’re running late, you’re out the door, you’re sitting in traffic, and some *** **** has the nerve to swerve into your lane, forcing you to slam on your brakes, nearly causing a pileup. What the actual ****?
Your reaction, clawing out from the depths of your gut, is to scream profanities. To yourself, out the window, or by offering your middle finger, a gesture as blunt as any four-letter expletive.
Swearing may have been chastised as blasphemous, aggressive, unprofessional, and a lazy mode of communication, but there’s no denying that it’s a powerful one, and can have strong effects on both the swearer and the recipient of swears.
Benjamin K. Bergen, linguist and author of What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains and Ourselves, explained in a phone interview that the visceral emotions swearing elicits may be due to the unique qualities of swear words, which, he says, are in a league of their own as far as language goes.
“It’s the type of language we use to invoke and pull out the strongest emotions in other people,” Bergen told The Huffington Post, noting that language scientists have known for over 150 years that even stroke victims who have lost the ability to speak are still capable of spontaneously cursing.
“They can’t look at a picture of a cat facing a dog and say, ‘The cat is facing the dog,’ but they can let out an expletive in frustration,” he said. This is because, linguists are discovering, cussing comes from a different part of the brain than other modes of spoken communication. “It’s [an] older, emotion-regulation part of the brain that we share with other primates and mammals,” Bergen said.
The primal nature of profanity might start to explain why so many expletives – despite originating from a few disparate, thematic sources – resemble each other so closely when it comes to the way they sound, and the way they feel in our mouths. At least in English.
“It’s the type of language we use to invoke and pull out the strongest emotions in other people.”
Think about most cuss words you know and use. There’s “damn.” There’s “shit.” There’s the F-word and the C-word. Many of our expletives are four-letter terms, a trend that’s so consistent it bears exploration. In his book, Bergen charted English-language examples, and found that three- and five-letter words were just as common, but most were a single, consonant-heavy syllable ― usually one with its consonants piled on the end.
“When new profane words are invented ― you can think about acronyms, like MILF, or THOT ― they follow this pattern,” Bergen said. “And even professional word-makers, people who invent swear words for invented languages like Dothraki or Klingon, still follow this same pattern.”
In addition to the brusque effect they have when said aloud, most profanities belong to one of four thematic categories, Bergen says: “Religious concepts; sex and sexual activity; body functions and organs therein involved; and terms for members of other groups, which are really just slurs.”
“Religious curses were far more common in English centuries ago, with ‘gadzooks’ (God’s eyes) and ‘zounds’ (short for God’s wounds) ranking among the oft-used expletives.”
So, in modern-day English, curses are sexual. But in some variations of French, for example, religious curses abound. Religious curses, Bergen points out, were far more common in English centuries ago, with “gadzooks” (God’s eyes) and “zounds” (short for God’s wounds) ranking among the oft-used expletives.
Bergen’s giddy enthusiasm for swearing as an academic topic is clear both in his book and while chatting with him; he opines the value of language that communicates more than facts and abstract concepts. But, he emphasizes that he’s not necessarily advocating for us to inject our language with more profanity than we already use. Instead, he wants us to think more critically about the power of words.
“I think of profanity like I think of nuclear reactions. It’s a concept we’ve created, it’s very powerful,” Bergen said. “Because it’s powerful, it can be used in lots of different ways. Nuclear reactions tell us how the universe works, and profanity tells us how humans work, how language works, how our brains work. Like nuclear reactions, it can be used, if you harness it, to great ends.”
“Nuclear reactions tell us how the universe works, and profanity tells us how humans work, how language works, how our brains work.”
While there’s no causative correlation between swearing and aggression ― people who swear aren’t more likely to be aggressive, studies have shown ― profanity can be used in aggressive contexts, or to assert power over individuals and groups. “Those are things that, whether they involve profanity or not, can cause harm,” Bergen says.
But there are benefits, too. “According to several studies, profanity can alleviate pain. It can make the swearer appear to be more confident, powerful, well-adjusted, funny,” Bergen said. He’s currently doing research in his lab to determine whether swearing can actually be a positive outlet for aggression, having a calming effect on the swearer.
“So I’m not advocating that people change how they use language necessarily,” Bergen said. “It’s not intrinsically good or bad, it’s just powerful. It’s what we do with it that makes a difference.”