Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


This Is Your Brain

swearing-bubble

(Photo: Margaret M Stewart/Shutterstock)

Will We Ever See the End of Swearing?

• March 11, 2014 • 10:00 AM

(Photo: Margaret M Stewart/Shutterstock)

Unless we want to give up the idea of communication altogether, then probably not.

It’s January 19, 2003. The 6oth Golden Globe Awards are underway, and U2 has just won Best Original Song for “The Hands That Built America,” featured in Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York. On stage, trophy in hand, Bono says, “This is really, really, fucking brilliant, and, ah, really, really, great.”

While some of those in attendance clap and cheer at the front man’s impromptu expletive, members of the Parents Television Council and other conservative advocacy groups presumably do not. They complain. This incident and others like it—such as when Cher and Nicole Richie swore during live tapings of the Billboard Music Awards in 2002 and 2003, respectively—prompt the Federal Communications Commission to adopt an aggressive policy. The agency begins handing out penalties, which lead to multiple court battles debating, among other things, which words are too offensive for broadcast and which are not.

Today, the FCC defines profanity as “language so grossly offensive to members of the public who actually hear it as to amount to a nuisance.” While it’s not the clearest of explanations—how does one measure “nuisance”?—the agency’s mandate to protect people from certain words received a boost in 1978, when, in response to a radio station’s afternoon airing of comedian George Carlin’s profanity-laced monologue “Filthy Words,” the Supreme Court granted the FCC authority to regulate content broadcast between 6:00 a.m. and 10:00 p.m. Despite advances in communication—smartphones, social media, cable TV—and an acknowledgment from the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit that the modern media landscape is “almost unrecognizable” to what existed in the 1970s, the Carlin case continues to shape how we distinguish between clean and dirty language.

“There’s always going to be a need for language that transgresses or subverts polite discourse. If some words happen to get devulgarized, then other ones will come along.”

For those who don’t appreciate any of this big government monitoring, First Amendment interfering, or questionable use of both resources and time, here’s a potential solution: Let’s put an end to swearing.

NOW, I DON’T MEAN “nobody ever cuss again,” but let’s collectively decide as a mature society to do away with the concept of vulgar words altogether. “Fuck,” “shit,” “piss,” and whatever else—these sounds we make with our mouth only have the power to insult because we give them this power, so let’s stop doing that. Let’s stop reinforcing their outlaw status by bleeping them on the television and censoring them on the radio. Let’s agree they’re nothing to worry about, and then maybe, in a generation or two, they won’t be.

As sensible as this might seem, would it work?

Randall Eggert, a linguistics professor at the University of Utah who teaches a course titled “Bad Words & Taboo Terms,” doesn’t think so. “Language doesn’t evolve to include things that don’t serve a purpose,” Eggert says. “Swearing seems to serve a primal purpose, and I don’t see that going away.”

One of these purposes, Eggert suggests, is an emotional outlet. According to research published in the Journal of Pain, people who don’t typically swear can hold their hands in freezing water for a longer duration when shouting a stream of expletives as opposed to neutral words, and they tend to last longer than individuals who swear regularly throughout the day. When used in moderation, it seems, profanity can induce short-term, adrenalin-fueled pain relief due to its effect on a deeper part of the brain associated with emotion. Harvard cognitive neuroscientist Steven Pinker has also argued along similar lines.

Other research conducted by Timothy Jay, a professor of psychology at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts and the author of the book Why We Curse: A Neuro-Psycho-Social Theory of Speech, highlights the social utility of swearing. Taboo words, one of his studies suggests, communicate anger and frustration much more quickly and effectively than non-taboo words, allowing the speaker to achieve her goals with maximum efficiency.

THE PARTICULAR WORDS THAT trigger these advantageous responses appear to be highly dependent on historical context. “Damn” and “hell,” for example, are not as taboo today as they were in previous centuries, when superstitious beliefs were more prominent. Can anyone imagine a film produced in 2014 receiving a fine for including the word “damn,” like Gone With The Wind did upon its release in 1939? Not a chance.

Our very terms for denoting taboo words—to “curse,” to “swear” upon something, to speak in the “profane” instead of the sacred—are intertwined with a religious worldview.

“It wasn’t until the mid-1800s that we started saying ‘shit’ when we were upset or in pain,” Eggert says. “To me, what’s going on there is that people started separating the word from its denotation, and it becomes just pure emotion, which is where ‘fuck’ is largely today.”

Since society hasn’t crumbled after experiencing the likes of Gordon Ramsey, rap music, and the Wolf of Wall Street, it appears people are getting comfortable with foul language. While one study found that nearly 50 percent of 30,000 Facebook users have profanity on their walls, another study from the Parents Television Council found that instances of profanity used during primetime network programming increased approximately 70 percent between 2005 and 2010.

These days, it appears racial slurs and derogatory terms aimed at specific groups—blacks, homosexuals, the intellectually disabled—are the height of vulgarity. Even the NFL is currently considering imposing a 15-yard penalty when a player uses the N-word on the field.

“If you draw a circle around acceptable language and that circle just gets bigger and bigger, there still has to be something outside of the circle,” says Ben Zimmer, the executive producer of vocabulary.com and a language columnist at the Wall Street Journal. “There’s always going to be a need for language that transgresses or subverts polite discourse. If some words happen to get devulgarized, then other ones will come along.”

Swearing, then, is a necessary dimension of how we exchange thoughts and feelings. As irrational as it may be to have a society-supported divide between good words and bad words, it makes sense emotionally. Will we ever see an end to swearing? Not unless we see an end to all human communication.

Paul Hiebert
Paul Hiebert is the editor of Ballast, a Canadian-centric Website about culture and politics. Follow him on Twitter @hiebertpaul.

More From Paul Hiebert

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 31 • 4:00 PM

Should the Victims of the War on Drugs Receive Reparations?

A drug war Truth and Reconciliation Commission along the lines of post-apartheid South Africa is a radical idea proposed by the Green Party. Substance.com asks their candidates for New York State’s gubernatorial election to tell us more.


October 31 • 2:00 PM

India’s Struggle to Get Reliable Power to Hundreds of Millions of People

India’s new Prime Minister Narendra Modi is known as a “big thinker” when it comes to energy. But in his country’s case, could thinking big be a huge mistake?


October 31 • 12:00 PM

In the Picture: SNAP Food Benefits, Birthday Cake, and Walmart

In every issue, we fix our gaze on an everyday photograph and chase down facts about details in the frame.


October 31 • 10:15 AM

Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.


October 31 • 8:00 AM

Who Wants a Cute Congressman?

You probably do—even if you won’t admit it. In politics, looks aren’t everything, but they’re definitely something.


October 31 • 7:00 AM

Why Scientists Make Promises They Can’t Keep

A research proposal that is totally upfront about the uncertainty of the scientific process and its potential benefits might never pass governmental muster.


October 31 • 6:12 AM

The Psychology of a Horror Movie Fan

Scientists have tried to figure out the appeal of axe murderers and creepy dolls, but it mostly remains a spooky mystery.


October 31 • 4:00 AM

The Power of Third Person Plural on Support for Public Policies

Researchers find citizens react differently to policy proposals when they’re framed as impacting “people,” as opposed to “you.”


October 30 • 4:00 PM

I Should Have Told My High School Students About My Struggle With Drinking

As a teacher, my students confided in me about many harrowing aspects of their lives. I never crossed the line and shared my biggest problem with them—but now I wish I had.


October 30 • 2:00 PM

How Dark Money Got a Mining Company Everything It Wanted

An accidentally released court filing reveals how one company secretly gave money to a non-profit that helped get favorable mining legislation passed.


October 30 • 12:00 PM

The Halloween Industrial Complex

The scariest thing about Halloween might be just how seriously we take it. For this week’s holiday, Americans of all ages will spend more than $5 billion on disposable costumes and bite-size candy.


October 30 • 10:00 AM

Sky’s the Limit: The Case for Selling Air Rights

Lower taxes and debt, increased revenue for the city, and a much better use of space in already dense environments: Selling air rights and encouraging upward growth seem like no-brainers, but NIMBY resistance and philosophical barriers remain.


October 30 • 9:00 AM

Cycles of Fear and Bias in the Criminal Justice System

Exploring the psychological roots of racial disparity in U.S. prisons.


October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.



October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?


October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.


October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.


October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.


October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?


October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.


October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.


October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.


October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.


October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.


Follow us


Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.