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

November 26 • 4:00 PM

Turmoil at JPMorgan

Examiners are reportedly blocked from doing their job as “London Whale” trades blow up.


November 26 • 2:00 PM

Rich Kids Are More Likely to Be Working for Dad

Nepotism is alive and well, especially for the well-off.


November 26 • 12:00 PM

How Do You Make a Living, Taxidermist?

Taxidermist Katie Innamorato talks to Noah Davis about learning her craft, seeing it become trendy, and the going-rate for a “Moss Fox.”


November 26 • 10:28 AM

Attitudes About Race Affect Actions, Even When They Don’t

Tiny effects of attitudes on individuals’ actions pile up quickly.


November 26 • 10:13 AM

Honeybees Touring America


November 26 • 10:00 AM

Understanding Money

In How to Speak Money, John Lanchester explains how the monied people talk about their mountains of cash.


November 26 • 8:00 AM

The Exponential Benefits of Eating Less

Eating less food—whole food and junk food, meat and plants, organic and conventional, GMO and non-GMO—would do a lot more than just better our personal health.


November 26 • 6:00 AM

The Incorruptible Bodies of Saints

Their figures were helped along by embalming, but, somehow, everyone forgot that part.


November 26 • 4:00 AM

The Geography of Real Estate Markets Is Shifting Under Our Feet

Policies aimed at unleashing supply in order to make housing more affordable are relying on outdated models.



November 25 • 4:00 PM

Is the Federal Reserve Bank of New York Doing Enough to Monitor Wall Street?

Bank President William Dudley says supervision is stronger than ever, but Democratic senators are unconvinced: “You need to fix it, Mr. Dudley, or we need to get someone who will.”


November 25 • 3:30 PM

Cultural Activities Help Seniors Retain Health Literacy

New research finds a link between the ability to process health-related information and regular attendance at movies, plays, and concerts.


November 25 • 12:00 PM

Why Did Doctors Stop Giving Women Orgasms?

You can thank the rise of the vibrator for that, according to technology historian Rachel Maines.


November 25 • 10:08 AM

Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.


November 25 • 10:00 AM

If It’s Yellow, Seriously, Let It Mellow

If you actually care about water and the future of the species, you’ll think twice about flushing.


November 25 • 8:00 AM

Sometimes You Should Just Say No to Surgery

The introduction of national thyroid cancer screening in South Korea led to a 15-fold increase in diagnoses and a corresponding explosion of operations—but no difference in mortality rates. This is a prime example of over-diagnosis that’s contributing to bloated health care costs.



November 25 • 6:00 AM

The Long War Between Highbrow and Lowbrow

Despise The Avengers? Loathe the snobs who despise The Avengers? You’re not the first.


November 25 • 4:00 AM

Are Women More Open to Sex Than They Admit?

New research questions the conventional wisdom that men overestimate women’s level of sexual interest in them.


November 25 • 2:00 AM

The Geography of Innovation, or, Why Almost All Japanese People Hate Root Beer

Innovation is not a product of population density, but of something else entirely.


November 24 • 4:00 PM

Federal Reserve Announces Sweeping Review of Its Big Bank Oversight

The Federal Reserve Board wants to look at whether the views of examiners are being heard by higher-ups.



November 24 • 2:00 PM

That Catcalling Video Is a Reminder of Why Research Methods Are So Important

If your methods aren’t sound then neither are your findings.


November 24 • 12:00 PM

Yes, Republicans Can Still Win the White House

If the economy in 2016 is where it was in 2012 or better, Democrats will likely retain the White House. If not, well….


November 24 • 11:36 AM

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it’s relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.


Follow us


Attitudes About Race Affect Actions, Even When They Don’t

Tiny effects of attitudes on individuals' actions pile up quickly.

Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it's relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends' perceptions suggest they know something's off with their pals but like them just the same.

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

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