Having gotten in trouble my whole life for doing so, I thought it was about time I investigated what is “swearing”, why it comes so fluently and why we frequently choose to do it. So let's break down the science of swearing…..
Most dictionaries define a curse word as a “profane or obscene word.” But I disagree with this definition. “Profane” comes from the Latin root “profanus”, or “unholy”, and Oxford Dictionary defines “profane” as not relating to that which is sacred or religious; secular, (of a person or their behavior) not respectful of religious practice.
But many of us who use these words when you say “I just stepped in dog $%&t” aren’t referring to religion in any way, shape or form.
“Obscene”, when defined by multiple dictionaries, alludes to terms of a sexual nature. Again, complaining that you just stepped in dog $%&t has nothing to do with sex.
So I define a swear/curse word as one that society deems to be off-color and not appropriate in public and professional settings….a word that has plenty of other socially acceptable alternatives used during anger, excitement, or awe.
According to historians, the first curse words originated in the 15th century. I’m sure horses were just as messy as our dogs. But as you can see by my definition, curse words must have had their origin in caveman days as humans developed language. Rocks were dropped, people slipped and fell, and some burned themselves on early fire so I seriously doubt that only grammatically acceptable words and phrases were used in times of accidents.
Although a good old-fashioned four letter word seems as American as they come, most originate from foreign sources.
According to Business Insider, the noun nods to Old English scitte, meaning “purging, diarrhea.” And just the basic form of excrement stems from Old English scytel. The action, however, has a much more widespread history — Dutch schijten and German scheissen. The Proto-Indo-European base skie conveys the idea of separation, in this case, from the body.
According to the Huffington Post, the f-word is of Germanic origin, related to Dutch, German, and Swedish words for “to strike” and “to move back and forth.” It first appears, though, only in the 16th century, in a manuscript of the Latin orator Cicero. An anonymous monk was reading through the monastery copy of De Officiis (a guide to moral conduct) when he felt compelled to express his anger at his abbot.
Comes from the word “arse” and used as early as the 11th century when referring to an animal’s anatomy, and then later to humans.
Having Old English and Germanic roots, the “B” word represented a female dog. By the 1400’s, however, it became a “term of contempt to women,” according to Business Insider.
There are various theories as to why people would choose a word that may offend others. Here’s mine:
“Fake” curse words are terms we use to convey a curse without actually swearing. Commonly used alternatives to swearing include:
In 2017, a study from Stephens et al, from Keele University in the UK, found swearing to increase strength and power performance when working out.
Previously, in 2009, the same researchers found men who were allowed to swear while immersing their hand in cold water could maintain it twice as long as those who had to keep their language clean.
So if we perform better while cursing, will it ever become acceptable to curse?
Society seems to already accept many curse words, even on prime time television, a barometer we use to determine if a word is OK to say out in public. However once we take a four letter word and “legalize it”, people will gravitate towards words that aren’t acceptable because of the aforementioned reasons. We want to be rebellious and demonstrate our feelings in times of pain and anger.
So for those of you who find this unacceptable, I really couldn’t give a flipp’n cluck.…..
"Shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, and tits. Those are the heavy seven. Those are the ones that'll infect your soul, curve your spine, and keep the country from winning the war.” - George Carlin
Go anyplace people congregate besides a church, and you’ll find more people swearing and swearing more often than ever before. A lot of people in those churches will swear once they’re outside those sacred walls, too. In a bar, you can overhear a conversation where every other word is a swear word, and I mean that quite literally. Go into a library and the people talking on the phone or chatting online are swearing. I’ve experienced both in the last few weeks.
This post was originally published at FoulPlaybyPlay.com, a community of foul-mouthed, sports broadcasters providing commercial-free, uncensored play-by-play during select games.
According to a 2006 Associated Press poll, nearly three-quarters of Americans questioned -- 74 percent -- said they encounter profanity in public frequently or occasionally. Two-thirds said they think people swear more than they did 20 years ago, and 64 percent said they say fuck, ranging from several times a day (8 percent) to a few times a year (15 percent). People who swear are not in the minority. We are the majority.
But we don’t swear all that often. Just one in 200 words uttered are swear words, so it’s not like we’ve become completely vulgar. But why do we swear? Researchers at Keele University in Staffordshire led by Richard Stephens found that cursing is most often associated with angry attitudes and emotions toward certain subjects and is used as an emotional coping mechanism. Cursing allowed the study's participants to feel a sense of empowerment. Not only does it empower you mentally, but physically as well. Swearing can improve your performance of physical tasks and also reduces pain, unless you swear everyday.
So swearing is a coping mechanism that empowers. People who struggle with shyness might feel better behind sunglasses. The lonely get pets. People who stub their toe or watch their favorite baseball team blow a five-run lead and lose in extra innings swear. And it’s not due to a lack of vocabulary or intelligence, either.
Psychologists at Marist College found that those with the best handle on vocabulary also had the best handle on profanity. Those who struggled with vocabulary also struggled with profanity, so the smarter you are the more profanity potential you have.
A 2016 book by Benjamin K. Bergen investigates the linguistic history, psychology and science of swearing. It’s appropriately called What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves. What it reveals about the history and anatomy of swearing is in-fucking-credible.
Why and how do words become swear words? Bergen found that the majority of American English swear words have “closed syllables,” meaning the words end in a consonant, as in “fuck.” Most are also just one syllable and start with a consonant, like “fuck” and “tits.” “Profane English monosyllables are significantly more likely to end with a stop consonant, like t or k, than other English words” (47). So English speakers naturally find words consisting of one syllable and a stop consonant to be less pleasing to the ear. If a word sounds displeasing, it’s more likely to have a meaning that’s displeasing. A word like “cunt” sounds bad regardless of meaning.
Explaining what makes a curse word isn’t dependent simply on its sound, though. It’s the meaning of words that matters. Many curse words are associated with genitalia, like “cunt” or “cock,” the use of genitalia, like “fuck” and “cocksucker,” or the process of excreting fluids, like “piss” and “shit.” So we’ve created these mostly monosyllabic, stop-consonant words that sound displeasing to associate with things that make for displeasing conversation. Most people don’t like to talk about pissing and shitting, and some don’t like to talk about fucking, although all these taboo topics have received ample attention from comedians and comedies.
There’s nothing funny about a lot of curse words, though. For me, the most unfortunate finding of Bergen’s many studies and experiments was discovering that slurs directed at a specific community, ethnicity or race weren’t found by Americans to be most offensive. While “nigger” was far and away the most offensive word, and “fag” was third, “cocksucker” fourth, and “chink” fifth, words like “homo,” “lesbo,” “queer,” “spic,” “kike,” and “gook” settled in the middle.
Americans actually found “bitch” to be more offensive than “retard” and “dyke.” “Whore,” “pussy” and “slut” were found to be more offensive to Americans than “homo” and “lesbo.” “Asshole” and “prick” were found to be more offensive than “queer,” “spic,” “kike” and “gook.” And the word gay used with the intent of being offensive to homosexuals ranked fifth to last in offensiveness, right behind “dumb,” “sodomize” and “moron.”
What the fuck, America? Where’s the fucking empathy? Put yourself in the shoes of a homosexual and tell me you find “cunt” more offensive than “fag” or “cocksucker.” Australians throw “cunt” around like it’s “shit.” And there’s no way “bitch” is more offensive than “homo,” “lesbo” or “queer” unless you’re a misogynistic pig who thinks questioning manhood is worse than questioning sexual identity or preference. Apparently Americans do feel that way, though, which is probably why we don’t have a female President and a misogynist instead.
Swearing is also geographically dependent, though. Where you live determines what you say. Jack Grieve has researched what swear words are most popular in America and where, resulting in a collection of heat maps displaying the most commonly used swear words. The southeast United States is apparently the hotbed for swearing in America. Coastal Americans use “fuck” more often than Midwesterners, and swear more in general.
People in Great Britain swear differently than Americans and find different words offensive, too. For instance, Brits found “cunt,” “motherfucker” and “fuck” to be most offensive, with “nigger” coming in fourth, which is even more disturbing. Half of Brits surveyed didn’t consider “Jew” to be swearing, but “Paki,” a slur for people of South Asian descent, was found to be the sixth most severe swear word. So Americans can take some consolation in knowing they found an actually offensive word most offensive.
When it comes to the “heavy seven” as George Carlin calls them -- shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker and tits -- I think all should be allowed except “cocksucker” because it denigrates homosexual males. Instead of censoring words that hurt no one, we should censor words that actually hurt some.
Words like nigger, chink, retard, dyke, homo, lesbo, cocksucker, queer, spic, kike, gook, wop, redskin, and any other racial or ethnic slur, and words dedicated to denigrating the disabled or the sexual identities of others have no place in public conversation or in mass media. “Shit,” “piss,” “fuck,” “cunt,” “motherfucker” and “tits” hurt no one -- not even children. “There’s no evidence that exposure to profanity harms children, and...there are better ways to deal with profanity than to suppress it,” according to Bergen. But when it comes to the use of harmful language, I’m for censorship.
There’s nothing that hurts my ears more than the ever-increasing use of “gay” and “fag” by young people, or the use of “nigger” and “spic” by those who’ve never come in contact with members of either race they’re denigrating. I’d rather they say “fuck” and “cunt.”
When I hear the word "faggot" I cringe, and I fucking swear a lot. But that's because "faggot" was repurposed to hurt a specific group of people. When I hear "fuck," I hardly give it any attention. Sometimes I even smile, depending on its use.
Fuck is my favorite word. In fact, profane words are the most versatile. Most can be used as a noun, adjective, adverb, verb, interjection, and conjunction (prepositions are iffy). For instance, “Fuck (interjection)! I squashed my nuts on the fucking (adjective) fuck (noun) so fucking (adverb) hard. I won't fuck (verb) for days, fuck (conjunction) maybe weeks.” You can’t do that with “fag,” although young people are trying.
Once we grow tired of profane words it’s pretty easy to create new ones. Bergen created a bunch of words and asked Americans which sounded most offensive. These people didn’t know whether these words were from another language or if they existed at all, but it’s no surprise that monosyllabic, stop-consonant words were considered most offensive. Someday “vleak” could be a swear word. Hopefully, though, it will have been created to describe something rather than degrade someone. Then it would have value.
“Fag” has no value to me as a writer, while “fuck” has been used by writers of all mediums (except children’s books). “Fag” has no value because of its intent. Its entire reason for being is to offend, much like “nigger,” “chink,” “retard,” “dyke,” “homo,” “lesbo,” “cocksucker,” “queer,” “spic,” “kike,” “gook,” “wop” and “redskin.” Could you imagine if your entire reason for being on Earth was to offend others? Would you find that useful?
While a lot of swear words have become “fillers,” like “um” and “uh.” When a word is on the tip of your tongue, and you’re struggling to spit it out, it’s perfectly naturally that the struggle would result in swearing. People recovering from brain trauma sometimes lose their vocabulary, except when it comes to swearing. That’s because those swear words are stored in a different part of the brain, so people can convey their frustration. It’s a natural reaction, like dropping a hot plate that’s burning your hand. Swearing is a coping mechanism after all, and uttering that “fuck” could actually make you feel better about yourself, calm your nerves and help you discover that word that briefly escaped you.
Slurs have no place as “fillers.” No one searching for a word says “faggot” to fill the void in conversation unless they have Tourette’s syndrome. There’s always intent behind a slur, and that intent is never useful, which is why the increasing use of slurs is not only displeasing but dangerous.
Since swearing is likely never going away, how should Americans handle swear words? When is it okay to swear? What words are okay to say and when? Well, as a writer, I can only tell you to consider your audience. While writing this piece I considered using a headline that had swear words in it to be as forthcoming as possible with my intentions. But through my work on an uncensored, live podcast, I’ve learned a few things.
The title of the live podcast is Fuck Dick and Bert. It’s meant to be an alternative to the Minnesota Twins’ play-by-play and color commentators Dick Bremer and Bert Blyleven. Not a lot of thought went into the show initially. It was just a way for my friends and me to feel important and productive during Twins’ games and to bitch about the Twins and Dick and Bert’s broadcast. Then came an idea. What if we could provide every fan an alternative audio broadcast of every sporting event that’s not only uncensored but commercial-free? That’s when I started investigating the marketability of uncensored, commercial-free play-by-play.
I took to the forums where Twins fans congregate and asked what people thought of the idea. We hadn’t marketed the show to them directly in the past, so no one was aware. One member had even attempted something similar weeks prior. The responses were mixed. Some thought it was a great idea and the same number of people hated it, but there was one response that stuck with me.
One member said they wouldn’t tune in simply because of the name of the show. The word “fuck” was apparently offensive to him. Despite me telling him I rarely swore during the broadcast and that my intention was to provide helpful life advice and entertaining anecdotes alongside the play-by-play, he said nothing would change his mind except a name change. I hardly slept that night, mulling over alternatives to the name that conveyed everything about the show that our target market needed to know.
Anyone in our target market would see “Fuck Dick and Bert” and know: 1) it’s uncensored, 2) it’s Twins-related because Dick and Bert are the longtime Fox Sports North broadcasters, and 3) it doesn’t like Dick and Bert and is probably nothing like Dick and Bert’s broadcasts.
But if one person won’t tune in because they perceive the show to be “in bad taste” due to the use of profanity in the title, that’s one too many. And while advertising a show with profanity in the title is difficult given Facebook’s advertising policies, there’s no point going forward with a show that’s going to turn off an entire group of people because of one word.
So you can consider your audience and treat them as you’d like to be treated, but the Golden Rule doesn’t allow you to know what offends people. Maybe the word “fuck” doesn't offend you but offends them. Maybe they use “fag” and you find that offensive. Are we to censor ourselves for the sake of others? You can try. I do it all the time, but that's when I'm around people I know, so I know what offends them going into conversation.
The only actions you can take with people you’ve just met is nicely ask if they’d stop using the swear words you find offensive. “Could you try not to use that word, please? I find it very offensive.” Try not to be too picky. You can’t expect people to change in the first few minutes they’re in your presence. You are not Jesus Christ, and they are no saint. Don’t be surprised if that offensive word slips through that person’s lips again, because habits are hard to break, but hopefully they apologize. If they refuse or are unable to accommodate you, find a different conversation.
I went about this all wrong the first time around, but I was in a bad mood that day. A young North Dakotan in a rural bar asked me if I was a faggot because I had come from my ex-girlfriend’s funeral and was dressed in slacks and a collared shirt. I was immediately offended, not because I’m gay, but because I despise the word. I was also in the mood to fight after seeing a lifelong friend buried at 24 years old. This young man could have said it in conversation with one of his friends and I probably still would have interjected. I attempted to explain the definition of the word (it’s a bunch of sticks or twigs bundled together as fuel). He thought I was being a smartass, which I was. But what I really wanted to do was say, “Yeah, I’m gay. Wanna make something of it?” and then knock him out in front of a bunch of homophobes. That’s the type of reaction the word “faggot” deserves from everyone. And that goes for all slurs.
As a white male surrounded by brown people and homosexuals, I wouldn't dare utter "nigger,” "spic" or “faggot” in their presence because I don’t use those words privately. I know those words were created to degrade an entire group of people, and I find them useless and displeasing to the ear.
Growing up in Eastern Montana, I've heard Americans who have little to no association with people of other races using slurs far too often, and that's why I wrote this piece. Americans shouldn't be more offended by "fuck" than "fag," but they are. I see America moving away from words like "fuck," “cunt” and “motherfucker,” and towards words like “nigger,” "fag," and “gay.” That growing use of slurs worries me, especially with gentrification forcing minorities out of the cities and into rural areas where people haven't had contact with people unlike themselves. It's a recipe for violence, so I hope Americans realize which words are truly harmful and avoid using them in conversation and online. I hope they’d embrace George Carlin’s “heavy seven” before a new seven ends up hurting more people. I hope it's not too late.
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