To know thyself is powerful. So with over 15,000 words in the human language, just why is it that the average human’s vocabulary consists of 80-90 swear words a day? Well, as it turns out, there are several theories behind why we select swear words over other words, including, it just feels good!
From America to Germany to Australia, and so on, each country has its own set of swear words. For a word to qualify as a swear word, it must have the ability to offend. In other words, it crosses the line into taboo territory. There are a number of taboo subjects, some which are universal across cultural lines, including death, excrement, disease and, of course, sex. As a general rule, since these topics are off limits, words related to them aren’t meant to be spoken either.
What Makes Swear Words Bad?
The context in which we use swear words play a huge role in whether it is seen as offensive or not. For example, among friends, you may use swear words casually or in a jokingly manner, but the same words spoken in a school setting can be offensive.
Profanity is also reflected differently among cultures. For example, Germans are pretty relaxed with nudity and sex, so sexually themed swear words have the power to make them wince. As a result, German swearing is kept more down to earth and excrement oriented.
High and holy things present another area where people can be offended, when used out of context, also known as blasphemy. For instance, Jesus Christ, hell, and God are fine when used in a holy service; however, when used in anger, they can become cutting.
Why Do We Swear?
There are many reasons why a person may choose to swear including it’s cool. Some other reasons people swear include:
Sometimes, swearing is a natural part of our speech development. In fact, we typically learn the difference between taboo words and normal words during early childhood development. We also learn that not all swear words hold the same intensity. For example, we learn that S*#@! is a more intense word than crap! Eventually, we also learn that it may be alright to use a swear word in one social context, but not another.
Swearing, quite often, is a emotional reaction. When we become angry, frustrated or surprised, swearing provides and emotional release. According to psychology, sometimes we get pumped by emotional energy as a result of the situations we experience.
This excess energy motivates us to take certain actions in order to sustain our mental health. Swearing helps release this excess energy, as the mind considers it an effective way to rid excess energy. And people don’t just swear as a result of bad emotions, they also swear when they become excited or happy.
So swearing is a technique the mind uses to release excess energy throughout the day, so it can maintain balance.
Swearing increases the body’s ability to endure pain. Just think about your last instance of being injured, whether you stumbled out of the bed in the middle of the night and stubbed your toe or accidentally sliced your finger with your new knife, your first reaction was probably to swear, which most likely increased your tolerance for pain.
One study showed that dismissal activities, such as swearing, activates the same areas in the brain associated with physical pain, and this is why individuals who swear when they are emotionally distressed tend to feel better.
Between friends, swearing can be used to create a vocabulary, break social taboos and bond people together. For example, typical insults may be used among friends as terms of endearment or to show group belonging.
To Show Identity
Some people swear because they want to get a certain identity. For example, women may want to appear less fragile, while men may want to appear more tough. These needs can motivate individuals to swear because they believe that such actions can assist them with their goal. Sometimes hurt people want to keep people at a distance, so they may swear to try to keep people away or to protect themselves.
Abuse, Insult and Exclusion
If you want to insult someone, swear words usually get the point across. But they don’t always have to be swear words to offend. For example, a simple “you’re stupid!” can also drive home the mean factor.
Comedy and Emphasis
Sometimes stand-up comedians may use swear words as a secret ingredient to get laughs. Other times, people may use a swear word to add more emphasis to a statement. For example, “you look f****** amazing!” In other words, swear words can be used to add urgency or emotion to otherwise timid statements.
How Swearing Affects Us
Swearing can occur with any emotion and encourage negative or positive effects. Studies suggest use of taboo words that are not in anger, such as storytelling or joking etc., are neutral or produce positive results.
Before determining swearing as harmful, more meaningful information about swearing needs to be obtained by asking what communication goal it achieves. Swear words can achieve a number of possible outcomes. For instance, it can be used for humor, stress management or even as a substitute for physical aggression. Recent studies even show that swearing is associated with enhanced pain tolerance.
However, when used negatively, swear words can alter your brain structure, which can ultimately affect your mood and your life in a bad way. In fact, studies show that rude words lead to negative thinking and performance, and in some cases, can even cause depression, lack of self confidence, lack of motivation, certain diseases and illnesses, and more (1). So, choose your words wisely.
Psychology Today. (2012). The Most Dangerous Word in the World. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/words-can-change-your-brain/201208/the-most-dangerous-word-in-the-world