Why swearing feels so damn good

“My fucking future for sale,” says a placard protesting cuts to Spain’s education budget in 2016.
“My fucking future for sale,” says a placard protesting cuts to Spain’s education budget in 2016.
Image: Reuters/Marcelo del Pozo -
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Cursing may make the linguistically prudish mad, but it isn’t a bad habit. In fact, it’s fucking fantastic!

Spewing vulgarities is a scientifically proven coping and communication mechanism that enhances pain tolerance, conveys emotion, and can create a sense of belonging in groups. It may even have helped humans get motivated to develop language in the first place, according to a new book on the science of swearing. In Swearing is Good for You: The Amazing Science of Bad Languagewriter and “swearing scientist” Emma Byrne compiles nearly two centuries of research on the brain and profanity in many tongues, exploring the universal nature of cursing.

Although cultures don’t all share the same taboos or find the same ideas offensive, all languages do have curse words that create a similar effect on others who are steeped in a culture’s values and language, she says. ”Swearing is a bellwether—a foul-beaked canary in the coal mine—that tells us what our societal taboos are,” Byrne writes.

There are generally four categories into which curses fall, whatever the culture: religious, copulatory, excretory, and derogatory swears, or slurs. Byrne has found no culture or language in which slurs—derogatory statements about a particular racial, ethnic, or religious group—are the dominant curse words. And she considers vulgarities to be a necessary part of language; they are extra-powerful signifiers, rather than potent insults. But she does suspect that even slurs are, sadly, a deeply ingrained kind of language. Creating in-groups and out-groups seems to be what creatures do, even among non-humans who become acculturated to human taboos.

Byrne believes that cursing may even have helped to inspire the creation of early communications systems. She argues this based in part on studies showing that chimpanzees being taught sign language simultaneously pick up on human taboos and internalize them very deeply. For example, a chimpanzee named Washoe who was placed in a suburban American family and potty trained came to find urinating and defecating so very shameful that she refused to do it openly outdoors even on a walk in the woods, preferring a bit of privacy and an empty can in which to do her business.

Washoe developed a communication system around the word “dirty,” employing the concept with great subtlety. “Dirty dirty” seemed to be a kind of swear signaling shame and dismay when she made a mistake, while she’d say “dirty good” if she did her business on the toilet, signaling satisfaction with her own appropriateness. And Washoe adopted human psychology so profoundly that she became a snob and started to refer to other primates who didn’t know sign language as “dirty monkeys” to insult them.

When researchers wouldn’t let her out of her cage, Washoe would also insult them, making the sign for their name accompanied by the word “dirty” to signal frustration, like “dirty Roger” for example. Washoe could even use taboos to amuse, like comedians, urinating on a researcher while sitting on him and signing the word “funny” to prove this was no accident.

While cursing can be funny, Byrne believes that early humans realized quickly that making certain alarming sounds could prevent physical altercations, signal emotional states and dangers, and make other people laugh. These sounds were so handy that people developed increasingly complex signals, leading to the development of language itself.  Without these spontaneous responses and signals, she argues, today we probably wouldn’t have so many rich and descriptive tongues with all their glorious curses and gorgeous words.