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The science of why most emoji curses don’t work—and one definitely does

AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez
Sometimes only the right word will do.
By Corinne Purtill
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Emoji make it possible to communicate without saying a word, and this goes for swearing too. Terms like “ass hat,” “douchebag,” “motherfucker,” and the extremely British epithet “cockwomble” can all be conveyed in clever combinations of tiny pictures.

But while these visual puzzles convey the letter of a good swear, they often fail to capture its spirit. A curse rendered in emoji, like a joke explained, becomes far less powerful.

“One of the key underlying principles of swear words is that they work as a sort of linguistic weapon which automatically triggers negative emotions in the brain of the listener,” explains linguist Philip Seargeant in a post on Strong Language, a blog dedicated to swearing.

Regardless of language, swear words tend to be about taboo subjects like sex, bodily fluids, or religion. The taboo terms we use to discuss these subjects activate the same parts of the brain that respond to negative emotions: the amygdala and the basal ganglia.

It’s impossible to read or hear a taboo word without involuntarily registering the negative emotion associated with it, said Steven Pinker, a cognitive scientist at Harvard University, in a 2008 lecture.

The time it takes to decipher the puzzle of an emoji curse disrupts that response. The trio of emoji representing bastard, for example, is creative—👪🚫💍—but it doesn’t pack the emotional punch of the uttered word.

One emoji, though, comes close to conveying the blunt sentiment of its real-life counterpart:🖕

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