Illustrations by Monica Ramirez
Why the #$%! Do we Curse?
by Alexis Savarese

 “Fucking Bastard!” My eyes grew wide and my muscles tightened as I heard my dad utter these words for the first time. He was trying to fasten my new “training-wheel-free” bicycle onto the car’s bike rack. My family was busy packing for our annual beach trip when I politely asked my dad if I could bring my bike. He rolled his eyes and hesitantly agreed to my request. I was about seven years old at the time and did not know what this task would entail. As he gathered all of the equipment for the bike rack and secured it on the back of his car, I sat back and watched. As he worked, I could feel my dad getting frustrated; his movements became jerkier and he started to exhale deeper breaths. I was just about to ask if I could help when he started to ramble off words that I had never encountered. Though I did not know what these words meant, I knew that they were bad. Since that day, I began to hear those types of words more often and each time I heard them, I wondered why people seemed to think that they were so harmful. As a result, this paper will investigate whether curse words really are “bad” to use. However, to do so first requires an understanding of the origination of this type of language before coming to terms with the effects of its use.

            In the book, Swearing: A Cross-Cultural Linguistic Study, Magnus Ljung explores the origination of curse words and how they evolved. He explains that the development of swearing dates back to between 1198 and 1166 BC, when ancient Egyptians inscribed the words in stone slabs (45). These initial uses of swearing did not contain the curse words that we use today; rather the Egyptians inscribed statements that were meant to “call down evil on another person or object” (46). The Bible also introduced curse words, however, it also set forth rules that disapproved of their use (48). Modern curse words more familiar to us, such as “fuck, shit, and prick” did not come into existence until the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (68-71). During this time, people deemed these four-letter words as forbidden and encouraged punishment if someone used them. People did not begin to use these words regularly until the twentieth century (67). In the last hundred years, cursing has become increasingly widespread, so much so that most words have become part of many individuals’ everyday language.

Within the past century, cursing has become a common part of communication, since almost everyone curses on an everyday basis. Despite the fact that swearing has become more prevalent in our society, there are still limits and expectations associated with cursing. For example, most people expect not to curse in a work setting because others consider it unprofessional. And most people avoid cursing around young children because they are too young to hear such words. These types of boundaries that society has placed on profanity lead one to wonder why curse words have their negative reputation. In fact, cursing has been proven to result in positive outcomes. For example, Teresa E. Stone and Mike Hazelton researched cursing and discovered that the use of this language increases effective communication. Likewise, David Wiley and John Locke investigated the impacts of cursing and concluded that is a powerful tool in therapeutic environments and, consequently, its use might lead to an improvement in mental health. Lastly, research done by Eric Rassin and Simone Van Der Heijden suggests an increase in the credibility of speakers who use curse words. As a result of these researchers’ work, we can see that cursing results in positive outcomes, such as increases in effective communication, mental health, and credibility. The effectiveness of curse words in these areas comes from their linguistic patterns and the biological effects of their use on the speaker, both of which are important to understand before discussing the positive outcomes of profanity.

Many people do not realize that curse words are formed using specific linguistic patterns. Expletive interjection curse words have a common linguistic pattern that combines similar consonants and vowels. However, only swear words have a similar combination of consonants and vowels that people do not normally use in dictation. For example, the words “fuck” and “shit” both begin with a consonant sound, then have a short vowel sound, and end with a sharp consonant sound. The combination and order of the consonants and vowels cause a speaker to raise his or her voice and to release anger. Geoffrey Hughes, a graduate from Oxford who wrote “Alliteration” in An Encyclopedia of Swearing: The Social History of Oaths, Profanity, Foul Language, and Ethnic Slurs in the English-speaking world, discusses the linguistics of curse words and why people use them. Hughes makes the claim that:

Nowadays only certain letters are favored above others in swearing. Many of the

most commonly used modern terms start with the letters ‘b,’ ‘d,’ and ‘f,’[...]. It is

a speculation that the consonants ‘b’ and ‘f,’ which are, respectively, bilabial

plosives and bilabial fricatives, offer an effective vehicle for emotive release

because of the physical release of air. (Sec. 1)

Put more simply, curse words often start with the same plosive or fricative consonants, which release air when used. This release of air helps to relieve speakers’ emotions and will cause the volume of their voices to increase. The increase in the tone of a person’s voice and the emotional release play an important role in the positive impacts of cursing.

While curse words repeat a specific linguistic pattern, they also repeatedly engage a specific portion of the brain. Author and lawyer Richard Dooling demonstrates in his book Blue Streak that language production takes place in the higher structure of the brain called the cerebral cortex (Dooling 10). However, swearing comes from the lower, subcortical portion of that structure (10). This particular area of the brain controls aggression and emotions (10). Therefore, when people use curse words, they actually connect with the same part of the brain that releases their anger-related emotions. For example, when a person says “hello” they use the cerebral cortex part of their brain that has no emotional connection, but when a person says “hell” they use the subcortical structures that connect to the speaker’s emotions. This emotional connection brought about from swearing serves as one example of the positive impacts of cursing. When a person chooses to use curse words they connect with the emotional side of the brain that assists them in releasing emotion in a healthy way. If a person chooses not to curse, they do not connect with the emotional side of their brain and instead they avoid a way to confront and express their feelings. Consequently, cursing serves as a way for people to come to terms with their feelings—especially anger—in a way that typical language does not.

Today, communicating a message can be difficult due to technological barriers and distractions. For example, if a person emails someone an important message, the message can sometimes be difficult for the recipient to comprehend because the subtle non-verbal cues of verbal speech are absent. Likewise, a speaker may even face difficultly while trying to convey his or her message out loud to a person distracted by his or her phone, tablet, laptop, or other technology. Cursing, however, helps to positively enhance communication despite these modern barriers If a person feels strongly about something, he or she can curse to let the listener know how strongly they feel about the subject. Likewise, if a listener hears someone swearing, he or she knows that the person feels strongly about that topic.

This sense of urgency about the matter being discussed can often lead to an increase in effective communication. Health profession researchers Teresa E. Stone and Mike Hazelton studied the effects that cursing has on nurses and their relationship with their patients in order to determine if swearing does improve communication skills. They argue that in a nurse’s work setting, typical language fails to show the intensity of the situation being faced by patients. Swearing, on the other hand, lends a unique emotional charge to speech that normal words do not (Stone and Hazelton 210). Although many people feel compelled to reduce the levels of cursing by patients because of its association with deviant behavior, Stone and Hazelton suggest that mental health nurses should be trained using mindfulness techniques so that they make use of patients’ swearing (212). This technique will reduce nurses’ urge to respond defensively to cursing and thus facilitate the therapeutic process (212). Stone and Hazelton’s research suggests that nurses and parents should not look upon cursing as a negative thing, but rather a positive act that can assist in the better understanding of what mental health patients are going though. They emphasize that “a better understanding of the role played by swearing, culturally, developmentally and in relation to mental health disorders, will lead to improvements in the therapeutic relationship between nurses and their patients” (Stone and Hazelton 212) and, as a result, an increase in the mental health of patients who include swearing in their day to day language. The information provided by Stone and Hazelton helps to further my idea that cursing does help to improve the communication relationship between two people. The use of profanity helps the listener to get a better feel for what the speaker is going through, especially because of the linguistics and biological effects associated with swearing.

The same linguistic and biological effects seen in curse words that improve communication also help to improve the mental health of speakers. When a person chooses to express his or her thoughts through swearing, he or she releases actual tension due to the linguistics of the word. The person also releases anger due to the part of the brain that cursing originates from. These releases of tension and anger help to improve a person’s mental health. Likewise, Counselors David Wiley and Don Locke conducted a study that investigated the use of profanity in counseling mentally ill patients. These researchers set up a procedure in which counselors met with their patients and either used or did not use profanity, then psychology students viewed the sessions and rated them to determine the most effective sessions (Wiley 247). The results of this study concluded that many times students rated counselors as more effective when they used profanity as opposed to when they did not (250). These results led to Wiley and Locke’s conclusion that “It seems likely that the use of profanity in counseling is a part of the communication dynamics that take place with more intense levels of client affect; in fact, it may serve as a cue that the client is ready to confront his or her feelings more directly” (251). This idea suggests that profanity in counseling enhances the effectiveness of communication and encourages the patient to confront his or her feelings. When patients decide to face their feelings, their mental health will most likely improve. However, it is worth noting that cursing does not seem to directly improve mental health; instead it indirectly improves mental health by increasing the effectiveness of communication and encouraging speakers to open up and confront their feelings.

In addition to increases in communication and mental health, cursing also improves the credibility of speakers. Oftentimes we are faced with a situation in which we have to explain the truth to a person. Deciding whether a person actually tells the truth or if he or she tells a lie can be difficult to decide. As a result, many people turn to certain strategies that they believe enhance the credibility of their story. For example, they might increase their eye contact with the person, talk in a more assertive tone, provide supporting evidence, or even use their hands while speaking. Interestingly enough, cursing is another tactic people can use to increase their credibility. When a person uses curse words, the combination of the consonants and vowels cause the tone of their voice to increase and this grabs the listener’s attention. Many curse words contain consonants defined as “fricatives.” According to Ian Maddieson, who wrote the article “Chapter Voicing in Plosives and Fricatives” found on The World Atlas of Language Structures Online, “Fricatives are the kinds of sounds usually associated with letters such as f, s v, z, in which the air passes through a narrow constriction that causes the air to flow turbulently and thus create a noisy sound.” Since fricatives create a noisy sound, when a short vowel follows them it will cause an increase in the volume of the speaker’s voice. This increase in volume will often grasp a person’s attention, which increases the likelihood that they will actually listen to what the speaker has to say. However, if a person does not curse, the listener may decide not to give the person a chance and just ignore their communication.

In addition, because cursing uses the same part of the brain that releases anger, when a speaker curses they convince themselves of how impassioned they feel. As a result, they may also convince listeners as well. When a person notices the emotional investment made by the speaker, he or she will be more likely to believe them. In January of 2007, psychologists Eric Rassin and Simone Van Der Heijden researched the effects that cursing has on testimonial sentences. These researchers constructed two different scenarios—one in which a person cursed during their testimonial sentence and another where a person did not. The outcome of this study concluded that “when confronted with statements and asked to rate the credibility thereof, our participants rated the credibility of statements in which swearwords were present higher than that of swearword-free statements” (Rassin and Van Der Heijden 181). In fact, Rassin and Van Der Heijden go on to argue, “If one wants to appear credible, it is recommendable to utter an occasional swearword” (181). These results suggest that profanity does lead to an increase in credibility, which provides evidence to support the idea that cursing does impact people in a positive way.

Despite the fact that most of us find ourselves cursing at least once a day, we rarely take the time to understand the reason behind cursing. Frequently, people overlook profanity as a useless part of language that serves little purpose. Contrary to popular belief, cursing does impact our lives in a very positive manner. Swear words have linguistic patterns and biological originations that cause these positive impacts on people. The increase in a person’s tone of voice and connection to emotions brought about from cursing helps to increase communication skills, mental health, and credibility. Rather than associating cursing with deviant behavior, delinquency, or other negative connotations, we might recognize the positive roles cursing plays in our lives, the many ways it affects communication, which normal language does not.

 


 

Works Cited

Dooling, Richard. Blue Streak: Swearing, Free Speech, and Sexual Harassment. NewYork: Random House, 1996. Print.

Hughes, Geoffrey. "ALLITERATION." An Encyclopedia of Swearing: The Social History of Oaths, Profanity, Foul Language, And Ethnic Slurs in the English Speaking World. Armonk: M.E. Sharpe, 2006. Credo Reference. 8 Aug. 2011. Web. 05 Nov. 2014.

Johnson, Danette I. “Swearing by Peers in the Work Setting: Expectancy Violation Valence, Perceptions of Message, and Perceptions of Speaker.” T and F Online.Routledge, 22 March 2012. Web. 14 Oct. 2014.

Ljung, Magnus. Swearing: A Cross-Cultural Linguistic Study. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. Print.

Maddieson, Ian. "Chapter Voicing in Plosives and Fricatives." WALS.com. The World Atlas of World Structures Online, n.d. Web. 14 Oct. 2014.

Rassin, Eric, and Simone Van Der Heijden. "Appearing Credible? Swearing Helps! T and F Online. Routledge, 31 Jan. 2007. Web. 14 Oct. 2014.

Robbins, Megan L., et al. "Naturalistically Observed Swearing, Emotional Support, and Depressive Symptoms in Women Coping With Illness." Health Psychology 30.6 (2011): 789-792. PsycARTICLES. Web. 16 Oct. 2014.

Stone, Teresa E., and Mike Hazelton. "An Overview of Swearing and Its Impact on Mental Health Nursing Practice." International Journal of Mental Health Nursing 17.3 (2008): 208-14. Web. 14 Oct. 2014.

Wiley, David A., and Don C. Locke. "Profanity as a Critical Variable in Counseling.Counselor Education and Supervision 21.3 (1982): 245-52. Print.


When I was assigned the task to create an argument driven research paper I was unsure of what to write about.  I spent two days focusing on all of the thoughts that crossed my mind throughout the day. Oftentimes, I think we spend too much time talking and listening to others for inspiration, when really the most valuable ideas come from within. During those two days, I noticed that I frequently found myself thinking about the ways people were communicating. Some people were more conservative with their body language and tone of voice, while others were more loud and expressive. This led me to think about the choice of words people use to communicate, specifically curse words. I immediately thought about my previous high school teacher, who would always curse during class. Everyone thought the teacher was so awesome for cursing during class and was always known as the “cool” teacher. I started to wonder why my classmates and I were so enthralled by my teacher’s explicit language. This single memory soon led to the beginning of my research paper topic. I research curse words and each of their origins and purposes. I came across many interesting books and articles that further explained the benefits and advantages of cursing. I found the topic itself very interesting since we do not spend much time thinking about why we curse, despite the fact that almost everyone uses this language on a daily basis. It wasn’t long before I was swimming in linguistic, psychology, and dictation books and articles. I made connections between the various sources I was reading and formulated my own argument in favor of cursing.

The writing came naturally to me since I had a real interest in the topic. I think that a good research paper comes from a topic that is not thought about frequently or not acknowledged as a serious problem. Still, the best papers begin with a simple thought and end with an unexpected revelation.

Prof. Atlas

I set up my E110 class from the very start of the semester with an emphasis on two interrelated assumptions: that everyone there is already a writer and that it is through writing together and giving regular feedback throughout the writing process that we all improve as writers. For the researched argument, that we start about halfway through the semester, I encourage students to choose a topic that they can obsess about because they will spend a lot of time with the subject they choose. We start with a full class on moving from subject (for example, language choices) to topic (cursing) to research question (what do we know about why people curse?).

Before drafting begins, each student writes a topic proposal and then an annotated bibliography with a rhetorical precis. This process helps them think through not just what sources they will use in their own writing but about how they relate to each other and what these other texts enable the student writer to say. Next, writers take their papers through two rounds of peer review and three submitted drafts.  The culminating researched argument then serves as a fertile ground for students to grow a minute-long multimodal video about some aspect of their research. It’s a privilege to get to help students do the difficult but rewarding work of deeply engaging with the research and research writing process.

Paper Prompt PDF