Why the %$#* Do We Swear?
(Note: the following contains actual swear words.)
What kind of human are you? I admit, I have been known to weave a rich and intricate tapestry of swear words into conversation – with my cats. I’ve also been known to take the middle ground in email and text conversation, and give the top row of my keyboard a workout. It depends on the audience. Scanning one such conversation with an old friend motivated me to do a little research on why we swear.
Lets clear up a few misunderstandings. All languages have some kind of “swear” words in them (even Finnish and Japanese, despite urban legends to the contrary.) And most people do it, even those who claim otherwise. Some social scientists estimate that between 0.3% and 0.7% of all words in daily conversation are swear words. But the intensity, origin, and frequency of cursing vary from culture to culture. Most languages have a word similar to the english “fuck,” as well as bawdy or offensive slang for genitalia and excrement. (Check out http://www.youswear.com/ before your next trip overseas if you want to be prepared to swear like a native.)
This common thread isn’t surprising if you consider that, in many traditions, curse words had roots in exactly that – the pagan curse. Pagan rites were rich in sexuality, since many promoted fertility and propagation. Hence, many curses had to do with the sexual act, sexual body parts, sexual prowess, or, as the outcome of sex, one’s birth station.
Other curse words didn’t start out bad, but slithered into the cursing lexicon through association. Take, for example, “bitch.” A bitch, in dog lovers’ circles, is a perfectly acceptable term – it’s a female dog. How to turn this perfectly good word into an insult? Use it to deride one’s birth (son of a bitch,) or, of course, tie it back to sex in a misogynistic way (she’s such a bitch.) The reverse, the redemption of foul words, is also true. Calling someone a “scumbag” or “scum” is fairly common in even elementary schools, but it didn’t start out that way – scum originally referred to semen; scumbag, a used condom.
Why do we love to swear? Why does the tale of Adam and Eve exist? Because with that which is forbidden there is power. Swearing gives us a sense of release, of being defiant, of flouting social norms. Swearing, in the literal sense, means to defy the ultimate authority: thou shalt not take the Lord God’s name in vain. Even innocuous and archaic-sounding words like “gadzooks,” were once blasphemous, stemming from a contraction of “God’s” and “Hooks,” referring to the nails on the cross.
Swearing also just makes us feel good. Curse words convey a height of human emotion – they’re mini-cathartic rants. Drop a hammer on your foot? What feels better? Yelling” DAMMIT!” or yelling “ouch?” (See?)
So, based on the parameters above, what makes a good swear word? Let’s analyze our favorite swear word, the one that probably won’t be featured in next Disney picture. That is, of course, the F-word. Considered to be the worst of the worst swears, it follows the general pattern of most obscenities:
(a.) It refers to sex
(b.) It’s short, and cathartic.
(c.) It’s taboo because it referred to sex in a religious text
(d.) It meandered into English via another language – German, and was used as code in the 1500s to describe the sexual act (It’s not, by the way, an acronym for anything.)
But even this most cherished of obscenities is, alas, starting to run out of steam, becoming more and more commonplace. Will there be another new word to take its place? That’s for swearophiles to determine.
Just for the sake of curiosity – here’s Wikipedia’s list of movies that drop the F bomb the most.