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Why the %$#* Do We Swear?

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(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. 


Swearing feels good sometimes.


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 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. 



Written by Jen Szymanski

April 8, 2013 at 8:50 am

Sensory Overload

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I start my day, every day, by reading. Many days, I make my way over to Andrew Sullivan’s awesome blog, where I find posts on science, politics, world events, the arts. I’m always rewarded with something that fires a few neurons while I sip on a warm cup of caffeine, and wait for its effects to seep into my bloodstream.

This was the first thing I read today: ‘Sensing Too Much.’ It features this video, by Migel Jiron:



I found it difficult to watch. But it is a brilliant reminder of the things so many of us take for granted.

Written by Jen Szymanski

November 20, 2012 at 11:22 am

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Having Difficulty Writing? Good.

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According to many cognitive scientists, accomplishing a task with little money or resources may be harder, but it also makes us vastly more creative. This article describes some of the products of creative people placed in (sometimes deliberately) difficult situations – the Beatles’ Abbey Road, for example.

Is there something to the “starving artist” stereotype?

Fans of J.K.Rowling’s Harry Potter series know that she was on government assistance while writing Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, jotting much of the novel down in coffee shops, finishing it up on a manual typewriter. And then there’s this:

You might have thought any tool which enables a writer to get words on to the page would be an advantage. But there may be a cost to such facility. In an interview with the Paris Review Hughes speculated that when a person puts pen to paper, “you meet the terrible resistance of what happened your first year at it, when you couldn’t write at all”. As the brain attempts to force the unsteady hand to do its bidding, the tension between the two results in a more compressed, psychologically denser expression. Remove that resistance and you are more likely to produce a 70-page ramble.

Rowling’s not the only successful writer to have to overcome obstacles – in this video, Stephen King discusses writing longhand; when Carrie was published, King was working as an over-worked, underpaid english teacher in rural Maine. Rowling and King are just two examples of successful authors who started in imperfect conditions. After some rumination on this theory, I can think of several writers whose work has, in my opinion, suffered after they’ve become famous, though this certainly doesn’t apply to everyone.

Thus the question: do you write better when you have obstacles placed in your way (physical, financial, or otherwise?) Would you ever deliberately make things harder on yourself to improve your writing or other work?

Written by Jen Szymanski

November 14, 2012 at 11:01 am

Do You Have Cyberchondria?

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Are you feeling kind of “off?” Fatigued, headachy, maybe a little nauseous? What do you do? If you’re like many of us, you hit the internet for an instant answer.  After hours of entering symptoms, and sifting through endless lists of conditions and diseases, you’ve got an answer: you definitely have a brain tumor. Realistically, you probably don’t. But what you might have is a new type of anxiety disorder, called cyberchondria.

WebMD, one of the most popular and “trusted” medical advice sites, draws about 85 million visitors a month. It’s in good company: according to a 2009 poll, 61% of Americans claim to use the web for medical advice. The problem is that, while the services can be helpful, when they’re misused, they create a whole host of new issues. Why are we doing this to ourselves?

“Finances” is certainly a plausible answer. About 17% of Americans are uninsured, and don’t want to cough up the cost (or even in some cases, the copay) for an office visit.  But that doesn’t really explain why we’re so ready to self-diagnose thyroid cancer, when it’s more likely that we have a common sore throat. Or why we end up rushing, panic stricken, to the ER, running up enormous and entirely unnecessary medical bills. There are some good explanations that have their roots not in our bank accounts, but instead are in neuroscience and psychology.  Here are three to consider before you open your browser to see what that thing is on your foot.

Your Brain Likes Order and Sees Patterns

Imagine how our brains interprets two cherries and a bar sign on a slot machine. It instantly recognizes that we’re close to a win (three cherries.) Even though we haven’t actually hit the jackpot, we still catch a little thrill (“darn, I was so close!”),  as well as a mini natural high (a jolt of the endogenous opiate dopamine.) Both of these encourage us to pull the lever on the one armed bandit again.

This “near miss” phenomenon also happens when we think we’re exhibiting two out of three symptoms for a rare medical condition. Our brain may give up on one disease, but we feel that we’re close – and are inspired to look further, even when there’s nothing there.  Moreover, our brains evolved to discern patterns of all kinds. While this skill can be very handy when you’re roaming the jungle intent upon survival, sometimes we do it so well that we a pattern even when none exists. So, when your brain reads a list of symptoms on a medical site, and finds that you are exhibiting three out of six symptoms for a disease, you tend to conclude that you do have (or will get) the rest, even if they aren’t any more specific than malaise, headache, and the sniffles.

Your Brain is Wired to Love a Good Story 

Another plausible explanation? We like to know “why.” To be more blunt, we like a good story. And if we are perusing WebMD, we probably are not a trained physician, our brains will fill in the details where there are gaps. It doesn’t matter if the specifics aren’t based in reality, or whether they reflect what happened to a friend of a friend.

We Want Control

Finally, we like to be captains of our own fates. A recent UC Davis study found that we still hit the internet for answers, even after we’ve seen our doctors.  There’s nothing scarier for some of us than to put our lives in the hands of another human being, especially one we don’t see very often. It’s easier for us to read bad news on a small backlit screen than to have to face another human who might tell us we are ill, or have to submit to tests. Furthermore, we can get an answer right now and do something about whatever is bothering us, even if it’s the wrong remedy.

Are you guilty of cyberchondria?

Written by Jen Szymanski

September 14, 2012 at 10:07 am

Three Reasons You’d Better Prep for a Crazy Cat Lady Explosion

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The Mayans’ powers of prognostication may or may not bear fruit this December, but there is still another apocalypse looming – the rise of the Crazy Cat Lady (CCL). For now, their power is limited to gathering in an orderly and humorous society, and to racking up a few million likes on YouTube.  But don’t be fooled!  We’re fated for a CCL explosion over the next few decades.  You probably have questions like “How can I identify a CCL?” and “Why should I be worried about a looming tuna shortage?” Read on for exclusive and comprehensive analysis of this impending disaster.

1. More and more of us are living alone.

Forget the traditional idea of domestic bliss, the young marrieds with their 2.5 adorable offspring. The narcissistic age ushered in by Facebook and Twitter means that we’re just not as good playing with others as we used to be. According to the marketing firm Euromonitor International, the number of people living alone has tripled since the 1950s. The same report claims that 18 million American women choose to make sure the toilet seat remains down. (About 14 million American males opt for a one-man habitat.) Solo living is good news if you’re not great at sharing the remote, but it’s bad news if you’re intent on maintaining a prime set of social skills. Why do so many people choose to be a singleton? Young people are especially adept at using technology to build and maintain social networks. Which leads to…

2. We’re as good (or better) at being social with our pets than with each other.

Need proof? Do you “staff” a Facebook page for your pet? If so, you’re in good company. Pet insurance specialists PetPlan claim that one in ten pets, if they could talk, would claim access to a Facebook or Twitter account, despite the lack of opposable thumbs required for typing on mobile devices. Half of us humans post or tweet about our pets regularly. The adventures of Mittens and Fido have drastically driven up page views (and revenue) for social networking sites. A dog named Boo boasts over 4.7 million followers on Facebook; Sockington the cat Tweets his wit and wisdom to 1.4 million humans daily. Think you’d have to be crazy to follow an animal on social media? Then you’ll love number three:

3. Cats are systematically implementing a plan to drive us clinically insane.

A Czech Republic scientist has been trying to warn us that a little critter called Toxioplasmosis gondii, a parasite common to both humans and felines, can infect us with almost no physical symptoms. Instead, this single-celled Protozoan it lies in wait, fundamentally altering the biochemistry of the human brain, and causing depression, suicides, schizophrenia, and other forms of erratic human behavior. Result? More cat-human relationships, and more online cat sites. It resembles a plot from a B-grade sci-fi movie: zombified humans slavishly catering to their kitty’s every whim.

The original feline host? Unaffected.

Perhaps it’s time to consider investing in Tidy Cat.

Written by Jen Szymanski

August 29, 2012 at 6:38 am

Science Through Story

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If I had to choose the one thing that the science community fails at on a regular basis, it would be communicating. I’m not talking about lousy cutesy Powerpoints or jargon-y filled journal articles (although I’ve certainly suffered through my share of those.) I’m saying that, as a whole, we suck at conveying to the general public: 

1. Our results  


2. What they mean as a whole within the context of our field, the science genre, and the world.

The major barrier happens, I think, because most of us spend the days talking to each other, or to students interested in what we have to say (at least in the sense of I-have-to-get-through-this-class.) So we inadvertently train ourselves to become useless when we’re called on to explain why it’s important to know about the genome of the Central American tree frog. (It is, by the way. I checked.) 

Here’s what most “lay people” want to know about science:


  • Is it going to cure cancer (diabetes, heart disease, scabies?)
  • Is it going to affect me? Right now, or twenty years from now?
  • Does this contradict something I heard from the science community six months ago, and, if so, why should I believe you now, or ever again, for that matter?

 We in the science community know that none of these questions come close to why we do what we do. With the exception of a few good science bloggers (most of whom still focus on the Scientific American/Smithsonian/Discover/National Geographic cohort as their audience,) we tend to ignore a huge swath of the American public as being disinterested or, quite frankly, unable to understand what we’re doing. We’re burned out, underfunded, and worked against by leaders of one political party.  

But I don’t think it’s hopeless. What I do think we need to do is to tell stories. Our brains like stories, and we have a hundred thousand year history of using them to great effect. Humans like to know how we’ve gotten to where we are now.

And some of us are trying. The internet is full of great science stories, people who know how to communicate in short, pithy bursts of verbiage; of people who make excellent five minute videos; people who create easy to grasp infographics. Why aren’t we all doing that?

Written by Jen Szymanski

August 28, 2012 at 10:02 am

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