What makes swearing so damn satisfying — why don’t other, technically synonymous words have the same effect? Swear words are, by default, actual words, after all. What makes them different, and subsequently, offensive?
Rebecca Roache, a lecturer at the University of London who is currently writing a book about swearing, broached the heady topic of what makes cussing such a gasp-worthy phenomenon in a recent piece for Aeon. (Back in December, Science of Us examined the biology of profanity.) Part of her argument centers, not surprisingly, on the idea of the taboo, and invoking it to exhibit anger. Consider the ubiquitous shit. Really, it’s just a synonym for poop. But there’s something more giggle-worthy about saying poop that shit doesn’t carry. She writes:
The philosopher Joel Feinberg remarked that swear words ‘acquire their strong expressive power in virtue of an almost paradoxical tension between powerful taboo and universal readiness to disobey’. And, indeed, both in the UK and in many other cultures, we do much to prevent, censor, and punish swearing. This is often done informally: perhaps the most effective way of regulating swearing is through our awareness of attitudes towards it. Knowing that we face disapproval from others if we swear in the wrong context is effective at ensuring that we watch our language. But there are formal efforts to police swearing, too: swearing can get you fired from your job, fined, censored, and even arrested. The taboo against swearing is, it seems, a pretty serious matter.
The psychological literature backs Roache up here, as psychologists have long argued that swearing finds its provocative root in mixing taboo and anger. The amygdala — often referred to as an emotional processing center of the brain — has been shown to exhibit higher activity when “threatening” words are used, signaling to a person that there’s something negative going on and to be on edge. Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts psychologist Timothy Jay, who has extensively studied the role of swearing in our psychology, has written that the power of swearing comes from it breaking social norms, and that we’re conditioned to associate taboo with swearing. In fact, there’s something to be said about how children are positively gleeful when they swear — think back to when you yourself might have uttered your first “bad” four-letter word, and how that made you feel like you broke a rule that could get you in trouble but you were oh-so-grown-up. The taboo aspect, Jay argues, has a higher power when we’re younger, but once we grow up, it’s more of an anger-communication tool — but only because we see grown-ups use it in that way. In other words, swearing might have just remained a mischievous quirk had you not seen Hollywood flicks and your neighbor use it to express disdain.
Then again, part of profanity’s power may be that it’s a surface-level way for us to deal with tough situations: A 2011 study had participants dip their hands into freezing water and split them into two groups: one that was allowed to repeat their choice of curse, the other not. Repeating their favorite profanity made swearing participants able to keep their hands in the ice water for longer. But repeating it constantly did little for withstanding pain over a long period of time. In other words, swear like you do everything else: in moderation.