I had a certain Mrs. N as my English teacher during my senior year of high school. She loved teaching 12th-graders, she liked to say, because she couldn’t do that much bad to us — and not that much good, either. She had the rigorous affection that great instructors do, forcing us to memorize Shakespeare and give presentations on Dickens, because, come on, what else is a literature education for. She was also, after years of fundamentalist Protestant education, refreshingly, mind-openingly liberal about language. “There are no ‘bad’ words,” I recall her intoning. “Just more and less coarse.”
Motherfucker, I thought to myself. You’re goddamn right. And it seems that, at least according to linguists and philosophers and other people who really care about words, “swears” have a particular social function. In a new piece on Quartz, Noah Berlatsky makes the convincing argument that you should teach your kids to curse, because, he argues, good-natured swearing has a way of bonding people together. (He mentions the way his wife will conspiratorially quote John Oliver’s “Are you fucking kidding me?!’” in front of their son.) A well-placed curse expresses a sort of ribald vulnerability, especially in power dynamics like parent and child. Berlatsky quotes In Praise of Profanity author Michael Adams, who writes that swears “are unexpectedly useful in fostering human relations because they carry risk … We like to get away with things and sometimes we do so with like-minded people.” Without dipping her toe too far into the pool of profanity, Mrs. N was doing that with her rambunctious seniors: By giving us, in a way, a sense of permission about “coarser” language, she was expressing an opinion different from the school’s orthodoxy, and in doing so, expressing vulnerability and cultivating trust.
In this way, swearing is a lot like humor: Both carry social risk and skewer taboos (probably why so many good jokes incorporate swears). A good, hearty swear between teacher and student, or among family is not dissimilar from how friends talk shit as a way of bonding. It happens all over the world, reports anthropologist Daniel Hruschka: Men in Papua New Guinea greet each other by saying they’d like to eat one another’s intestines, and for the Bozo tribe of West Africa, Hruschka writes, “friends demonstrate their love by making lewd comments about the genitals of one another’s parents.” It’s parallel to your wife reprising a trademark curse from a late-night talk show host in front of your kids. It’s context-sensitive, it’s funny, and it makes people feel closer. Just make sure that if the kid does swear at school, it’s in front of a particularly cool teacher.